When exploring the power of social networks, it’s the big four that instantly spring to mind: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. But even with nearly 200 million active daily users—including some of the world’s most recognized celebrities—turning to its technology to catch up on news, chat to friends and document their own lives, Snapchat is reluctant to be put in the social media box. The brand identifies itself as a camera company.
“At Snapchat we don’t think of ourselves as a social media platform,” insists Hussein Freijeh, General Manager for Snap’s MENA business. “We see ourselves as a platform where close friends can communicate. A visual communication platform where the camera takes a key role.”
Whatever label you put on it, Snapchat has undeniably captured the attention of an entire generation since it launched nearly six years ago. And its popularity continues to grow. The company’s global revenue was $230.7 million in Q1 2018, up 54% year-on-year. Daily active users also increased to 191 million worldwide, up from 166 million in Q1 2017. This includes millions of MENA millennials—and with their eyes firmly fixed on their phones, that makes Snapchat an important platform for Middle East marketers.
Saudi Arabia alone is a major market. In the kingdom, 9.4 million people use Snapchat every day, with around 75% of people aged between 18 and 25, and 20% of those aged 35+, regularly using the platform. The U.A.E. is also an engaged, albeit smaller, market with around a million active daily users. Active users visit the platform up to 25 times with an average stay of 30mins per day. Thanks to these numbers the Middle East represents big bucks to Snapchat—enough to warrant the opening of a Dubai office, which Freijeh helped to set up in 2016.
Several years earlier, in 2004, having completed his BSc in Computer Science from the Lebanese American University, Freijeh had begun his career with up-and-coming digital startup, Maktoob, in its Dubai office—he was one of two employees there at the time. In less than five years there were 300, and the Arabic internet platform had grown to be so successful, Yahoo was paying attention. In 2009, Maktoob was bought by Yahoo for a reported $164 million—one of the largest acquisitions the region had seen. Freijeh stayed on to lead the commercial team, and after three years was appointed Managing Director for Yahoo’s operations in the Middle East, Africa and Turkey—up until it closed the last of its regional offices in 2015.
At that time the region had been on Snapchat’s radar for a while and it was keen to open a local service for consumers and advertisers. Freijeh was a natural choice to get the ball rolling. “The Middle East is at the sweet spot where the digital ad market is really nascent but evolving and growing massively,” he explains. “Snapchat’s launch in MENA has been one of the most successful we have had globally.”
At the start, Freijeh reached out to businesses, marketers and media to make sure they understood how it worked and the opportunities it presented. To widen its appeal to the local audience the team set about localizing and “Arabizing” Snapchat’s Discover channel—where users go to find stories and content from friends and other publishers.
Snapchat’s Discover channel aims to work a bit differently to its competitors. With many platforms adopting a feed-based approach to content, algorithms play a defining role in what a consumer is exposed to, with popularity often winning over credibility; the more popular the post, the more it matches your online behavior, the more likely it is to show up on your news feed, with other content deprioritized. Snapchat takes a different approach by selecting what it identifies as credible media companies and news publishers to invest resources and create content exclusively for Snapchat.
In May 2017, Snapchat partnered with eight Arabic language content providers to create stories for the MENA region: Alarabiya, Al Jazeera, Layalina, MBC, Sayidaty, Sky News Arabia and Zahrat Al Khaleej, with U-TURN and Eurosport Arabia also joining up in November 2017. According to Freijeh, these companies today have an editorial calendar for Snapchat only, committing to around 13 stories per day in return for exposure to the platform’s millions of engaged users. Farah Al-Ibrahim, Head of Social Media at Alarabiya, says its content is designed to attract young people—the main users of the app. “On Alarabiya Discover we create stories comprised of motion graphics, text, image, and videos covering all type of news, such as politics, social, lifestyle, sport, health and science,” she explains. “We decided to be part of Snap Discover because it’s one of the most popular social media platforms, and it was a good opportunity to design original content for the young generation to watch and enjoy.”
As it draws in users, advertisers are also flocking to Snapchat, with around 90% of ads on the platform being directly booked by marketers logging on and handing over their credit card details. Snap Publisher also allows them to create vertical video directly onto the platform without the need for agencies to be involved. Consumers here are apparently reacting well to these creative ads, especially in the youthful markets of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. “MENA was called the driver of international business for Snapchat globally in just one year in the business,” according to Freijeh.
Arguably, it has been its face and feature-detecting technology that has really made Snapchat stand out from other camera/social media platforms, enabling it to lead the way in its use of augmented reality. Far from being a fad or a quickly-forgotten gimmick, consumers have only fallen more in love with their ability to add animated characteristics to their faces—or rainbows, flowers, flawless skin—you name it, Snapchat has a lens filter for it. Over 3,000 lenses have been created since Snapchat launched in 2012, with one in three users applying a lens every day.
Freijeh expected the MENA market to take a while to fully understand the concept—it didn’t. “The level of creativity you see out of Saudi is on par if not better than the most creative campaigns we have anywhere in the world,” he says.
Far from being out of tricks, Snapchat continues to innovate. A 2015 update to the app enabled users for the first time to use the back camera on their smartphones, meaning lenses could be put onto other people and not just used in selfie-mode. At the end of 2017, users including creatives, marketers and brands, became able to use the Lens Studio to create their own lenses and push them onto the platform, sometimes for sale. In future, they will be able to create their own worlds.
The back-camera function means that the app can now use its augmented reality features to detect surfaces and place objects into those environments. The next step, according to Freijeh, would be to allow brands to create whole new worlds and experiences in which the Snapchat community can completely immerse themselves. As consumers become increasingly blind to traditional ads and the marketing industry employs increasingly undisruptive experiential techniques to connect with them, this new tool could prove to be game-changing. Something Snapchat hopes will keep it relevant as its competitors catch up.
“We are providing more tools to enable creatives and publishers to create and understand the audiences on Snapchat. And we can allow them to monetize and have a commercially viable capability on the platform,” says Freijeh. “I’m extremely excited about what’s coming up.”