From social to virtual: The influencer marketing revolution in the Middle East

Abha Garyali Peer |

In the realm of modern marketing, influencer marketing has emerged as a dominant force. Major brands are increasingly forming partnerships with influencers to drive their marketing strategies. These "Social Influencers" are everyday individuals like us, but possess the exceptional ability to wield influence over large audiences through their active presence on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and more.

This article aims to explore the landscape of influencer marketing in the Middle East, highlighting its significant impact on prominent brands in the region. Additionally, we'll delve into the rising phenomenon of virtual influencers, a trend that is gradually eclipsing traditional social influencers.

A strategic approach

Influencer marketing is a strategic approach that involves collaborating with individuals, often referred to as 'influencers,' who boast a substantial and engaged social media following. These influencers are tapped to endorse and promote products or services. In light of its ever-increasing popularity, brands are now going a step further by compensating influencers for their role in promoting their products.

Influencer campaigns have indeed surged in popularity, wielding significant potential for brand success, points out Karolina Slowikowska, Director of Communications, amana.

“Collaborating with trusted influencers who possess a deep understanding of the financial world can be a powerful strategy. These influencers can play a vital role in educating and guiding audiences on complex topics like investing, ensuring that individuals make well-informed decisions regarding their financial future,” says Karolina.

Influencer boom in the Middle East

The recently unveiled report, "The State of Influencer Marketing in UAE 2023," a joint effort between prominent marketer YAAP and Khaleej Times, provides a comprehensive overview of the latest trends and market dynamics within the realm of social influencers. This report offers a profound insight into the evolving landscape of influencer marketing in the UAE.

According to the report's findings, the influencer marketing industry in the Middle East is on track to achieve a significant market valuation of $1.3 billion by 2023. The report highlights the various supporting trends, technologies, and favorable market conditions contributing to this growth.

YAAP’s research methodology included attaining sector-wide perspectives of CMOs, marketing heads, and digital marketers from leading brands in the region. A few findings reinforce the UAE’s competitive edge globally in influencer marketing and the absorption of supporting technologies. According to 76.9% of marketers, influencer marketing was a top priority for their brands whereas 76.5% of marketers said that they’ve shifted their budgets from TV, print and outdoor to influencer marketing. These figures underscore the growing significance of influencer marketing in the UAE.

Dubai as the hub

Dubai is undeniably the Middle East's top tourist destination, boasting cutting-edge infrastructure, a luxurious lifestyle characterized by a high disposable income, and a vibrant city atmosphere. It's not just a tourist hotspot but also the global epicenter of influencer culture, drawing both established and up-and-coming social media figures seeking to seize remarkable opportunities.

As per Global Media Insights, a staggering 98.98% of the population in the UAE actively engages with social media. Furthermore, the 11th annual Arab Youth Survey revealed that 9 out of 10 young individuals regularly use at least one social media platform on a daily basis, primarily through mobile devices.

Moreover, a recent survey by revealed that 75% of UAE residents follow some form of social media influencer. A few years ago, a survey of 1,000 UAE residents conducted by the Dubai PR agency BPG Cohn & Wolfe indicated that 71% of residents between the ages of 18 and 40 consider influencer recommendations before making a purchase. The sectors of beauty, fashion, lifestyle, food, latest technology, and entertainment are not only attractive to social influencers but also hold the attention of consumers.

Ibrahim Hamieh, Account Director - Social Lead at Dentsu Creative MENA, feels that the UAE serves as the epicenter of technology, futurism, and the digital realm within the region.

“It's widely recognized that the government's visionary approach aligns seamlessly with this trajectory, offering substantial support to businesses moving in this direction. Amidst this, a plethora of social media influencers has emerged, playing a pivotal role in amplifying the country's vision and championing the inevitable avant-garde spirit of the UAE. Moreover, the nation's unique character consistently highlights and rewards its diverse pool of talents.”

Anastasiya Golovatenko, PR Director, Sherpa Communications, commenting on the same, says: “The emergence of various social media personalities in the UAE is a testament to the nation's diverse and digitally savvy population, which is quite unique in comparison to any other market. These influencers represent a range of cultures, interests, and narratives, which makes the digital dialogue so special. Their growing presence also provides brands with unique opportunities to engage with varied audiences at the same time making the UAE a truly unique place.” 

Building partnerships between brands and influencers

Every brand aims to establish an authentic and culturally resonant voice among consumers. For this, they are now tapping social influencers as they are the prominent voices that people listen to. Therefore, having strong networks of influencers allow brands to market consistently, build effective affiliate programmes, test concepts with their target demographics and create a resilient revenue stream driven by social commerce.

Ibrahim Hamieh comments: “It is unquestionable that influencer marketing has become indispensable for nearly all businesses. Both agencies and clients have strategically incorporated it into their plans, particularly those seeking robust and sustainable growth. However, the primary focal point should always be the audience, which has grown more discerning, informed, and diligent in fact-checking. Consequently, the foundation of partnerships between agencies and influencer firms, as well as the selection of activated influencers, should revolve not only around relevance and authenticity but also around aligning with this increasingly discerning audience.”

Anastasiya Golovatenko says that in recent years, the Middle East market has indeed witnessed a surge in efforts to foster authentic partnerships between brands and influencers.

She believe this shift signifies a deeper understanding of audience expectations.

