Microsoft to fit portal to local users

UAE one of first countries to see customised version

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The UAE will be one of the first countries to see a customised version of the MSN Arabia website, the Middle Eastern Web portal owned by Microsoft, as the company rolls out new features to attract more of the region's online advertising dollars. Microsoft and MSN Arabia representatives will meet today with advertisers to discuss their plans as well as introduce a new advertising concept called "advertainment" that will attempt to involve users in marketing campaigns, said Mohammed el Sayad, the general manager of MSN Arabia.

The Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be the first to get the localised portals, with Lebanon, Bahrain and Qatar to follow, Mr el Sayad said. "There are some countries that make sense to have stand-alone versions because of the internet penetration, the amount of users and the amount of content we can generate from those countries," he said. The advertainment concept will attempt to integrate social media services such as Facebook and Twitter to share content that is tied to marketing campaigns.

"I don't think advertising will be the same any more," he said. "We want users to be entertained and involved at the same time ? for example, in gaming, we'll give users a way to play with the brand." Content on the portal will be generated through deals it has with press agencies such as the Agence France-Presse and user-generated content, Mr el Sayad said. It also aims to leverage its strong digital portfolio offerings such as Hotmail and Messenger with its MSN Arabia brand.

About 28 million internet users in the region use a Hotmail account for e-mail and almost 21 million are Messenger users, he said. MSN Arabia's strategy to create localised versions of a portal takes a page from the playbook of its main rival, Yahoo Maktoob. This month, Rich Riley, the senior vice president of Yahoo's European, Middle East and African regions, said the online giant would customise core features of its websites for the Arab world. But MSN Arabia faces a challenge. The website has about 777,000 daily unique visitors from the region, lagging its rival Yahoo Maktoob with 1.1 million hits a day, figures from Nielsen Online show. Regional figures for Google were not available.

Mr el Sayad welcomes the Yahoo Maktoob competition and said more players would help grow the market for everyone. Online advertising is expected to more than triple its share of the ad sector in the region from 4 per cent last year to 13.4 per cent by 2014, according to recent research by the consultancy Booz and Company. The sector was worth about US$90 million (Dh330.5m) last year in the region, up from $65m in 2008. "We've been there since it all started," Mr el Sayad said.

"We know the numbers that are out there. "We know each and every person at every ad agency. We still like to think that we're the preferred network when it comes to advertising." MSN Arabia is a joint venture with LINKdotNET, the internet services subsidiary of Orascom Telecom, and the Microsoft Network.