“It’s important to note that specialisation is not just about targeting but about getting good at what you do.”
JAMAL AL MAWED, Rolls Royce PR manager, on why carving a niche makes a difference.
Back in 2009 I was tasked with the media launch for a new BMW car across the Middle East region, which meant a press conference in every country. While hosting the Amman launch, I curiously watched a couple of skinny Jordanian brothers with a small camera crew doing interviews for a newly launched satellite channel called ‘Arab Motors TV’.
Although eight years doesn’t sound like a long time ago, it was at the opposite end of a huge paradigm shift in media and PR. These were still the days where traditional media reigned supreme, so my PR focus was on daily newspapers, lifestyle/ automotive magazines and local broadcast news channels. Hundreds of independent satellite channels were springing up every year that no one watched, and I could hardly keep track of them, so I didn’t have much time for Arab Motors TV, and couldn’t fathom how they would fill 24 hours of programming every day with only automotive content, especially in Arabic.
Later that year, at the Dubai Motor Show, they were at it again, roaming the floors with their camera crew, trying to engage the automotive brands. They were persistent, and I ran into them at almost every car event for the next few years, as they produced reel after reel of coverage that I knew hardly anyone would see.
Then something amazing happened. The digital boom hit the Middle East, and the two brothers decided to take their well-honed relationships with car brands, Arabic-language presenting skills, and expertise in filming and editing and used it to launch their own YouTube channel.
Today, Mousub and Suhaib Shasha’s Arab GT is the most-watched Arabiclanguage automotive YouTube channel in the world, with 750,000 subscribers, 2,000 videos and combined view counts in the hundreds of millions. With a Facebook page that has 7 million followers, a website, Instagram and Snapchat, they are the most powerful automotive influencers in the region. They are also the first name on my list for any major press trip or event.
This is not a story about the virtues of hard work and persistence – it’s about the importance of specialisation. What makes their story so remarkable is how rare it is in our region. Every day we watch our Instagram feeds and Snapchat stories get more and more confusing as social influencers promote different restaurants, destinations, fashion labels, FMCGs, hair products, watches, jewellery, cars, mobile phones, dentists, spas, shampoos, face creams, and more. To quote an exasperated member of my PR agency: “Everyone is doing everything.”
While I accept that for the bloggers/influencers it is difficult to know the dos and don’ts in a nascent industry that will mature with time, it’s slightly alarming to see the actual brands propagate this type of behaviour through lazy targeting. It’s the same old argument that we have had with TV, print, online, digital and now social: reach versus relevance. Brands are still unwilling to invest in micro-influencers who are at least specialising in their field, because they need to show ‘big numbers’.
Take a look at Huda Kattan – another example of someone who specialised and stuck with it. Instead of reviewing restaurants and airlines and washing detergents, she stuck with her area of expertise, which is beauty and make-up. For a couple of years she had moderate popularity in the region but instead of digressing, she launched her own brand of eyelashes; her sister opened a beauty salon, so it was always ‘on brand’. The focus was always beauty and make-up and it allowed her to gather a very relevant audience which propelled her to arguably global stardom.
The temptation of a quick paycheque has taken many influencers into a grey territory where they are scattering their audience, losing engagement and promoting products they have no credibility to promote. This will undoubtedly harm them in the long run in what is an unforgiving industry.
It’s also important to note that specialisation is not just about targeting, but about getting good at what you do. If you are wasting your time attending all kinds of brand events to make sure you are in the spotlight, that is less time you are investing in becoming an expert in your craft. ArabGT know cars like no one else because they’ve worked at it day and night for years. Huda Kattan knows beauty like no one else because she spends the majority of her time experimenting with make-up – even now, with close to 20 million Instagram followers, her account is 95 per cent dedicated to make-up tutorials instead of a review of the latest Maldives hotel or smartphone. It’s Malcolm Gladwell’s famous 10,000 hour rule that turns laymen into experts in their field.
The above examples are the go-to names in our region for cars and beauty. Could you name, off the top of your head, the go-to regional influencer for tailoring? Men’s grooming? Mother duties? Food? Travel? Hotels? Luxury? Jewellery? Chances are you can only think of a few ‘kindofs’ or a few ‘yes, but not big enoughs’ – and this demonstrates the problem brands will continue to face.
The solution is twofold. The influencers themselves need to have the resilience to turn down brand money unless it is relevant to their area of specialisation, while the brands need to invest their time and money in the people that are reaching a relevant audience for them. With time, the industry will segment properly and mature, and we will be in a win-win situation. Until then, we all have to keep watching everyone do everything and influence nothing.