I met Ahmad at a House of Social event in Dubai hosted by the legendary Alexandra Maia (check out Alexandra’s interview here) and we’ve been pals ever since. He’s a baller when it comes to graphic design and knows how to turn food, coffee and the daily commute into something hilarious every single time. Oh and he’s got a firm handle on all things social media. I caught up with Ahmad to get a proper interview done and here’s what he had to say.
How did you get started in social media? was it your first foray into digital marketing?
I’ve always been an early adopter of social media but it wasn’t until April 2017 that I started taking it seriously. Starting of 2017 was a bit rough for me as I had just pulled the plug on small F & B business that lasted for a year. Jobs did not come pouring down after that, so I decided to learn as much as I could. I started experimenting with digital illustration, web design, while religiously consuming content that taught me a lot about social media & digital marketing.
I always loved the internet and my infatuation with it led me to create a business blog called Tejara Blog – ‘Tejara’ meaning ‘trade’ in Arabic. The idea was to publish blogs about entrepreneurship & business while using my newly found digital art skills to create cover art for those posts: two birds, one stone-esque.
My intentions with this blog were multi-fold. I hoped that this would somehow become the region’s hottest blog, or perhaps, it would open up new doors by giving me access to more people. Also, if anything, this would act as a portfolio of sorts that could get me a job.
Now that I had a blog, I needed traffic. That’s when I turned to Instagram, my favorite social media platform. I used the same cover art that I made for my blog posts as visuals on Instagram, to drive traffic to my site. Since Instagram is all about visuals, it made sense to post the illustrations on there, and ask the audience to head over to the site to actually read the article I wrote.
The project did not last long as I couldn’t give it more time. The reason I couldn’t give it more time was because one of my intentions actually materialised. I had hoped for this to get me a job, which it did. I started working as a sales exec at a small web development agency in Dubai. Right now, Tejara Blog is just a Medium blog, I’ve put down the actual site.
By the time I got the job, I had sharpened my web design and graphic design skills, had a taste of digital marketing in practice and actually had something to show the employer. At this job, I did more than just sales, intentionally. I really focused on digital marketing, social media and design.
I’m not with that company anymore but I have progressed further into the adventurous abyss of the digital world, constantly at the cross-roads of social media, digital art, web design and creative personal projects.
What do you love about social media over other channels?
The ability create and interact with communities.
It wasn’t like this before though. The dopamine hits of all those likes on Instagram, watching incoming traffic to my blog, people appreciating my art, finding new clients for my work at the agency, were all the things I loved about social media. I’ll be honest, I still love all of these – I just love the power of community more now.
For more context, I started a personal project called People With Laptops, in February 2018. The project is predominately Instagram-based (@peoplewithlaptops). To describe all the inspirations that went into creating this community based project would take a while. So just to briefly describe what it is, it’s a Humans of New York style blog that features stories of people from all over the world. Mostly these stories are shared in an interview format.
The pictures that go along with these stories always show the featured person with their laptop in the frame, hence, the name. It’s meant to show a connected generation, through technology & the internet; alas, my love for the internet has followed me here too.
Luckily, people have positively responded to the project. They’ve reciprocated my belief that by sharing stories of people, we can actually feel close to one another.
The amount of admiration, support and love I have received has been overwhelming! People With Laptops has become an amazing, inclusive community of people from all over the world.
To have the love of a growing community, the encouragement, to have an audience and support from thousands of people can get anything done.
There is power in community.
What are some of the challenges with social media in the region?
Personally, I’d say content homogeny.
The content produced in the region is just too homogenous. Content creators have just glued themselves to a handful of segments, namely: food, travel, fashion & lifestyle. Different formats and different social channels, but it all revolves around these themes.
Everyone wants to be content creator in these fields. A lot of these people (not all) want free services from companies they allegedly want to promote. A common example to elaborate on this point is that of food bloggers. I’ve personally spoken to several content creators who say the just want free food in all these nice places.
