SMEs in the United Arab Emirates and the Middle East can and should do more to utilise digital marketing as an effective tool to promote their business, says Naufel Vilcassim, Professor of Marketing, London Business School.

“Traditional marketing used by big firms – newspaper and TV adverts, billboards, sponsorship – is very expensive for the SME, which can use online media to generate awareness, cost-effectively, in a way that was not feasible even a few years ago. Given the very high levels of internet and smartphone penetration and Facebook usage in the UAE, this is an effective strategy to employ.”

LBS_Naufel VilcassimAccording to Dr Vilcassim, having a presence on TV or in print is still popular in the region and can serve as a signal to customers that the business is doing very well. However, this is a perception problem he says, and one that needs to be addressed. SMEs need to capitalise on and target the next generation of online customers.

“Firms have to learn how to design websites better – not just do search engine optimisation,” he advises. “What is missing here is companies with good digital marketing software – an equivalent to Hubspot in the US or Europe, which charges around AED 3673 a month (equivalent to $1,000) for content creation and optimisation, email marketing, social media, marketing analytics, lead management, automation and analytics.”

Dr Vilcassim’s advice to SMEs in the region is to use more guerrilla marketing. “Ride on something else, a big event with a smaller role and create a presence in the mind of the customer. At the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, a small manufacturer created presence by having lots of people congregating wearing orange t-shirts. They achieved awareness of a brand people had not heard of, and saw a boost in sales.”

One of the challenges SMEs face with digital marketing in the region is the use of two languages. Content is likely developed in one language and messages tend to get lost in translation. However, there are ways around this:

“In India there are so many languages, but businesses have figured out how to make it work: some in just English; others in two or three languages. There, the trend has moved from elaborate desktop websites to apps, skipping a generation of technology as mobile becomes more important.

“Location-based advertising is also growing, which can be much more effective for SMEs – if you sell fresh juices, for instance, to tell people when you are nearby,” says Dr Vilcassim.