THE AGE OF SOCIAL

Damian Radcliffe

Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication; an Honorary Research Fellow at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media, and Culture Studies; and a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce. He worked for Qatar’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ictQATAR) from 2012 until 2014 and he has written about the Middle East for the BBC, Huffington Post, MediaShift, Northwestern University in Qatar, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, Your Middle East and others.

For brands, media companies and governments seeking to engage with Arab Youth, social media has never been more important. Over the past eight years the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey has charted the rise of these communication channels and the pace of adoption – often at the expense of older, more established, media platforms – is nothing short of remarkable.  

Back in 2011, for example, 79 per cent of Arab youth reported that they got their news from television. Five years later, that figure has dropped to 63 per cent. 

That statistic may make some television executives sweat, but it’s nothing compared to the palpitations newspaper publishers will be experiencing. Among the Middle East’s large youth population, the market for printed news has plummeted in five years. Today, just 17 per cent of young Arabs aged 18-24 now use newspapers as a source for news; on a par with radio and some way behind family and friends (30 per cent), social media (32 per cent), online news channels (45 per cent) and the aforementioned television (63 per cent). 

It’s a far cry from 2011, when nearly two-thirds of Arab youth (62 per cent) claimed that they used newspapers as part of their news media consumption. Whichever way you look at it, this decline – from 62 per cent to 17 per cent in just five years – represents a phenomenal loss of audience. 

Across the globe, news producers are grappling with how to develop the right business models for the internet age. A key challenge is finding the revenue streams to make digital pay, whilst at the same time recognising that many users chose to consume news online. 

When it comes to daily news interactions, rather than overall news consumption, the figures are even more stark. In the Arab world, dedicated TV news channels have now fallen behind online outlets among daily news audiences. Nearly a third (32 per cent) of young Arabs read the news online each day, compared to 29 per cent who watch TV news channels – and just 7 per cent who read newspapers. 

This preference to digest news digitally – and often on the move – is only likely to increase as smartphones become increasingly affordable. The GSMA, a trade body for the global mobile industry, anticipates that the number of smartphone connections in the region will grow by 117 million to 327 million by the end of the decade. 

Many young people are on social networks for several hours a day, and these channels can dominate – and massively influence – their online experience. For some audiences, social media is the primary means by which news and information is both discovered and distributed; a trait which is only going to become more prevalent.

Alongside accessing news online, significant news audiences are also using digital channels to share and discuss what they’re reading too.  More than half (52 per cent) of Arab youth share stories with their friends on Facebook, up 11 per cent in the past year, mirroring the tendency for “social sharing” and “social news” that we have seen in other markets.

Social media, of course, isn’t just used for news. Social networkers use these services for a wide range of activities including making and interacting with friends, gaming and eCommerce. More than half of young Arabs use WhatsApp (62 per cent) and Facebook (55 per cent) on a daily basis; whilst a third watch videos on YouTube (33 per cent), and just over a quarter (28 per cent) can be found on Twitter and Instagram. 

This reach is significant, and a stark reminder for content creators, governments and businesses that, if they want to engage with young people in the Arab world, they need to prioritise social.

Each of these social networks has different characteristics and this represents both a challenge, and an opportunity for anyone who wants to reach Arab youth online. Given the large numbers of 18-24 year olds on social media, the opportunity is obvious. This is where your audience is. The challenge is that squirting out the same material in different places will seldom resonate with your target group. Instead, efforts need to be tailored to take advantage of the unique benefits of each channel.

“Among the Middle East’s large youth population, the market for printed news has plummeted in five years. Today, just 17 per cent of young Arabs aged 18-24 now use newspapers as a source for news, down from 62 per cent in 2011.”

This isn’t easy, and it is proving to be a steep  learning curve for many organisations, not least because online behaviours and platforms continue to rapidly evolve. But, at the same time, it’s clear that social media is far too important to ignore. Many young people are on social networks for several hours a day, and these channels can dominate – and massively influence – their online experience. For some audiences, social media is the primary means by which news and information is both discovered and distributed; a trait which is only going to become more prevalent. 

Facebook, for example, which already owns WhatsApp and Instagram, is currently rolling out innovations – such as 360  degree video and “Instant Articles”, whereby mobile audiences can read content from publishers without ever having to leave the Facebook app, in a bid to increase time spent within their service. Other networks are following suit, as these online gatekeepers seek to find further ways to keep audiences within their own walled garden. 

As social networks develop further links with publishers, government entities and other media providers, their influence – and importance – is only going to grow.