The future of communication is here in the form of digital signage on buildings, blogs criticizing companies or lauding products, live television shows watched on mobile handsets and online avatar characters used to enter virtual web environments and interact with colleagues, friends and strangers.

This stranger-than-fiction future may not have enveloped the Middle East yet, but in Europe and the US, digital media has been taking over the communication scene with digital ads in doctors’ offices and supermarkets, and people spending the majority of their time acquiring and sending content on the Internet or mobile phones. Ad spend has been burgeoning in this area as companies have discovered this medium’s flexibility and ability to reach their target audiences through channels they are using the most. The majority of corporations in the Middle East, however, have yet to exploit the potential of this phenomenon, having only dipped their toes into online advertising in the form of banner ads and keyword searches, without a strategy specific to digital communication. These banner ads are an application of traditional advertising campaigns translating the same visuals and messages into another medium.

There are numerous strategic reasons for regional companies to go with the digital media wave, as it can help a company drive home its messages and build stronger relationships with stakeholders, complementing and reinforcing traditional communication campaigns. As Internet penetration and advanced mobile phone technology use grows in the Arab world, organizations must be fast movers, capitalize on opportunity and stay ahead of the trend.
As part of a comprehensive communication strategy, the use of digital media should help companies further reach out to audiences who are bombarded with messages on a regular basis, by grabbing their attention throughout the day and night, as they browse the Internet, use their mobiles or walk down a street. Unlike TV messages requiring focused audience attention, or billboards ads that distract people cruising the highway, much of digital communication is intended to be part of people’s daily activities, including email, Facebook or other social networking accounts, and browsing news and information online. Making digital media an essential communication strategy component allows organizations to more effectively target audiences. On the web, messages can be placed on websites with related content or that have audiences with a similar demographic to that of the company or brand. The value of demographic data and information about Internet users’ interests and habits can be seen anytime you visit a celebrity gossip site and see ads for clothing targeting females, or type the word ‘coffee’ into a search engine and uncover numerous sponsored links to coffeehouses. This targeting ensures companies get their message across to someone that might be interested in what they have to say.

What’s more, the impact of this media is measurable, as the targeted person can rollover the visuals, click on a link or even purchase the advertised product, allowing organizations to measure the ad’s impact and effectiveness. Digital media also provides the ideal platform for interactivity between companies and their audiences, bringing their brand or product to life. Many companies today, including Johnson & Johnson, promote their corporations through blogs about their values, the people that work at their organization and even the socially responsible causes they support, showing the more human side of what they do, while giving their stakeholders the chance to provide feedback. Companies have even set up their own YouTube pages offering visitors a glimpse of their latest advertising or public service videos, highlighting the importance of particular issues they support.

Others, like Pepsi, include images and branding of their products throughout popular online games, while Vodafone created its own game that it posted on its website. BMW and Adidas caused a huge buzz amongst young audiences when they created original short films featuring celebrities and their products, which then became ‘viral sensations.’ In the region, Emirates is one example of a company that embeds videos on popular websites, such as an expandable ad featuring footage of its new terminal three.

In the current financial crisis, there is another important benefit of digital media that cannot be ignored: cost efficiency. The lower production and media buying costs of digital communication means that companies will be getting more bang for their dollar when they leverage the interactivity and measurability of digital formats to target their audiences and involve them with their brand. In fact, online ad spend is the only area of advertising spending predicted to grow in Europe and the US in the coming years.

The credit crunch provides regional organizations with a unique opportunity to shake up their communication strategies by adding a much-needed digital component and reaching out to their audiences through the media they are growing to know and love best: websites, email, mobile phones, social networking sites and online video clips among others. Using these tools will give companies the chance to not only target certain groups more effectively but also to measure the impact of their message and elicit direct responses. All of this leads to higher recognition of their brands, better understanding of their messages and even increased sales of their products and services.

When it comes to digital media, the future has already arrived and it is up to companies to start living this present before they become part of the past.

Nohad Mouawad and Ramsay G. Najjar