Think You Have a Tough Sell?

Will Al-Jazeera’s new Web site be an opportunity for marketers to achieve global reach, or is it just too hot to handle?

For news media, war is a branding opportunity par excellence. The tiny, Qatar-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera, virtually unknown in the West 18 months ago, hopes to achieve the level of global brand equity Time magazine gained from WWII and CNN achieved with its Gulf War coverage.

For the first time, the Internet is a frontline weapon in this fiercely competitive media arena.

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, CNN quickly launched CNNArabic.com. Plans for over half a dozen new Arab-language news channels, aimed at competing directly with Al-Jazeera’s popular broadcasts, are in the works. They are backed by investors and news organizations in Algeria, Britain, Abu Dhabi, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Dubai. Al-Jazeera itself, which became a household word overnight in the West after airing exclusive footage of Osama bin Laden, intends to launch a global, English-language station by this time next year. The English Web site, scheduled to go live this month, will pave the way.

Privately funded by the Emir of Qatar, Al-Jazeera rapidly became the most popular (and is the only independent) TV news source in the Arab world. It also operates a year-old Arabic Web site. This has not translated into ad revenues
— and the market slump isn’t to blame. Alleging a pro-Israel bias, Saudi Arabia spearheaded an ad boycott. That government is exerting pressure on businesses and neighboring states to comply. The U.S. government planned an on-air PR campaign, then pulled back, calling Al-Jazeera “inflammatory.” (The U.S. now plans its own Arab-language station. The State Department already runs a Web site in Arabic.)

Al-Jazeera is bleeding $30 million annually. The organization wants to extend its journalistic reach and influence globally — and to stay afloat.

The planned English-language site is evidence a Web presence is a mandatory component for branding and acceptance of traditional media. But can Al-Jazeera be viable as an ad vehicle, even if a war does drive a stratospheric number of users to its URL?

“An English site has one important aspect. It will attract English speakers,” says Alex Saout, who handles the account for U.S. sales rep Allied Media. Saout infers Al-Jazeera’s reach into Europe and Asia will be considerably deeper in English than it currently is in Arabic. A media kit highlighting demographics (39 percent of Al-Jazeera.net visitors come from the U.S.) is the only English language component of the current site.

“We do realize this isn’t necessarily a short-term or medium-term money-making operation. It’s much more about reaching a huge niche audience we have decided and realized needs to be reached,” Joanne Tucker, the new site’s managing editor, told Reuters.

Al-Jazeera is taking reach, along with corporate image making, very seriously. Its goal is financial independence. A new on-air look debuted in November. Marketing Director Ali Mohammed Kamal announced a line of Al-Jazeera logoware: T-shirts, watches, and cosmetics with the teardrop logo will soon go on sale.

Plans are as ambitious as they are daunting. As a source of information, Al-Jazeera is something journalists love to love, but (it seems) anyone with a partisan view of the Middle East situation loves to hate. Arab countries have ousted Al-Jazeera correspondents, alleging sympathy for Israel. In the West, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Tony Blair have blasted the network’s Taliban coverage.

“We wouldn’t touch it for any of our clients with a 10-foot pole!” exclaimed David Cohen, SVP and interactive media director at Universal McCann Interactive, when I asked if he’d recommend Al-Jazeera. Cohen questions the organization’s reputation, its credibility, and the politically volatile atmosphere surrounding the brand. “My sense is it’s the online extension of an offline brand. People are using the Internet more and more for research,” Cohen continued, nixing the site as a marketing opportunity.

“An English Web site is something they need to make headway in the West. They need to influence people who read English, not Arabic,” says Osama Siblani, The Arab American News publisher. But Siblani isn’t optimistic about the site’s revenue potential either. “You cannot please people in general. Arabs are even more difficult, because there’s so much dissention between groups: Iraqis, Palestinians, Lebanese. I’ve lost advertising and subscriptions because of this. The difference between me and Al-Jazeera is that they have the Emir of Qatar behind them. I don’t believe he’s looking to make a buck. He’s collecting power in the media, which far exceeds any monetary gain.”

“I see the site as a very smart, slow transition into our market,” opines Ray Hanania. The veteran journalist and co-founder of the Arab American Journalists Association says, “Our society is hungry for what they’re going to give us. They’ll learn there are better ways to package news.” Hanania now pens a syndicated column, thanks to increased American demand for an Arab perspective. “The site is a very smart, slow transition into our market. People are going to say their inability to get ads is politics. Well, look at Salon.com.”

Leading news sites already have special sections and branding elements in place to cover the Iraq conflict. If the situation escalates into war, the media will wage a tremendous battle. In such a politically and emotionally charged atmosphere, will reach and traffic alone determine who wins?

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