Why the net can be an instrument for change

Ahmed Nassef is leading the crusade to get online recognised as an advertising medium. Richard Abbott meets him

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By  Richard Abbott Published  May 28, 2006

|~|Nassef,-Ahmed-200.jpg|~|Ahmed Nassef, vice president of the Maktoob Group|~|If you haven’t heard of Maktoob.com, then the chances are that Arabic is not your first language. The web portal has four million users, of which 75% are surfing in Arabic. Ahmed Nassef, the vice president of the Maktoob Group and Maktoob.com’s general manager, wants it to become the Arab equivalent of US giants such as Google and Yahoo!. He estimates that five to ten million new Arab users will start surfing the net each year from now on. With about 20 million already online, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the Arab web population is going to at least double in the next four years. It is a huge opportunity, and he wants Maktoob to be on the front line. “Right now we are at a critical moment in our growth as an industry,” says Nassef, a softly-spoken Arab-American who was born in Egypt. We are in the Starbucks café at the Siemens building at Dubai Internet City. It’s too hot to sit outside by the lake, so we are forced to endure the painfully jolly music being piped into the interior. Nassef was raised in California after his parents emigrated from Egypt. Schooled in LA, he graduated in Middle Eastern studies. He is well known for his work as a muslim rights activist. He is editor-in-chief of MuslimWakeUp.com, a website that promotes progressive thinking among muslims. And he has appeared as an advocate on international news channels. He joined Maktoob after hearing a radio interview with Samih Toukan, CEO of the Maktoob Group, who was talking about the emergence of the internet in the Arab world. “In the back of my mind I was always intrigued by the Arab world,” says Nassef, who cites Google and photo sharing site Flickr as his favourite online destinations. Maktoob now has 90 people at its headquarters in Jordan and 18 in Dubai, which is its sales and marketing hub. Nassef describes his website as “aggregators of information, not originators”. He says the key to the internet’s breakthrough is creating informative, entertaining and — most importantly — relevant content. “Five years ago people weren’t really interested in local issues. People going online were Western educated and very comfortable in English. They got what they wanted from sites like Yahoo!. But now there is a major need for quality content in the local language.” With this in mind, Maktoob.com will this week unveil a major site redesign, featuring new sections devoted to news and women. The marketing slogan is ‘no limits’. With the vast majority of the region’s population aged under 30, Nassef says Maktoob will be well placed to become the home page of choice for young Arab nationals. “Keep a close eye on the news section. You will start hearing about it in other media,” he says. “We feel this will become the strongest news destination in the Arab world. We are going to be more edgy in our approach.” Nassef says advertisers have been impressed with the plans and Nestlè has already committed to sponsorship of the new women’s section, which will be in Arabic, with English to follow. Blogging is a key element of the Maktoob offer. The service, which enables users to post their thoughts and pictures on a bespoke home page, is one of the fastest growing areas of the internet. “We want to empower our users and help them to build their own community,” says Nassef. To this end, Maktoob has upgraded its blogging system, which currently has 10,000 users. Other attractions include an unlimited e-mail inbox for new users in the first half of June. “We see blogging as a huge area,” he says. “People are so hungry for a chance to express themselves. “We have some exciting projects lined up that will make Maktoob a pioneer. We don’t want to follow the UK and the US.” The internet has long been hailed as the next big thing in the Arab world, but it has yet to achieve the critical mass to cement its place on media schedules. For too many clients, it is something that is bolted on at the last minute while the lion’s share of the budget is spent on TV and newspapers. But Nassef says advertising on the net boasts highly targeted campaigns, not forgetting the ability to generate a lucrative database of customers’ e-mail addresses. Nassef puts the internet’s share of overall advertising spend at less than 1%. But he sees no reason why it cannot hit 5% in the near future. “There is absolutely no reason to shut internet advertising as a medium out of your marketing plan unless you just don’t know enough about it. A lot of it is an educational challenge,” he says. “There is a massive reach that is comparable to some TV and radio stations.” The pressure to use online is coming from overseas. Multi-nationals in more established markets are seeing the advantages of using the internet as a direct response medium, and global marketing bosses are communicating this to their local representatives. But for Nassef, the revamp of Maktoob is about much more than just being the home page of choice, or carving out a chunk of the advertising market. “The lines are no longer clear between TV and the internet, for example,” he says. “People need to look at media as a wider integrated way of reaching people. Consumers can watch their favourite show on their TV, their iPod or their computer. Distribution is changing the way we think about media.” And he sees the web as a driving force for freedom of expression.“I am a big believer in the internet as a huge instrument for positive change in the region,” he says. “Everyone can have access to the public sphere. In the Arab world, ten years ago that would have been unimaginable. “Freedom of expression is an important component of what the internet can do. “Now people have the opportunity to speak out and have an open forum and not under the strict controls that are often seen in a lot of the countries in the region.” If the current craze for blogging is replicated among Arab users in the Middle East, Nassef won’t be the only one smiling. It might be the shot in the arm that the internet needs to finally propel it up the communications agenda.||**||

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