Devoted UAE residents finding ways to monetise their popular Facebook groups

Facebook community groups in the UAE, such as Abu Dhabi Q&A and British Mums Dubai, are now monetising their popular social media content through advertising - but there are challenges along the way.

Running five Facebook community groups is intensely time-consuming for Abu Dhabi resident Freya Jaffar. And what used to be a seven day-a-week hobby for the British-Pakistani mum-of-four has now expanded into a business operation.

Ms Jaffar spends up to 18 hours a day online running Abu Dhabi Q&A (36,000 members), Abu Dhabi Property (21,900 members), Middle Eastern Ladies Lifestyle (5,600 members), and two new groups: Abu Dhabi Classifieds (1,600 members) and Flaunt Your Recipe (250 members).

Ms Jaffar moved to Abu Dhabi with her family in 2008, setting up her most successful group, Abu Dhabi Q&A, four years later as a way for residents to share information.

“I was finding that nothing online was accurate – companies wouldn’t have websites, phone numbers wouldn’t work, and there was no citizens advice bureau to give you a solid answer,” she says. “I thought I’d create a little group among the people I knew in Abu Dhabi, and it just took off from there.”

Residents started turning to Abu Dhabi Q&A when they needed answers to questions such as where to register your car or simply the best hairdressers in town.

The group has grown significantly in the past 18 months, and Ms Jaffar says she now gets about 3,500 membership requests a month, about half of which she accepts. “The others either seem fake or are in an­other country,” she says.

Then six months ago she turned the community group into a business after someone referred to her as a “social media influencer” at a speaking event.

“I had no idea that’s what I was, because I’m not trained in communications,” she says. “I realised that I could have a measured amount of advertising that pays for the time I devote.”

Since licensing her business, Ms Jaffar is now contacted by about three companies a day, although she allows a maximum of two adverts a week on the group. “Anything more than that disturbs the model,” she says. “It’s still 80 per cent Abu Dhabi Q&A. The integrity of the group is more important for me than making money.” Ms Jaffar also started up Dubai Q&A, which at 1,383 members has failed to gather the momentum of its Abu Dhabi counterpart.

Nicholla Henderson Hall, a Briton who runs the social media marketing agency Hendall Digital, says Dubai has a very different social media crowd to the capital. “Abu Dhabi is a smaller community and everything is within a sphere of reference, whereas in Dubai you have ­micro-communities such as Arabian Ranches, Silicon Oasis and Jumeirah, and that’s reflected on social media. The smaller, more intimate groups – what I call the suburb groups – are more successful in Dubai.”

One of those Dubai-based groups currently swelling in numbers is British Mums Dubai, with 9,500 members. Founder Jemma Schilbach launched the sister site six months ago, which relies on advertising and sponsored content to fund the website, editorial content and events.

“We saw an urgent need to make information for our community more accessible as we have almost a million activities a year in our Facebook group alone, and therefore information was disappearing too quickly,” says Ms Schilbach.

But turning a community page into a business comes with its challenges.

Ms Henderson Hall also runs the 45,000 member-strong Facebook group Muscat – Where Can I find, which she set up while living in Oman six years ago. She charges Dh1,000 a week to advertise on the group, but says it hasn’t been an easy model to monetise. “Businesses want to advertise for free, or to pay a very minimal fee to use the space. Plus when the audience don’t engage with the promotion, they feel that it’s our fault.”

Another hurdle, she says, is getting businesses to pay up. “We now don’t let businesses promote until payment has been received,” she adds.

As the interest in social media marketing grows, Ms Jaffar and Ms Henderson-Hall have both been invited to events to advise others.“People want to know how to grow their own groups,” says Ms Henderson-Hall. “You need to create that line of trust and authenticity, and a space where you can communicate openly. Some people are very natural at that, but for others it takes more time and they need to learn that skill set.”

Ms Henderson Hall and Ms Jaffar held their own networking event this month at the Marriott Hotel Al Forsan in Abu Dhabi, charging Dh200 a ticket. About 40 turned up, and another event is planned for May.

But not all Facebook influencers have successfully monetised their group. American Gina Dillon runs Freecycle Abu Dhabi, Khalifa City Community, UAE Housemaids and Abu Dhabi Kids; they have a combined membership of 68,000 people. In November 2015, she and a partner purchased an annual business licence for Dh30,000 to run community events.

“What I wanted to accomplish from a social enterprise was events that furthered the mission of my groups, and provided a stipend for my efforts,” she explains. “But I found the cost prohibitive. In the end, I decided my efforts were philanthropic.”

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