Above: Anas Abbar speaking at FIPP’s Middle East and Africa event in Dubai, February 2016
A few years ago when Anas Abbar worked as head of Yahoo Middle East and Africa (MENA), he was perplexed with the fact that although Arabic speakers represented the fourth largest group of internet users after English, Chinese and Spanish, Arabic content only made up two per cent of the internet. This realisation urged him to team up with Yahoo’s engineering head, Shadi Al-Said, with one mission: filling this void.
“We realised that no one was seriously addressing this gap, so we took it upon ourselves. Of course, this meant putting a strategy in place to understand our potential users, to create and curate appropriate content and to make sure our technology was scalable.”
Today the digital platform they created, 7awi, is one of the largest Arabic language publishers in the MENA region. “Our portfolio includes platforms for lifestyle, celebrities, motoring, entertainment, food, classifieds, services and insight – reaching well over 12 million monthly unique users a month.” With a head office based in Dubai – where most of the business development and commercial transactions take place – and a ‘kitchen’ in Amman in Jordan where the strategic decision making is done, as well as where their technical and linguistic talent are seated, the company now also have offices in Cairo, Beirut, Amman, Riyadh, Kuwait, Doha, Manama, Dubai and Seattle.
Abbar says a large part of their initial success is down to its young and diverse staff cohort with up to 40% female employees. Another element of the success is the focus on regional content that can be effortlessly consumed by Arabic speaking audiences. “The MENA region has a population of 330 million people and our target is to reach the largest slice of the connected population. Our content is consumed in every Arab country from Morocco to Oman thanks to our content strategy which focuses on presenting content best suited to millennials.”
Since the beginning, 7awi has invested in people to support their ambitious content strategy. This allows for frequent updates, attractive titles and a focus on social media to optimise mobile usage. “Today, 75 per cent of our content is consumed from a mobile device and we have over 15 million social followers on Facebook,
Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube. Our products have organically attracted the demographic profiles that match the product.”
The company’s content strategy is based on what Abbar refers to as the ‘persona approach’, a user first strategy. This means that content needs to be consistently fresh with around 150 new articles uploaded daily. “We also have to ensure that the experience is focused on the demands of users. We understand that our users’ needs usually outpace publisher and advertiser development. Our job is to cater for this and stay ahead of the curve. We focus on mobile content, efficient content circulation and social media distribution. This has distinguished us from the rest and helped us to become market leaders.”
Supporting their staff in this fast-paced environment they make use of a new content management system called Casper. “It’s the backbone of 7awi, supporting editorial efforts with agile technology. It allows us to be a TechPub (Technology Publishing) platform.”
Looking back at the Arab Spring of 2011 Abbar says the political turmoil of the time played a decisive role in boosting social media as part of the democratisation of content. “Thanks to social media, content has became more transparent and conversational. People started to speak up and the virtual world was the safest place to be in. People also got tired of the gloominess in the region and thus were looking for ways to find entertainment and distraction.”
7awi picked up on this trend early, placing its efforts into social media as a growth tool. “Today, over 100 million Google searches for our products happen on a daily basis, with more than 36,000 new Facebook users signing up to us daily and over 510 million of our YouTube videos played each day.”
It did not take long for 7awi’s success to be noticed. They were awarded the Pan Arab Web award in 2013 and the Top Lifestyle Site in Egypt in 2014. In addition, 7awi has been featured across the region as a case study of successful innovation.
As for the future, Abbar believes 7awi has only started to “scratch the tip of the pyramid” in terms of the potential the MENA region has to offer. “There are many things we would like to pursue. Specifically identifying and working on a stronger video strategy, building a solid media e-commerce platform, looking at influencer marketing and, of course, bringing global content providers to the MENA region.”
To realise these ambitions, 7awi became part of the FIPP family earlier this year. “The best way for publishers worldwide to discover the MENA publishing market was for 7awi to be part of FIPP. I believe that given the current political situation in the region, many publishers are missing a huge opportunity to cater to an audience of over 300 million people who are connected, young, aspiring and ready to take on the status quo. It is my responsibility to represent the opportunity for global publishers.
“In addition, being part of FIPP allows me to have a better understanding of global trends, and at times it reaffirms my thoughts and observations that MENA region is no different than any other emerging region. It is where the future is.”
More about Anas Abbar
Abbar is the chief executive and co-founder of 7awi.com, a leading online media publisher in the MENA region with portfolios in lifestyle and entertainment, motoring and classifieds. A diverse career spanning in roles at Microsoft and Yahoo! in North America, Europe, Middle East and Emerging Markets, provided Abbar with the hands-on experience to refine his skills in strategies, product development, marketing, business development and public sector roles.
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