When it comes to social media campaigns, you couldn’t get any bigger – or taller – than this one.
Last September, popular Arab YouTube influencers Anas and Asala Marwah caused an online sensation when the gender of their second child was revealed on the Burj Khalifa.
The duo were joined by family members and fellow social media influencers in Downtown Dubai to watch the 828-metre tower transform to neon blue to announce they were expecting a boy.
All the excitement, tension and jubilation was captured in a slick 15-minute video streamed on the Syrian-Canadian couple’s popular YouTube channel, the Anasala Family, home to nearly 10 million subscribers.
Not only did the video become viral with 28 million views, but it made global headlines with North American and European outlets carrying the news.
The team behind that success is the Alfan Group.
Launched in Dubai Media City in 2017, the digital talent agency has more than 600 content creators on its books, including Saudi Arabian gamer BanderitaX (8.4 million subscribers), Syria’s Yasoo TV (4.1m subscribers) and Saudi comedian Bader Saleh (563,000 subscribers).
Yet, despite such widespread views, the Burj Khalifa stunt attracted criticism as well as applause. Within hours of the YouTube video’s release, the campaign was lambasted for such a display of wealth during a time when many around the world were losing their jobs.
'It was a collaboration'
"I understand what was said and where they are coming from, but that doesn't mean that it is true," Alfan Group's head of growth, Moktar Larbi, tells The National.
“A lot of the time, negative comments come with the territory. So, when we started hearing some of these reactions, we, as a company, were deciding if we should address this or not. In the end, we needed to address this because a lot of what is being said is fake news.”
One of the key misconceptions surrounding the project is the supposed millions of dollars paid by the couple and Alfan Group to rent the Burj Khalifa for the gender reveal.
“This didn’t happen at all. I can tell you that no money was spent on that,” says the strategist. “Instead we worked with the right people to make this happen. It was a pure collaborative and creative project."
The couple first conceived the idea for a high-profile gender reveal in July, and Larbi says it took three months to execute the production.
This included getting the appropriate permits, flying the couple over from the Canadian capital of Ottawa, planning a safe video shoot using a 12-person camera crew, and ensuring the baby’s identity was not revealed prior to the release of the video.
“The reveal was announced on the Burj Khalifa around 9.30pm on September 8 and the video was out at 3.30am the following day,” he says. “We wanted to release it much earlier but the editing took longer than expected.”
Such a delay caused the rather surreal situation in which Dubai residents and tourists saw the landmark turn blue and state "It’s a boy" without any context.
“They probably thought it was just a new graphic,” Larbi says with a chuckle. “It was the invited influencers and crew we were worried about. They had to keep it a secret.”
All about the emotion
Considering the magnitude of the concept, the fact the project was achieved in just over 100 days seems remarkable.
It also shows the power of a good idea.
And that’s the biggest misconception surrounding digital campaigns, Larbi says, in that they are not driven just by data but by good stories.
“We were not interested in a promotional event. We were telling a story about love, family and a new baby coming to life. This is how we pitched the idea to our partners,” he says. “We never approached them from the angle of how they will get millions of views, that would not have worked. It is all always about the story and the emotion that comes with it.”
Online success means keeping it real
That said, the international success of the YouTube video was not only down to the story itself, but also in how it was told.
The scenes leading up to the reveal show why Anas and Asala Marwah have garnered a fan base. From their rapid-fire rapport to their family interactions, they are a typical couple found in any part of the Arab world and diaspora communities.
When signing to Alfan Group in 2018, Larbi encouraged the couple to keep being themselves and not succumb to social media fads.
“This is really the way Arab content creators can go global,” he says. “It is not about trying to copy the behaviours of what is happening overseas. Just be true to yourself and share things we all relate to.”