Pretty smart thing to do to be honest. The problem surfaces when you dive deeper and realise that you, as a restaurant, have used a content creator whose audience are also content creators who want to be invited to your restaurant for free food.
Marketers marketing to marketers.
If creators become a bit bold, and pick up something else, it would give different businesses a chance to find new audiences. This will give the very crammed segments some breathing space and reduce the phenomena of marketers marketing to marketers at least to a certain degree.
Also, let’s be honest, aren’t we tired from consuming the same type of content over and over again? Let’s switch it up a bit.
Another challenge I’ve observed with social media in the region has to do with clients and agencies. Clients are constantly being maneuvered into very cheap social media packages by freelancers and small agencies. Personally, I respect the hustle of these one-man agencies, but, there are two negative points with this case. Firstly, this sets a very low bar in pricing and ‘proper’ agencies suffer from having to compete with unbearably low quotes from their freelancer counterparts. Secondly – and more importantly – these freelancers hardly provide analytics, a well researched strategy and are often under-resourced to deliver substantial results.
What are some of your favourite social media tools and what do you use them for?
I do not use many social media tools but Hootsuite has got to be my favorite; it has got everything you’d need really.
I use it to publish posts, manage multiple accounts, analytics and for social media listening.
How do you handle multilingual social media requirements?
I work for a digital agency where we have a dedicated copywriter and an Arabic translator. That’s all we really need to handle multilingual social media requirements in the region.
That being said, it’s important to have someone who can deliver the message you want to put across not just by translating it word for word, rather, taking the essence of the message and eloquently executing it.
Pro tips for anyone looking to get started in social media in the region?
Social media is a vast playing field. There are several positions you can choose to play in.
So, first of all, it’s important to get an overview – a bigger picture – of all the things that go into it. You need to familiarize yourself with different roles related to let’s say, strategy, analytics, community management, content creation and curation etc.
Secondly, pick something and try specialising in it; especially if you’re looking at working for an agency. Well established agencies look for specialised people. Nonetheless, a more ‘generalist’ approach also works, so don’t throw it out of the window.
Lastly, learn how to sell social media services. This specifically applies if you’re planning on doing your own thing. Before you sell someone social media and all the good things that come with, make sure you’re sold on to the idea of social media as well. If you wholeheartedly believe in the power of social media, it becomes a tad bit easier to convince others.
There’s plenty of great free content online to dive into social media as a profession; always keep learning.
What’s your take on privacy and data collection when it comes to social media? social media is all about being social… can we ever expect privacy?
Data collection is important for social media channels to provide us with a more ‘personalised’ experience and also developing the product, to make it function better. Keeping a product free does not mean it’s also free to keep it running, so they need a business model to survive. They do that by commoditizing our attention and data, that is used by advertisers to push their services on the platform – in Mark Zuckerberg’s words, ‘we run ads,’ is the best way to sum up how these companies keep the lights on generally.
Seeing ads on social media platforms in my opinions are harmless; they’re annoying, yes, but definitely not the main problem.
The problem lies in social media companies using this data to put together a detailed character sketch of the user and then leverage it into carrying out much more sinister acts such as influencing their opinions.
I also strongly believe that social media organizations must be transparent with their users. Companies need to be clearer on how the data is going to be used, and even let users know that what kind of data is being collected in the first place.
Privacy, data collection, advertising and social media are in a very complex relationship. I don’t think we have a utopian solution to satisfy everyone involved just yet. Regardless, it’s comforting to see that everyone involved in this relationship voices their concerns and some form of action is being taken.
Learn more about Ahmad Alam:
Ahmad is a Dubai-based social media specialist, self-taught digital artist & web designer; at the crossroads of creativity & the internet. He’s also working hard to get ‘People With Laptops‘ – a passion project – to be one of the best community-based blogs to ever hit the web. Check it out on Instagram: @peoplewithlaptops
Also published on Medium.