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Is Facebook losing ground to Twitter in Saudi Arabia?

Facebook needs no introductions; both its brand and its platform are ubiquitous, influencing the daily lives of people here in our region just as it has done for people around the world. Already 10 years old, Facebook didn’t start gaining traction across the MENA region until three years in, around 2007. In 2012, with the Arab Spring raging through the region, Facebook witnessed its floodgates open with millions of youths attracted to its community pages, as much because it was an escape from the older generations as it was a staging ground for rebellion against local governments. In that year alone, Facebook witnessed its MENA audience almost double in size and has never looked back since.

Or has it? Fast forward two short years ahead to 2014 and much has been made in the press regarding Facebook user churn (particularly among younger demographics), with some countries becoming net loss contributors (i.e. USA) to their global billion-plus user base. This has helped spur Mark Zuckerberg’s recent spending spree, acquiring both Instagram and Whatsapp, and in the process dividing industry experts as to its future prospects. Such is the finicky world of Internet brands and the dynamic nature of technology. As we are constantly heading into unchartered waters, no one truly can be sure of the future.

It is against this backdrop that looking at our recent data on Facebook and Twitter usage in Saudi Arabia gave us some food for thought. Neither brand formally reveals active user numbers; such data is off-limits even in their respective APIs. Like Google, they prefer to speak in relative growth terms rather than absolute numbers.  That is one of the reasons that in 2008, we established our own continuous web tracker (or CWeb), designed to survey population-representative sample groups from six countries in MENA, asking people about their Internet habits, activities and opinions. CWeb provides our planners with (among other things) valuable trend data that can ensure they keep their clients ahead of the curve and identify digital opportunities early on in the cycle.

The chart above may just be one of those early trends. This year (2014) marks the first time since we began tracking both brands that more respondents in the Kingdom are claiming visits to Twitter over Facebook, with the latter looking somewhat in decline over the past few months. I must stress that CWeb research is based on claimed behavior, complete with all the limitations that such respondent level data provides. However, this trend seems to coincide with Twitter’s claims that Saudi Arabia is one of their highest (if not the highest) penetration markets in the world. If there is some truth to this claim, what could be explaining Twitter’s recent popularity in the Kingdom?

  • The undisputed second screen
    TV consumption in the Kingdom is as popular as ever and it only seems to be growing. Saudi Arabia is one of the most pronounced multi-screen markets, with over 76% of 15-29 year olds engaging with a second or even third screen while watching TV. We already know that Twitter is one of the most popular second screen activities and no other brand has capitalized on extending “TV moments” engagement better than Twitter.
  •  Smartphone usage
    Saudi Arabia has one of the highest smartphone penetration rates in the world. Twitter is primarily accessed through smartphones, and CWeb also tells us that 91% of Saudi smartphone respondents access Twitter once or more per day – the most frequent activity of all in the survey and higher than any other GCC country.
  • Relative anonymity
    Anyone who knows social media usage in Saudi Arabia knows that there is a strong prevalence of people preferring to interact online in relative anonymity. It is a cultural norm, and Twitter enables such anonymity. The full value of Facebook, in comparison, comes with sharing one’s true identity and keeping in touch with family and friends from the “real” world.
  • Emergence of Instagram
    Instagram has pretty much exploded over the past year and the Kingdom is no exception. CWeb also gives us some indication that the younger Saudi users are accessing Facebook less compared to a year ago. Instagram is by no means only for youths as it attracts users of all ages, but you can see noticeable behavioral changes across the younger demographics.

It is worth stating again that this is a possible trend that we’re witnessing, and in all honesty, there is not enough data available to be conclusive. However, that is not the point. What is important to note is that one year (or even six months) can feel like a lifetime in the digital space, and as the above shows, MENA is no more immune from change than other parts of the world. We must always keep track of the latest audience trends and insights, and challenge our assumptions if we are to help brands stay at the cutting edge of the digital space.