The digital divide and the lack of knowledge in the Middle East is a major barrier to investing in online marketing, according to Econsultancy research published in April this year.

In Econsultancy’s State of Digital in MENA Report, some 20% of client-side companies and 42% of agencies said that a lack of understanding about online is preventing their organisation from investing more money in digital.

As further evidence, last year, Shaik Umar, Middle East Head for IDA Singapore, reported that the digital divide and lack of skilled talent are the main problems plaguing the Gulf’s IT industry. Part of the reason for the lack of skills is the smaller population of the Gulf compared to other regions. 

So, what can companies do to plug the gap and make the most of online marketing? 

It is interesting to note that twice as many agencies as clients reported that the lack of understanding was an issue. Typically, agencies are ahead of the curve and therefore may be better placed to assess the understanding of digital marketing in the region. As Donald Rumsfeld famously said:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

As Rummy alludes to above, sometimes the problem with digital is that we don’t know what we don’t know. There are some very effective examples of localised digital marketing in the Middle East, but part of the problem in the region is the lack of regional case studies and the willingness of marketers to share their experiences.

The lack of local case studies was cited as a barrier to investment by 23% of companies. This is where we think an event like Econsultancy’s Digital Cream Dubai can help. It’s highly exclusive and is only attended by senior client-side marketers, allowing companies to focus on sharing best practice and learn from each other’s experiences.

Releasing good case studies lets companies know about agency work and also allows organisations to learn from each other. One particularly effective example of localised online marketing includes Oil of Olay, who created the first online beauty pageant, targeting women from Saudi Arabia and UAE. The company launched three eye products in the region and the aim of the campaign was to increase awareness of the product launch.

In a region where a lot of women wear the veil, beauty is often showcased through the eyes. Taking this into account, Oil of Olay created a beauty pageant that was purely online and only focused on the beauty of the eyes. The Olay Eyes of Arabia campaign asked women to take a picture of their eyes and upload it to the internet. Those who did not intend to participate could still get involved in the voting.

Some 82,000 women took part in the online content and there was an 806% increase in visits to the Olay site compared to the previous month. The campaign was effective because a multichannel approach was employed. It was mainly supported by online display advertising. However, word-of-mouth through blogs and social media, including Facebook, was also of key importance in spreading awareness of the campaign. Word-of-mouth through mobile SMS also played a role, as women texted their friends asking for votes.

Despite the barriers, digital marketing is rapidly growing in the Middle East, with 58% of companies planning to increase their digital budgets during 2011. There’s plenty of innovation in the region too, with many home-grown digital businesses springing up. For example, (already booked on our training course next week) is one of Dubai’s fastest growing start-ups. The online electronics retailer provides a clean, user-friendly website and aims to deliver a safe, hassle-free shopping experience.

Dubai’s Wild Peeta is another example of home-grown innovation in the region. Opened in late 2009, the shawarma restaurant has made incredible use of social media in their marketing efforts to get noticed. Restaurateurs Peyman Parham Al Awadi and Mohammad Parham Al Awadi recognised they didn’t have the budget of most of the corporate restaurant chains in Dubai, so made use of social media sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter to reach new consumers and amplify word-of-mouth. The restaurant even projects a live tweet wall in one of their Dubai outlets.

As well as releasing case studies, providing education and training in this region is also essential to help plug the gap in knowledge, as Mustafa Ahmed, Lecturer at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals notes:

Resistance to change and lack of digital knowledge, along with the cultural norms all adds to the different barriers the MENA region countries will continue to face. However, as education starts to play a very vital role in many of the Middle Eastern countries, this means that there will be more and more people who are educated about the digital media channels.”

It’s clear that companies need to invest in training and education to re-address the lack of knowledge and specific skills. As part of the drive to enhance digital skills in the region, Econsultancy are in Dubai this October and we’re providing a range of training courses to help marketers get to grips with digital. This includes our fast-track in digital marketing, a two-day course that runs through a whole range of topics, designed to demystify the world of online. We’re also providing social media marketing training in addition to courses about online media planning and buying and user experience.

It’s well worth noting that although the internet industry is relatively immature in the Middle East, it’s grown exponentially in the last two years and is growing much faster than other areas of marketing. Investing in digital skills and training is essential to plug the gap in knowledge. As more companies invest in online, an understanding of internet marketing will no longer be optional, and a CV with digital skills and experience will become a must in this region.

Image credit: aubergene on Flickr