“Today's consumers seek genuine content, and they can differentiate between organic endorsements and forced promotions. Authenticity not only enhances credibility but also resonates more profoundly with audiences, driving stronger engagement and loyalty. As a PR agency, we always advocate for genuine brand-influencer alignments because they yield more sustainable and impactful results in the long run,” she adds.

Women’s role

According to data released by Statista in 2022, a majority of social media influencers, specifically 82%, are female.

Women are the trailblazers, the dynamic force making social media platforms so compelling.

Ibrahim Hamieh adds that while this may have been the case primarily in the early stages, industries like beauty, fashion, and skincare provided a strong initial platform for influencers, and for good reason. However, he adds, in recent times, we've witnessed a significant rise in male influencers.

“Sectors such as gaming, sports, travel, and food have contributed to a more gender-inclusive landscape, reshaping dynamics. What's even more intriguing is that industries are no longer confined to a specific gender; women can engage in discussions about gaming, and men can delve into skincare, breaking down traditional boundaries,” he says.

Brands partnering with social influencers

Influencer marketing is steadily gaining popularity, as brands increasingly collaborate with influencers and content creators to endorse their products and services. Influencers possess substantial followings on social media platforms, making them instrumental in assisting brands to expand their reach and enhance engagement with their target audience.

Commenting on this, Anastasiya Golovatenko says: “For B2C brands, influencer partnerships can significantly drive traffic and expedite the sales cycle. To truly capitalize, brands should ensure alignment with influencers who genuinely resonate with their ethos. If everything is done correctly, such collaborations can offer immense value.”

According toIbrahim Hamieh, several factors come into play when considering these partnerships.

First and foremost, he points out, defining the objective is paramount.

He says that brands must ask themselves what they aim to achieve through these collaborations. “Once this objective is established, along with a deep understanding of the target audience, various metrics can be leveraged to benefit the brands. These metrics include but are not limited to exposure, increased Share of Voice (SOV), engagement, shareability, fostering brand affinity, and building brand loyalty. Tangible outcomes can be observed in terms of sales, foot traffic, product trials, and more. In summary, partnering with the right influencers, after clarifying objectives, can greatly benefit brands,” says Ibrahim

Profit ratio for influencers

Social influencers are becoming more deeply involved in collaborating with brands. What advantages do they gain from this partnership?

In the UAE, says Hamieh, many individuals have made the choice to leave their corporate jobs behind in favour of pursuing careers as influencers.

“It often begins as a hobby, evolves into a 'side hustle,' and can eventually become a full-time endeavor that demands a significant amount of time and effort. The financial rewards, particularly for those who maintain relevance and authenticity, can be substantial. The influencer industry operates on a principle of reciprocity: the more you invest in it, the more it rewards you in return,” he adds.

On the contrary, Anastasiya Golovatenko, feels that social influencers in the UAE can't solely rely on luck for campaign success. While many brands are still figuring out campaign management, influencers should lead by setting benchmarks and ensuring quality checks. They hold a responsibility to optimize partnerships, rather than delivering semi-cooked campaigns.”

Flip side of influencer marketing 

Undoubtedly, influencer marketing has brought about significant social changes, especially among younger generations. However, we must also consider its negative aspects.

While influencers can be a source of inspiration and motivation, there's a flip side that we must address, points out Anastasiya Golovatenko.

“The influencer-driven culture has a huge impact on young people, leading them to question their looks, skills or existence in general. This effect is being increasingly highlighted in media, with movies like 'Barbie' addressing these concerns as well. As professionals in the PR sector, it's essential we advocate for responsible awareness campaigns, ensuring that the content shared promotes positive values and doesn't harm or influence our social values,” she says. 

Entry of virtual influencers

A notable shift in the realm of brand marketing strategies is the emergence of virtual influencers. With the boundary between reality and virtuality becoming increasingly blurred, brands are leveraging the influence of virtual personas to craft campaigns and tap into the surging trend of digital escapism.

Virtual influencers are computer-generated characters who possess their own personalities, lifestyles and online personas but are created and controlled by a team of artists and developers. These virtual influencers are gaining popularity on social media platforms, captivating audiences with their unique aesthetics, storytelling, and engagement. A perfect example is Lil Miquela, a virtual influencer with 2.8m Instagram followers and major brand deals with Prada, CK and Pascum.

Furthermore, notable brands such as Burberry, Gucci, and Maybelline have also engaged in partnerships with virtual influencers for their marketing campaigns.

Virtual influencers and AI-driven avatars remain a fresh addition to the marketing and advertising realm in the Middle East, says Barbara Soltysinska, Co-founder & CEO of indaHash.

She feels that there is still potential for growth in the region.

“Currently, virtual influencers in the UAE serve more as intriguing entities rather than dominant influencers, particularly when considering their follower count, engagement rates, and overall activity. For instance, the most recognizable Meta Kira boasts under 4k followers. Compared to globally recognized computer-generated influencers, there's substantial room for growth in the Middle East,” she says.

According to her, whatever brands select, whether social or virtual influencers, it's crucial to exercise caution.

“Trust and reliability are paramount, as influencers bear a substantial responsibility when discussing topics like investments, where sometimes people's life-savings are at stake. To conclude, we can take an advise from Warren Buffett, a renowned American business magnate and investor, who said: "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things different,” she concludes.