The concept of social business – defined, globally, as any business conducted on Facebook, Twitter, and other digital social networks – is set for continued growth here in the Middle East, based on the number of meeting agendas it appears on. Interestingly, however, in this part of the world, the term seems to be in serious danger of being misunderstood. While social business is very much an integral part of Middle Eastern culture, it is often referred to as ‘Wasta’ or ‘Wasata’ (Arabic: واسْطة) – a phenomenon that has absolutely nothing to do with the digital universe.
For the purposes of this article, I’m equating ‘Wasta’ to clout not nepotism. So, ‘Wasta’, in this context, alludes to any influence exerted through personal connections and ties. Today, overwhelming evidence – stemming from the way we do business – suggests that peer-to-peer recommendation, which results from a combination of advocacy and clout, is the number one driver of purchase decisions.
My focus is firmly on the commercial value of ‘Wasta’; it is, after all, part and parcel of all effective social strategies. Essentially, this is my approach: to understand what that value is, we inevitably have to measure it. Business leaders must be able to see the impact of ‘Wasta’ on the bottom line. Successful strategies cannot be planned on the basis of ‘impressions’, ‘likes’ and woolly metrics that sound great but seemingly fail to reap real business results.
Building on the foundations of ‘Wasta’, business in this region is gradually becoming more digitally and traditionally social. Yes, it’s about social media, but it’s also about values, customers, collaboration, involvement, and engagement. A truly social business generates shared value for all entities that are part of the business framework. From the development of micro-finance processes to the creation of customer ecosystems, social business is all about empowering people and enabling a more collaborative, people-centric business environment.
The truth is, social business in the Middle East is not just a buzzword – it is a complex concept with deep roots. If you work in the field of marketing, then you are directly operating in the sphere of social marketing. Of course, this doesn’t mean that social marketing is just another form of marketing, like advertising or events, used to communicate messages to millions at the click of a button. That kind of typical ‘push’ marketing completely misses the point of real social strategies, which is to spur dialogue and engagement that can lead to positive advocacy and action. This is precisely why so many brands here in the Middle East have huge Facebook communities, massive numbers of Twitter followers, and yet very, very little activity or engagement.
My first encounter with ‘Wasta’
Back in 2007, I was working at Google as a Corporate Communications and Public Affairs Manager. As part of my role, I had the opportunity to visit Egypt and the UAE to meet with key business leaders and politicians. Before I even left for the trip, the importance of memorizing the names of everyone I met was made clear to me. I was told that it would for sure come up in conversation later. When I arrived, I learned that the Googlers in the Middle East knew everyone that had what they called ‘Wasta’ and, if they didn’t know them, they had a plan – already in motion – to get to know them.
It was obvious, even then, that this was a true advocacy program in action. ‘Wasta’ was the hidden force behind doing business in the Middle East. Just look at Google’s influence now and the power of its Android platform, Google Glass, and search engine across the region – all because the company heavily focused all of its marketing activities on attracting legions of fans with serious ‘Wasta’.
The business value of that strategy was proven just a couple of months ago when BrandZ stated that Google had finally beaten Apple to the number one global brand spot. Google’s brand is today valued at $159 billion, up 40% in just the past 12 months. This dramatic rise is attributed largely to a laser-sharp focus on securing powerful advocates of their technology. Instead of hyping up their products, they simply put out a great thing and let us do the oohing and aahing for them. Give your customers something awesome, and let them hype you up.
This is a strong testament to the fact that great social business is built on the very principles of ‘Wasta’ and influence. You can only create true influence if the relationships that make up that network of influence are built on trust.
So, what is a social business?
If we look at the three primary components of a truly social business, certain patterns begin to emerge.
1.The social stream
Today’s approach to social business first originated with micro-finance initiatives that were designed to replace development aid in what used to be called the third world. This has informed open innovation and the widespread mobile adoption of platforms such as Whatsapp, Snapchat, and WeChat – all communications platforms that enable people to connect quickly and meaningfully, without the pressure of content sitting on a searchable hub such as Google or Facebook.
2.The technology stream
Supporting the social stream is the technology stream, which has its roots in the free software movement and in collaborative open source software development. By making a contribution to the ecosystem you work in, you become part of the social business ecosystem around that software. This component played a major role in building the Internet into the giant, free, collaborative resource it is today.
3.The marketing stream
Multi-level marketing and loyalty programs are traditional forms of social marketing that have only been enhanced by the web, which, in turn, enables smart firms to build loyalty, engage more deeply and interact on more equal terms with their customers.
Connecting today’s social business to ‘Wasta’
The common threads in the three elements outlined above are the web and collaboration between people – to the benefit of the broader public. This ties in very neatly to what has always made doing business in the Middle East unique. Speaker and management consultant Charles H Green has translated the foundation of ‘Wasta’ – trust – into a simple business model:
Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy/divided by Self orientation
Let’s deconstruct this model to see how simple it actually is to establish the key principles in business today:
Credibility is established through insights. Today’s business has unprecedented access to those insights through social listening, analysis of social behavior, and community social signals. It’s also gained through authenticity and transparency; a good social content approach will always demand these as its core pillars of growth. Oprah Winfrey is a good example of credibility in action. She is well-respected for her book club picks and her book selections have a clear influence over a book-reading audience. This is documented and real – more importantly, it is how ‘Wasta’ is supposed to work.
Reliability is an integral part of credibility. To continue with the Oprah example, if she were to select and recommend a book to thousands of people who then discovered that the publication did not deliver on its sponsor’s promise, Oprah herself would seem less reliable.
Intimacy is created by a sense of empathy and understanding of individual needs. By paying close attention to their communities, businesses can deliver this directly to consumers. Sharing the experience of reading a particular book with Oprah Winfrey deepens the perceived connection between the publication’s entire community of readers.
My question is should we use a different more local example of WASTA? Sheikh Mohammad being on LINKEDIN or Alanood Badr? Or someone else? Like Huda Khattan
What do you think?
Authored by: Ema Linaker, Regional Director, Holler/Leo Burnett