Using social media to reach students in the Middle East and North Africa

Roughly four in ten international students say that social media influenced their decision to study abroad. Around half read comments about institutions they were interested in on institutional profile pages on social networks. Others checked out the online profiles of other overseas students, gathered recommendations for where to study from friends online, or were exposed to related advertising on social sites. One in four chose to contact institutions directly via their social media accounts.

These are some of the findings from an annual survey of international students conducted by IDP Education. IDP’s Manager, External Affairs, Kim Dienhoff, presented high-level findings from four years of survey data at the recent NAFSA conference in Boston, Massachusetts.

The session focused in large part on reaching students in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). With nearly a third of the region’s 355 million people aged 15 to 25, it is perhaps not surprising that Internet usage, and the penetration of social networks in particular, is high.

Ms Dienhoff paired the IDP survey data with additional research to provide an important summary of social media habits and trends in the region.

mena-map

Social media usage in MENA was particularly visible during the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring beginning in 2011, leaving many observers with the impression that major global networks, such as Facebook and YouTube, are widely used across the region.

Internet penetration is high with nearly 90% indicating they access the web from home. A much smaller proportion (34%) say they have Internet access at work. “For marketers this probably means that you need to schedule online activities like chat rooms, Skype sessions, virtual fairs, or webinars in the evening once people are home from work,” notes Ms Dienhoff.

There are of course variations from country to country. Internet penetration varies from 85-90% in Bahrain, the UAE, and Qatar to, at the lower end of the range, 44-50% in Jordan and Egypt. Nearly nine in ten Internet users in MENA use social media every day. Smartphones account for 40% of web impressions in the region (about 45% above the global average), and smartphone penetration ranges from a low of 16% in Morocco to 73-75% in the UAE and Qatar. It is fair to say that, at these levels of adoption, a mobile responsive site is a must for reaching students and parents in the region.

Facebook is your #1 friend

As the following chart illustrates, Facebook is the leading network with a 89% penetration among MENA Internet users. Twitter and Google+ are a distant second and third respectively, but each nevertheless has been widely adopted as well. As with the Internet and mobile usage patterns we noted earlier, the chart reflects national variations as well, including the notably high levels of Twitter usage in Saudi Arabia.

mena-top-social-media-networks
Top five social networks in MENA and selected markets by percentage of Internet users. Source: IDP

Adoption rates are helpful in looking at relative usage from market to market but the absolute numbers of users on each service is arguably the key metric. The following chart reflects the population of Facebook users by country, and illustrates that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria, Iraq, and the UAE have some of the largest populations in the region that are active on this leading social network.

MENA-facebook-users
Population of Facebook users by country, 2013. Sources: IDP, Arab Social Media Report-2013

This variance in user counts by market is notable in part because each country carries with it its own language preferences. English and Arabic are by far the most-preferred languages among the region’s Internet users, with the exception of markets such as Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia where French is the clear language of choice.

Beyond Facebook

Twitter has also been widely adopted by MENA Internet users and the following chart provides a summary of Twitter user counts for selected markets across the region.

MENA-twitter-users
Twitter user populations by country, 2013. Sources: IDP, Arab Social Media Report-2013

As the chart illustrates, Twitter is especially well used in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom accounts, on average, for roughly 47% of all Twitter traffic in the region. And, influenced by the fact that half of the Saudi population of Internet users prefers to use Arabic online, 74% of all Tweets by MENA users are in Arabic (as compared to only 18% in English).

YouTube, while not a social network as such, is one of the largest and most heavily used sites on the Internet, and its content is easily and widely shared on social media. It happens that this leading global video service is also extremely popular in many MENA states.

youtube-reach-in-mena
YouTube reach in MENA. Source: IDP

YouTube is the second or third-ranked site by usage in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Morocco. Across the region, there are 300 million YouTube playbacks each and every day, and Saudi Arabia leads the pack as the #1 market in the world in terms of views per capita.

“YouTube of course is highly valuable to marketers,” says Ms Dienhoff. “So if you don’t have a YouTube channel you should probably get one. You can use it to house videos that are then used on many other platforms and of course it will help greatly with your SEO.”

Implications for marketers

As the preceding charts and figures clearly reflect, social media usage in the region is highly concentrated around the most-popular social networks and social content sites in the world, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. “The good news is that they are using the same platforms you are already familiar with,” adds Ms Dienhoff. (Not to mention that you can reach the vast majority of prospects in the region in English and Arabic.)

For additional trends and best practices in social media, please see our post “Facebook is still the top social network but other platforms are growing faster.” It includes links to some of our most-popular posts on social media strategy, including tips for Facebook, Twitter, and social video.



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