Many global brands that are already well established in saturated markets such as North America and Europe continuously look for new opportunities around the world to expand, typically tapping into growing economies such as those in the APAC region or the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China).
Of course, given the size, potential, and relative stability of these markets, this is almost a natural step to take. However, my fear is that in doing so, many brands are missing out on other untapped markets where they could beat the queue and take advantage of low competition.
One such market that can be overlooked is the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region. Over 380 million people reside in this region, speaking the main language – Arabic – across more than 20 countries.
So, what does this mean for brands wanting to drive sales and promote their product through paid search (also known as PPC)? Is it worth it? Are there variations in PPC strategy compared to other regions in the world?
In this article, I will begin by differentiating between the key “sub-cultures/markets” in the MENA region, before then:
1. Giving more insight into how to conduct your PPC strategy in the region.
2. Showing the contrast between PPC in the MENA region vs markets where PPC is already well established.
All fingers are not Equal
“All fingers are not equal” is a common expression in the Arab world, often used to mean “although all your fingers are similar, they are not the same”.
In this instance, I would like to expand the metaphor to PPC. Arabic markets can be similar, but they also vary significantly in terms of levels of competition, consumer behaviour, and even culture.
Keeping in mind the increasing importance of localised marketing strategy in PPC, it is worth understanding the differences in the three main regions of the Middle East, not only to tailor your PPC strategy as required, but also to understand which verticals may perform better in each.
This region includes the countries of the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Oman and Qatar. With their economies being heavily reliant on oil reserves, the Gulf is the wealthiest region in the Middle East.
As such, it has a high demand for otherwise expensive Western products and services from an ever-growing middle class, making it a key region for global companies to begin their expansion in the Middle East.
The Levant (Al-Sham)
This region consists of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Israel. Of those, the first four are Arabic-speaking, whilst the latter is a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic.
Jordan boasts a free trade agreement with the US. Its population is very Internet savvy and Amman, the capital, is becoming known as a centre for tech start-ups. Beirut, Lebanon, is known as the Paris of the Middle East as its citizens have a high interest in fashion and beauty. Regionally, it has become the go-to market for beautification services and plastic surgery.
North Africa is the most populous area of the MENA region and therefore cannot be ignored when looking to expand into the Arabic market. Egypt’s 80 million inhabitants mostly live in urban areas along the Nile river bank.
With this urbanisation, the North African population has seen internet usage rates increase rapidly in the last decade. The falling costs of smartphone devices have meant that many inhabitants of this area are having their first internet experience on a mobile phone.
Now that we have touched on some of the cultural and market variations in the MENA region, we’ll move on to look at what PPC marketing strategies you should consider when entering the Arabic market.
The Arabic Language
The first thing to consider, of course, is the Arabic language. The good news is that whilst there are many country-level dialects, a standardised Arabic – al-fusha – is used in most formal speech and writing throughout the Arab world to facilitate communication.
This means, as long as your ad copy is in standardised Arabic, there will be minimal cross-country differences in ad copy (search terms could vary). Despite this, you may still face challenges when building PPC campaigns in the MENA region, particularly for the Arabic language:
● Arabic speakers do not use Latin alphabets, and write from the right to left.
● Arabic roughly has three times more words for the same description in English, meaning writing ad copy within a character limit can be more challenging.
● Translations may not always make sense in the language you are translating to. As such, it is important not to make direct word-for-word translations, but rather ensure the same message is portrayed even if using completely different phrases.
Most internet users in the Middle East prefer to search in Arabic. Therefore mastering the language in your PPC strategy is vital to succeed in this market.
However, to get maximum reach, I also recommend targeting English and French campaigns depending on the country:
Arabic and English:
● Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt and Libya
Arabic and French:
● Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia
Arabic, English and potentially French:
● Lebanon and Syria
The Arabic language is the fourth-most popular language on the internet, so completely ignoring it is ignoring a significant piece of the profit pie. However, do ensure you also target English and French languages too – many Arab consumers are bilingual!
In the MENA region, PPC is fast becoming an acknowledged component in marketing strategies and its value is rising as it continues to grow its share of the marketing budget across businesses. The digital marketing landscape is evolving quickly here and, in some ways, differently from the rest of the world.
Here is how:
● Time of day: In the MENA region, the use of the web tends to be more in the evenings, and as such, it is worth reviewing your ad scheduling strategy if your industry/vertical is affected. Clicks and conversions could possibly happen at different times of the day compared to Western markets.
● Weekends: Although the typical weekend in many markets is Saturday and Sunday, particularly in the Gulf this is not always the case. For example, in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the weekend is in fact on Friday and Saturday to bring it in line with local customs. As such, you may need to spread your weekly budget differently to how you would in other markets.
● Localised searches: As a direct consequence of the smartphone boom (discussed further below), there is a large growth in localised and ‘near me’ searches. Roughly 80% of mobile searches have local intent, meaning that Arabic users are often searching for products and services around them. Ensure you test keywords and ad copy that reflect this.
● Clicking on the first search result: The use of the internet for search is a relatively new behaviour in the Middle East, especially amongst older generations. This means that often, users are likely to click on the top ad, not realising that these are paid adverts.
Whilst this may be advantageous for paid versus organic search, it may also result in a high bounce rate and low conversion rate once a user has clicked on your ad. To combat this, it is important that you optimise your ad copy and be clear in your messaging, in order to attract your target audience and filter out costly non-converting traffic.
Whilst PPC is fast expanding in the MENA region, with the exception of some industries, competition for ad space remains low. You will often find that your ad is the only one on the landscape, and as such, your keyword bids will be low, and average cost per click even lower.
For this reason, the PPC market in the MENA region offers plenty of opportunity for businesses wanting to target the Arabic market, and particularly younger generations.
The only exceptions to the low competition in PPC are retail and the travel/hospitality industries. Both these industries have a growing audience, which has led Google to make significant investments in the two sectors, as well as offering great agency/client-side support.
The aim for Google is to continue transitioning this region away from offline marketing and to embrace online advertising, with all its potential benefits. The current rapid economic growth of the MENA region means that this gap continues to close.
Boom in Smartphone Usage
Another factor to consider when deciding to invest in PPC in the MENA region, is the rapid expansion of mobile on search due to a boom in smartphone usage.
Many Arabs will go as far as being in debt to buy the latest smartphone for personal use and shopping. As such, you must have mobile-friendly ad copy and landing pages, to ensure a smooth customer experience (like anywhere else in the world really)!
According to Google’s research, smartphones in Saudi Arabia have reached a 60% penetration in the population. The research also showed that 70% of Saudi Arabians have looked something up on their mobile phone after seeing an offline advertisement for that brand.
Is it Worth Investing in PPC Within the MENA Region?
I would argue that you should definitely ringfence a portion of your marketing budget for PPC if you already have business running in that region.
Alternatively, if you are a business looking to expand beyond North America and Europe, do leave your options open to tap into a market where PPC has historically seen little competition, but is nonetheless growing rapidly, especially given the recent widespread accessibility to smartphones.
When planning your PPC marketing strategy in the MENA region, ensure you understand the differences between this region and other parts of the world, especially those that follow more conventional PPC optimisation strategies.
Pay particular attention to language translations, search behaviour and local customs, which will not only vary from the West, but also between countries in the MENA region itself.