Corporations in the Middle East are not using social media effectively and see it more as a potential risk than a benefit, a new study has found.

The survey, called Corporate Usage of Social Media in the Middle East, found that eight out of 10 respondents (81.6%) believed that the potential for social media to damage a company’s reputation is one of the biggest challenges for companies to overcome in using social media platforms.

Bayt.com, the Middle East’s largest on-line jobsite, published the survey online and collected data from February 27 – May 13 2012, with 15,758 respondents covering more than 12 countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

The survey results also list the top three challenges for corporations to effectively exploit social media: difficulty in monetizing online presence (11.3%); getting the tone of message correct (11.3%); and keeping up with feedback (10.5%).

Despite these difficulties, about half (51.1%) of respondents said that their companies use social media, but 46.8% said they don’t believe the region’s companies are using the medium effectively.

Alexander McNabb, director of Spot On Public Relations in Dubai told The Media Line the problem was largely one of corporate conservatism in the Middle East.

“We are a little bit old-fashioned in some ways,” McNabb said. “Companies were used to commercial censorship and having it their own way. Now you have two strata of companies, those who accept that the world has changed and try to be competitive, and those who say this shouldn’t be allowed. And it is the latter that will die off.”

Lama Ataya, CMO of Bayt.com, said that their survey found that a major measure of a successful corporate social media page was content that is “informative and educational.”

“Companies looking to implement a successful social media strategy should bear this in mind when launching a new page,” Ataya said in a statement.

The poll found that people expect a social media page to be ‘fun and interesting’ (17.8%); provide customer service and feedback (14.9%); promptly answer all comments and queries (13.2%); and should be updated frequently (11.7%). In terms of the latter, almost a third (29.3%) of respondents stated that their companies update their social media pages once a day.

Social media is viewed as a means of boosting brand exposure, communicating and interacting with customers, promoting new initiatives, recruiting staff and maintaining an online presence.

“Today’s consumer is more engaged then ever before. They are saying we want companies to talk to us and we have more expectations from companies,” McNabb said, adding that his suggestions to clients to engage with customers have sometimes been received with astonishment.

“One company retailer I spoke to was aghast and said ‘You mean talk to them’?” McNabb said. “You can get it wrong. It takes time to build an audience, but it is an opportunity and not a risk management thing. Don’t go to social media to control the conversation, but because you can use it to inform and become a respectful member of the community.”

According to 47.5% of the Bayt.com poll takers, social media activity has been largely successful in driving traffic to their company’s website, with a further 38.2% claiming that they have been successful in converting fans into customers.

Along those lines, four out of ten (43.3%) respondents believe that their company’s social media strategy is ‘excellent’, and half say that their company sounds ‘friendly’ in its online interactions.

More companies handle their social media internally than those who outsource (39.1% versus 35.6%), with most (35.9%) assigning the job to a single individual. A third of those who responded (31.6%)  to the poll did not know who was responsible for their company’s social media accounts.

Companies with a social media presence predominantly appear to involve all of their employees to some degree in their online activities: a collective 62.3% stated that their colleagues are either ‘moderately’ or ‘extremely involved’. Roughly nine out of ten (86.1%) would participate in their company’s social media activities, if given the chance.

Almost half of the respondents (47.6%) currently follow a Middle East corporate social media presence, and six out of ten (60.2%) believe that there will be a dramatic increase in the corporate usage of social media within a year.

But despite employees’ high interest in social media, guidelines for its use are only provided by 40.2% of companies, as opposed to the 45.1% that have not issued any.

The survey found that the most popular social networks for companies to use were Facebook (72.1%) followed by Google+ (10.7%), LinkedIn (9.7%), Twitter (3.4%) and YouTube (2.8%). MySpace and Tumblr are used by 0.3% each.

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