The spin

The World Wide Web is yet to capture the fancy of most spin doctors  in Oman but all agree about its potential

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If you are a brand manager browsing through websites from Oman to place an advertisement or position your brand, it may be a while before you are spoiled for choice.
Online branding and advertising is yet to take off in the sultanate even though there is an increasing awareness among companies about the benefits of a strong presence on the Internet.
While it is not yet one of the most popular tools to reach out to the masses, corporates, banks and admen foresee a bright future for online advertising and branding in the next few years.
However, they also voice some concerns such as the lack of quality local websites, reliable content and low penetration of the Internet. Browse through websites like that of the Oman Chamber of Commerce and Industry (OCCI) or the Ministry of Education, the online ads of BankMuscat, National Bank of Oman (NBO), Suhail Bahwan Group, Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) and a handful of other companies do appear.
But the list does not get much longer. Nevertheless, there is an increasing realisation among brand managers that online branding is a much more interactive medium as the number of hits can be recorded whereas the number of people actually seeing a television or print advertisement or a hoarding cannot be monitored in a similar way. In the arena Most big companies have their own websites but say the number of hits is minimal. Some have also placed online ads on international websites in an attempt to extend their reach and get across information about their brand, product range and services.
BankMuscat advertises on websites like that of the OCCI. But it is still waiting for the Internet boom to actually take off so that it can reach out to a larger number of people across the sultanate.
At present, the bank is undertaking a study of the leading websites in the country, the number of hits they receive and the profile of people who browse through those.
Once this study is completed, the bank will charter a plan to go full swing with online branding depending on the data received, says Mohammed Mubarak al Hassani, head of corporate communication, BankMuscat. The bank official says that though online branding is yet to be widely used by companies across sectors, those who have ventured in at this emerging stage will reap huge benefits when it becomes a mass medium.
Though tight-lipped about their online advertising budget, Hassani hints that it runs into thousands of riyals. However, some like Oman Air, a key online advertiser which boasts of an interactive website, has a different story to tell. The national carrier has advertised on several prominent international websites like tgmena.com, rediff.com, yahoo.com, lastminute.com, ameinfo.com, tripadvisor.com, timesonline.co.uk, flyertalk.com and baagatwick.com.
Besides promoting its special offers and services, the airline recently introduced an online promotional campaign called Fly Free to London through its website. The first raffle was held last month and the overwhelming response that we are getting in this is a clear indication that online advertising is here to stay.

Of course we did create awareness about this contest through press releases in the print media, which were timed to create maximum awareness among the general public," says Usama al Haremi, head of corporate communications and media, Oman Air. Another company that has successfully branded itself online is Nawras.

Knowing the potential and reach of the Internet, the telecom company has gone in for a branding and advertising exercise on YouTube. Nawras is also toying with the idea of tying up with google.

"Ours is a three year old company and we have been present on the World Wide Web since then as the youth is Internet savvy and we wanted all to know about our brand and products," says Tariq al Barwani, online manager of Nawras.

The Suhail Bahwan Group was among the first companies to embrace ebranding. "We turned to the web because the company believes that the use of the online medium will enable us to reach the target audience and speak their language in ways that traditional media channels cannot. Undeniably, consumers have shifted a great portion of their daily media attention to the Internet, and this fragmentation of mass media makes targeted segmentation possible," says Ketan Mehta, assistant general manager, corporate communications.

Apart from its own site, the group advertises on AMEinfo.com, a popular site across the Arab world. There is also an effort to ensure search engine optimisation and creation of meta tags that make the website more visible on search engines as part of its ebranding strategy.

Net content
Content is an important part of any website and that is something which the corporate houses scrutinise before they advertise or position their brands there. However, this is an area where Oman is lagging, resulting in a reluctance on the part of brand managers and advertising executives to advertise or brand online. There is also a need for quality websites and forums.

"There are no quality forums where an advertiser can place his brand without being worried about the content on that site. There are certain local chat websites like Sabla but the credentials of the website and who manages it are not clear. Though several youngsters log in for discussions, companies hesitate to position their brand there," says Mohammed al Farei, general manager, TBWA/Zeenah.

Value for money
Brand managers say that online branding and advertising is much cheaper than traditional forms like print ads, banners and hoardings. Barwani says that though companies are opening up to the idea of advertising and branding on the Internet, there is a lack of awareness and understanding of what online presence can do and the different costing methods available. "When you go for online advertising you have things like cost per click, cost per visitor, cost per action. These jargons and pricing methods used by advertisers are too technical for some.

But once they understand this and realise the benefits, including how much they can save, it will pick up very fast." He adds that online branding is much cheaper for any company compared to the traditional methods.

Oman Air didn't face any challenge in its transition to online branding and advertising. However, officials point out that the impact of print and general visual media branding effects can't be underestimated, as they are effective in reaching out to certain segments.

"Cost-wise comparison on this would depend on a lot of factors but in general I am sure one can justify the cost to the extent to which such a branding exercise serves its purpose. It is more cost effective as it is extremely targeted and engages the reader," says Haremi.

The return on any branding campaign is reflected in the goodwill it generates. He says Oman Air's two online campaigns have been direct response driven and that they have been able to measure the response accurately.

Farei is also of the opinion that online advertising and branding is much cheaper than traditional forms. He adds that several of his agency's clients had stayed away from going online previously but have chosen to be more prominent on the web after seeing other success stories.

However, the returns on online advertising and branding are not immediately visible. The benefits are long term. Oman Air's corporate communication team is planning to have a brainstorming session soon to measure the gains from the online advertising/branding exercise.

Reaching out
Eleven years ago when the Internet was introduced in Oman, online advertising and branding was a supporting medium. But with the growth of the corporate sector and the economic surge it is surely shaping up to be an important medium.

Concerning Internet usage in Oman and educating people about its reach and various utilities, Barwani says that the government and Information and Telecommunication Authority (ITA) have to involve themselves in this area. "A lot has to be done. ITA has to conduct some seminars that are related to online business, advertising and explain what the benefits are. That is lacking but I am sure it is in the pipeline."

Mehta of Suhail Bahwan Group adds, "For companies who want to grow and expand, the Internet must be an important part of their marketing strategy and media mix. The medium is young and ever improving. Oman has just joined the list of countries that offer ePayment Gateways and this will give a boost to Omani companies to take full advantage and go online."

The number of Internet subscribers in the sultanate rose to 1,15,710 individual Internet subscriber accounts by the end of September 2008, according to Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (TRA) statistics. An ITA official points out that an important factor to bear in mind is that in many cases there are multiple users using a single subscriber line (as in the case of subscriptions of businesses, academic institutions and Internet cafes normally). A large number of people use their office line for accessing the Internet.

A similar situation exists in academic institutions, cyber cafes and even in household subscriber connections. So although the number of subscriptions is not very high, there are far more Internet users in Oman than the figures suggest, she says. The ITA's reassurance on the user pattern on subscriber accounts should be a comforting thought to all those worried about the reach of the Internet in Oman. Case studies have proved the scope of online branding and it has done wonders for companies elsewhere to successfully transcend geographical boundaries.

Brand managers and admen in the sultanate are just waiting for some loose ends to be tied up with concerted efforts from the government so that ebranding takes off on that magical journey with just a click of a mouse.
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The spin
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