Digital transformation, who dis? By Netizency’s Ala Shashaa and Carlos Estrada-Ruiz

Netizency’s senior data analytics manager Ala Shashaa and digital analyst Carlos Estrada-Ruiz analyse who is talking about digital transformation, what they are saying and what it all means.

What are the first thoughts you get when you hear the term ‘digital transformation’? Probably highly specialised virtual programs, the sort that you need a team of computer scientists to operate and that look like a black screen running indecipherable code. Or maybe you picture state-of-the-art, expensive hardware – sensors, motion detectors, even lasers. The idea of digital transformation has been used so many times in so many different, even contradictory, contexts that we are at risk of losing track of its meaning.

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So we set out to find out what it means for the community in MENA through a deep dive into our own digital sphere. After looking at all publicly accessible conversations as well as traditional media outlets, our research uncovered a total of 175,000 online public mentions between January 2019 and July 2021 with terms associated with ‘digital transformation’. The sheer mention volume is huge, marking a significant growth rate of 286 per cent compared with the previous period. If this could tell you only one thing it is that this buzzword is worth all the buzz and is here to stay.

Events, projects, and more events

‘Digital transformation’ has been slowly but surely gaining popularity even during the initial part of our analysis. The first peak was spotted in October 2019 and was largely driven by the hype around #GITEXTechWeek, with several companies showcasing their digital transformation projects. The spike in mentions in February 2020 is largely attributed to the concept of smart cities, from Dubai introducing Smart Dubai, to Saudi Arabia hosting the Smart Cities Summit & Expo, and finally Qatar launching its TASMU Smart Qatar Programme – all of which indicates the region’s growing recognition of digital transformation as the key to unlocking prosperity.

Additionally, and with the downside of the pandemic settling in, the third peak during July 2020 pertained to the evolution of digital transformation technologies in the health sector. The final and most recent spike in mentions, in June 2021, was related to awards and initiatives such as HH Sheikh Mohammed’s launch of Dubai Digital Authority to digitise life in Dubai.

Who drives the conversation?

Looking at the conversation trends reveals that the GCC (with the UAE taking the highest share of voice of 41 per cent) is the main driver of the digital transformation conversation in MENA.

As for organisations, it comes as no surprise to see that Microsoft is leading the discussion, with Huawei, Google, SAP SE, Oracle Corporation and IBM coming next as the main industry organisation leaders.

Even the digital sphere has feelings, too

Due to the nature of the content, the conversation is predominantly neutral, which means there are neither positive nor negative feelings expressed in those mentions. Albeit minimal at 5 per cent, positive sentiments were about successful case studies and highlights of best practices, along with awards and recognitions. Negative sentiments, on the other hand, were at a rate of 1 per cent, coming from highlights of wrong practices, lack of understanding of the term, automation mistakes and process complexity, as well as cybersecurity.

De-problematising the paradigm

The bulk of the conversation, as we found, is being driven by either tech enthusiasts flexing their technical knowledge or large organisations demonstrating their technological prowess. Naturally, the sources of the discussion are no other than sprawling business centres, like the UAE and KSA. Thus, the conversation shows that ‘digital transformation’ is still associated with specialised processes, complicated tools and high budgets. But are giant companies and wealthy institutions the only organisations able to digitally transform?

The answer is no. Complex doesn’t always mean better – especially given the tighter financial constraints due to the pandemic. Big brands and small businesses alike will benefit if, instead of approaching digital transformation as a problem that needs to be solved, it is conceptualised as a philosophy. And, as a good philosophy, it needs to imbue every business decision you take, not the other way around; you need to start thinking digital-first. Now, if only we had free, easily accessible, and massively-used platforms in which most of our potential customers spend sizable portions of their time.

Social media is not only likes and shares

That is right. As preposterous as it might sound, mainstream social media can be a catalyser of digital transformation for brands and businesses of any size. Long gone are the days when the most you could do on Facebook was to play Pet Society with your friends. For the past few years, the Menlo Park giant has been building an astoundingly robust multi-platform ecosystem that allows businesses to do way more than manage their communication and advertising needs.

WhatsApp is a great example of that work. At the end of last year, and building on the momentum from the pandemic, the Facebook-owned messaging platform overhauled its business capabilities to host and administer, from product catalogues to sales. Websites are great, and your brand should probably already have one (and a decent one), but what is more efficient and simpler than shopping right from a chat?

With Facebook’s tight integration, you can even create ads on Facebook and Instagram that lead your potential customers to your points of sale – whether your WhatsApp for Business or a Facebook mini-site – and control payments and fees directly from Facebook’s unified Account Centre. There, you can also manage private messages from all your brand’s Facebook platforms. Alternative tools exist and are useful, but the foundations do not require any obscure proprietary software or extensive setups.

Location, location, location

Do not let all this talk about the digital sphere make us forget that physical locations still exist and are as important as ever. The pandemic’s social distancing policies did not, paradoxically, eliminate the demand for brick-and-mortar spaces. Instead, they highlighted the need for more accurate geographical information. Snapchat is beginning to show business promise, advertising listings on its Snap Map, but it is Google that is single-handedly leading millions of potential customers to fulfil their consumption demands.

Arguably the most popular map app, Google Maps is the lens through which the world interprets physical space. If your brand is not literally on the map, it doesn’t exist. Yet, existing is not enough. Does your business listing show if you have curbside pickups available? Accurate and up-to-date hours of operation? Has active messaging channels? If your business is inside a crowded mall or in an atmospheric back alley, then augmented reality directions are also at your disposal. You can also upload your product catalogue to Google and integrate your digital listing of your physical location with your physical inventory and services. Who would have thought you could digitally transform and search for cat pictures on the same site?

In conclusion

Contrary to much of the conversation and associations in MENA’s digital space, digital transformation is neither technically obscure nor prohibitively expensive. Brands can, and should, approach it differently and think digital-first. Mainstream social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, messaging apps like WhatsApp, and even search engines like Google can provide comprehensive solutions that do not require more than an email address.