Former BBC Arabic chief Hosam El Sokkari tells Digital Broadcast about his new role at Yahoo! Maktoob and reveals how the Middle East’s first internet giant plans to open up access to online content.
The initial reaction to the news that Hosam El Sokkari was to leave his post as chief of BBC Arabic to join the Yahoo! Maktoob in April of this year was largely one of surprise.
Afterall, BBC Arabic has been broadcasting in the Middle East since 1938. Its reputation in the media world is rivalled by few of its competitors. Yahoo! Maktoob on the other hand has been in existence for one year and when it comes to Arabic content on the internet, is entering uncharted territory.
Despite the obvious disparities between El Sokkari’s current and former employers, he believes there are in fact many similarities in the two roles.
“I spent a long time working for the BBC,” says El Sokkari, head of audience at Yahoo! Maktoob. “Making the switch from working for a public service broadcaster to the commercial sector is certainly a change, but it has given me an opportunity to look at the bigger picture of how content providers work within the Middle East and how Yahoo! Maktoob can add value for its audiences. That is not very different to what I did at the BBC.”
El Sokkari’s tenure at BBC Arabic included several landmark achievements for the service. As the first Arab to hold the network’s top position he oversaw the re-launch of BBC Arabic TV services as well as the overhaul of its online offering and the unification and integration of its content across all media platforms.
As an active proponent of social media platforms in the production of news, it is perhaps no surprise that his next career choice has seen him move exclusively into the digital realm. He is also confident that Yahoo! and Maktoob is well positioned to drive the internet to the next level in the Middle East.
“It’s no coincidence that people used to call Maktoob the Yahoo! of the Middle East,” claims El Sokkari. “The two companies shared a similar vision and an interest in a diverse experience for the audiences, be it through traditional information content like news and sports or through community platforms such as As7ab [friends in Arabic]. Yahoo! also brings with it products like mail and messenger. At the moment there is an ongoing process of consolidation for all of these parts of the business and there will be new experiences added in the future.”
One of the key new features that to be rolled out immediately is a video platform.
“The hope is to have the video platform live in time for Ramadan. There is already a deal in place with Rotana. This will allow the site to offer access to Rotana content on an on demand basis. Ramadan is a month of spiritual activities and also creates a strong interest from our audiences in entertainment.”
El Sokkari also reveals that an agreement is in place with Lebanese broadcaster LBC and a number of other content owners are also in talks to make their content available on the new platform.
“Talks are ongoing with a number of TV channels and content providers. This comes within the context of a bigger experience that is being built for our viewers, it not just about putting something together for Ramadan.”
So what are the company’s plans for monetising this material?
“The content will be offered free. It will be ad-supported but not everything on the platform will have advertising around it. The main objective is to enhance the user experience. Not everything that is done for the audience has to be directly generating money,” says El Sokkari.
Despite the absence of pressure to derive revenues from all of its content, El Sokkari says there are already sponsors and advertisers lined up to work with the company on both its video platform and throughout the Ramadan content as a whole.
The common responses from broadcasters when approached by third-parties to host online content, are ‘why do we need you’ and ‘why should we split our online revenues’.
Yahoo! Maktoob claims that its approach is more altruistic than potential partners may assume.
“There are talks with different parties but it is nothing exclusive. The goal is to develop an open platform, there is no requirement for exclusivity. I have come across instances when I have been talking to partners that have been in doubt as to whether keeping their digital environments would be best or whether they should partner with us. I have to reiterate that its not exclusive. Broadcasters can keep their own platforms and Yahoo! Maktoob will drive traffic to those properties and raise awareness of their existence on the web through our extensive reach in the region. Both parties benefit and more importantly, so will the audience.”
The number of viewers currently reached by the services offered by each is estimated at between 30-35 million per month, making it one of the most important Arabic internet properties.
“The combined reach of Yahoo! and Maktoob represents around 90 per cent of the Arabic speaking internet population. There are people using the Maktoob platforms and those using Yahoo! services such as email. What the company is proposing is beneficial to any partner that would like to give more exposure to its content or would like to raise the awareness of its audience via new online platforms. Some of the big players are very well established in the traditional environments but lots of people don’t know that they even have a digital offering for example,” explains El Sokkari.
This open approach is something that Yahoo! has employed internationally and it will not deviate from this path in its partnership with Maktoob.
“The level of openness is unique compared to the rest of the industry. We are not trying to monopolise these new digital environments. On the contrary we are working together with anyone and everyone to offer a richer [online] experience.
As an example, El Sokkari notes that despite operating its own social media platforms, the group does not shut out its rivals.
“Facebook offers users a very unique experience and this is why if you go to Yahoo! front pages you will see that we are integrating these into our own. People have the ability to use Google mail and integrate it as part of their experience with Yahoo!, for example.”
The technical infrastructure required to operate the video platform is in place with much of the work being carried out internally.
“The technical expertise in Maktoob is unique,” claims El Sokkari. “The way the company has grown in the region, acquiring the knowledge base, the people and the skills, has been extremely unique. It created everything from scratch. It is no coincidence that many of the developers and technical staff that were working for Maktoob are now working in IT developing other properties for Yahoo! not just for Arabic. They are very good developers, designers and savvy engineers.”
Yahoo! Maktoob is now in the process of recruiting staff for its Arabic Audience team with a managing editor and senior editors, producers and journalists for sports, news, business, entertainment and front page content being put in place.
“They will not only be based in Dubai. There will be a presence in other parts of the Middle East, there are already offices in other parts of the region.
“The Middle East is a culturally cohesive region with shared interests in different types of news and other content. There will be a degree of localisation applied to certain markets. What we are planning to do is to offer both experiences through an all-Middle East, Arabic experience across the region and then a targeting approach that would allow users to get the local content that might be of interest to them based on their location.
The site will be intelligent enough to understand what they want, where they are and to provide them the news that would serve them best. The dual approach does not deny them the richness of the content available on the whole of the site.”
As well as acting as a content portal providing news, video, music alongside email and social media, El Sokkari also expects the company to become more engaged from a content production angle.
“There are talks already about live events coverage, whereby a richer, more engaging experience can be developed. Yahoo! Maktoob would also look to co-produce and work with other production houses in the region to create something that would work on a number of platforms, similar to some of the products that I have created for the BBC in the past. It widens the reach and it gives people more of an integrated and cohesive feeling of media. The dichotomy that people see between traditional and digital media is in my view non-existent.”
As part of this approach the company is already working on a strategy to exploit the mobile market and the penetration levels that the platform enjoys throughout the Middle East.
“There are already discussions with the telcos and the company enjoys a longstanding relationship with a number of them. Yahoo! sometimes powers their websites with products such as messanger as well as content,” says El Sokkari.
Broadband penetration is critical to the level of success that Yahoo! Maktoob can enjoy given that it limits the number of potential customers for rich media applications.
“I think the market is changing and there is a lot of investment in different parts of the region to improve the infrastructure to allow for a richer broadband experience. There is already a lot if interest in video consumption online in different parts of the region,” says El Sokkari.
Independence from platforms, technology and the complex issues of rights and licensing lies the main focus, according to El Sokkari.
“It’s about audience, audience, audience. The one-way communication channel and the monopoly that the media has had on the tools of information is no longer there. There is a unique opportunity to engage with people. Yahoo! Maktoob is not doing this for the sake of making platforms or because it like the internet. It is not really about the platform or the method of distribution, its about what they consume and how.”