How 7awi won over 8 million+ pan-Arab consumers with digital
Middle East and North Africa-based online media publisher 7awi.com is fast moving and growing rapidly under the stewardship of CEO and co-founder Anas Abbar. He discusses with Jon Watkins what’s driving digital take up in the region, what’s behind 7awi.com’s success, and what he learned from a diverse career that includes stints at Microsoft and Yahoo!
Abbar will speak at FIPP Middle East & Africa, taking place on 10 and 11 February in Dubai. See more at fippmea.com (note: our Early Bird booking offer is available until 15 December. Book today if you wish to save on the standard delegate rate).
Tell us about the business and how you have diversified in recent years…
Sure. The company is a traditional and iconic media company that provides paper goods, newspapers and magazines – and is very popular in the Middle East. It’s been going for more than 20 years. With the market dynamics obviously changing, we identified that there was an almost immediate need to go through a process of transformation – a conversion from offline to online. My job was to come in and help win the market by bringing a differentiated experience for consumers – for a pan-Arab consumer. So my focus was on content that the audience in the Middle East has a huge appetite for, building the personas that I wanted to attract. These were unlike the traditional media, the magazines, where it’s very difficult to win the part of the audience that you want to reach. Relying on the interactivity of digital content, the opportunity of a two-way conversation, the ability to converse, the freshness of the content – we were able to become differentiated in the region and, within a few months, take the lead in the Middle East with our lifestyle brands. In the span of two and a half years, we have developed an audience of more than 8 million unique users. Of course, the region is large and runs all the way from Morocco to Oman. Clearly, from a traditional magazine perspective, that makes cost very prohibitive. So we worked to penetrate markets through social media. That helped us move our content across the Middle East. Today, we publish more than 150 articles a day. That’s versus a magazine that was published on a monthly basis with 300 pages. We have almost 500,000 visits a day on the website, and more than 8 million social fans from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram. So the conversion from a traditional magazine into a digital experience – based on the user experience, the content and the technology – was the right decision to make.
Are most of your products ad-funded? How do you make your revenue?
Yes, you have to understand the local and the traditional challenges. Subscribing for content is a very challenging issue in the Middle East. People don’t see the value of premium content. We don’t aggregate content. So subscription is not something that people are ready for yet. Therefore, we primarily rely on sponsorship of our content, syndicating our content and display advertising as the revenue streams.
Your portfolio is quite diverse?
Yes. Very. The diversification has taken place based on where the advertisers are spending their money and where the users are. So we have many different products. With autos, we’re number one in terms of traffic in the region. We have another product that is male oriented, like GQ, for the young male audience. We have a product similar to BuzzFeed. We have a product that is a high-end fashion product – not about celebrity or entertainment or lifestyle, just fashion – that targets the GCC region, those with the highest disposable income. And we have a transactional portfolio, based mainly on classifieds. So we have great diversification and a fantastic portfolio.
How is demand for content changing in the Middle East and which platforms are audiences heading to right now?
Yes the demand is changing and there are many factors driving that. The political situation in the Middle East, with the Arab Spring, actually caused many people to turn off their TVs. They are tired of the gloominess of the situation and their way out is actually social media, lifestyle, entertainment. I don’t want to call that the primary reason, but it definitely helped us take market share for entertainment. Due to the situation in the Middle East, internet penetration is probably one of the highest in the world – a very young population that is interested in knowing more about what’s happening. That has really sparked this growth in consuming digital content. We intentionally took on sections that are in a way non-controversial. So we don’t get into politics, we don’t get into news. We focus on entertainment and lifestyle content.
You talk a lot about the importance of people in the business and having people with vision and a positive outlook. Why is that so important to you?
I think part of that approach comes from having lived abroad and having worked for companies such as Microsoft and Yahoo. You come to admire the work ethics, the work standards that you expect from yourself and your employees. I always say that the level of success we have is because of the smart people that we hire. The truth is that we hire people for their potential, not just for what they do. That is probably an overused statement, but we truly live by this.
How difficult is it to find and retain good people in the market?
That is challenging. Keeping our good staff is always something we work hard to do. It’s not just the financial compensation that drives that, but also the work environment and the challenges that we give to the teams. Of course, the fact that we are winning market share is a big incentive for people to come and join us. Finding the talent is a challenge because as technologies advance, as new technologies appear, quality staff in areas like mobile development are extremely challenging to find. The resources are scarce and the talent is extremely young. So they haven’t had the exposure in terms of what the latest trends are and, you know, what the latest solutions could be. So these are things we are always challenged with. In addition, we are proud to tap into the diversity of the human capital in the region. Around 50% of our staff are female with leading roles in editorial, engineering and operations. I am highlighting this to undo the social stigma of the MENA region.
What excites you about the opportunities on the horizon?
One area I think is very interesting is how what we can do can improve the process of acquiring day-to-day services. If you take cleaners and pest control people and movers etc., there isn’t really anyone using data to help you rate or acquire them. It’s such an ad hoc, random market that we believe we have the ability to normalise. We can provide a platform for SMEs, to put them on the digital side versus where they are today. They are limiting their exposure by serving a very small geographical area. We’re opening up that opportunity for much wider geographies.
What would you say was the one important moment in your career that brought you to where you are today?
I’d like to give credit to the many years that I spent at Microsoft. It really helped me discipline my thinking and avoid randomness. I always feel it’s good to be in a start-up but you need to have earned your stripes in a corporate environment, because it brings the discipline, it brings order and structure. And that I think is a priority that young people may overlook or underestimate.
FIPP Middle East & Africa takes place in Dubai, from 10-11 February 2016. FIPP ME&A will be a truly international event not to be missed if you have an interest in media trends around the world in general and in the Middle East and Africa in particular.
In addition to 7AWI, delegates will also hear stories from the likes of Bloomberg Media, Carat-ICA, cvent, Dubai Lynx, Edelman Dabo, GN Publishing, Google, Hearst, Immediate Media Co., India Today Group, Media24, MEED, Motivate Publishing, PwC, Ringier Africa, Saudi Specialised Publishing Company, Time Inc., and more. Visit fippmea.com for more.
Some of the themes that will be explored at FIPP Middle East & Africa are:
- The future of mobile and content players’ place within this world
- Developing digital businesses in MENA and in Africa
- Developing media brands to take advantage of the full market opportunity
- Key themes in content-driven media innovation around the world
- Industry transformation and revitalisation: magazine media today
- How to build a successful events business from a traditional print brand
- How to make print work in a digital age
- Why creativity matters
- Building international media brands across borders
- A look into Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sub-Saharan African media markets