While the media played a crucial role in information dissemination during the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry wasn’t spared from the effects of the crisis. According to reports, live events were halted, advertisement spending was reduced, and the print media couldn’t distribute its physical materials due to the readers’ concerns about virus transmission.
But for the Emirati state-owned Abu Dhabi Media (ADM), the challenges still paved the way for breakthroughs and opportunities. The ADM rolled out a renovation plan that focuses on digitization. It allowed the media institution to minimize the damages of the crisis and take advantage of emerging opportunities.
Three ADM outlets (Al-Ittihad newspaper, Abu Dhabi TV channel and Abu Dhabi radio station) were established back in 1969, and they were joined by more media platforms and attached to different entities until the ADM–as it exists today–was established in 2007.
Under Law 13 for that year, the company was established as a joint-stock company with 100m AED in capital worth, initially including nine various platforms. Today, the company has at least 22 traditional and online brands to its name.
In February 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic started to weigh on the country, ADM announced its transition to digital content. While this may seem like a result of the pandemic, the renovation plan has its roots in the company’s 2007 establishing law, which recognizes digital content as an important domain for ADM to pursue. This reflects on digital-first content being one of the value pillars that the company is holding to. Furthermore, the plan was driven by one the organization’s first strategic priority: to maintain financial stability through “efficient finance and resource management and diversified revenue streams.”
Digital transformation has been inevitable for ADM, and the pandemic accelerated it. This is generally true due to the advancement of media technologies and also true in a country that has the highest internet penetration percentage globally. Ninety nine percent of UAE’s population use the internet while only 22% read offline newspapers, according to Northwestern University in Qatar’s Media Use in the Middle East 2019 survey.
The main strategies in ADM’s digitalization plan are:
- Rebranding to digital: ADM introduced rebranding methods to all of its affiliated channels, stations, newspaper and magazines, to recalibrate their orientation towards the digital horizon.
- Enhancing digital presence: A part of the rebranding was to remodel all of the affiliated outlet websites to be more dynamic, mainly through taking care of user experience (UX) and user interface (UI).
- Boosting digital content: This enhancement allowed expansion in digital-first content. The veteran Al-Ittihad newspaper started offering audio-visual content, including live streams on social media. The women’s Zahrat Al-Khaleeg magazine started introducing interactive content with extra men-engaging conversations. Meanwhile, Maged’s children magazine had its whole parallel virtual universe established. The digital-based platform Muhtawa also released more than 1,000 videos over the following months.
- Expanding Video on Demand (VoD): Video content was also available to be watched on demand over the internet. This was offered through the enhanced websites as well as through the bunch of mobile applications that ADM continued to develop. It made sure the applications are available on all mobile operating systems, mainly Android and iOS.
- Taking advantage of SVoD: ADM took advantage of audience readiness to pay subscriptions for content through some of its mobile applications (like UFC Arabia). It also widened its partnership with STARZPLAY, one of the most famous SVoD platforms in the GCC, to premiere its original productions.
- Extending through OTT technologies: ADM made sure that more of its content is compatible to consume through technologies like Press Reader and Amazon Alexa as well as fostering its presence on Apple TV and Android TV platforms.
- Growing library: To meet the accumulating demand due to the increasing audience consumption, ADM added 60 different titles across its platforms.
- Meeting the growing interest in news: A considerable portion of the new titles was news and information in nature to help the audience make sense of what is going on in the COVID-induced reality.
- Reducing the cost of print: The company turned its magazines Zahrat Al-Khaleeg and Maged to monthly periodicals. This led to reduced costs and more digital offerings and extensive content.
The real test for ADM’s plan came in Ramadan in April and May 2020. The Islamic holy month is when media outlets across the MENA region, especially TV channels, get surging consumption. This is a pattern that peaks during the curfewed Ramadan.
For that month, ADM reported a 20% increase in Abu Dhabi TV’s viewership rates across the UAE and 90% across the neighboring Saudi Arabia, compared to Ramadan 2019. The company described the figures as “exceptional” percentages. The recently enhanced OTT channels gathered 7.25m views, with 190,000 new downloads for the channel’s mobile application.
Other published results for the longer period following the plan’s launch included a 500% year on year hike in the number of views for Muhtawa digital platform during the first three quarters of the pandemic year and 1,500% increase in the number of its followers.
Key business lessons
Here are the principles that made ADM’s digital transformation journey possible and could be adopted by businesses in any industry.
- An open-look strategy: ADM could have struggled more if it didn’t consider digital transformation in its strategic priorities. Anticipating what the future may hold when formulating a business strategy better prepares companies for any event.
- Flexibility: Recalibrating one’s systems towards the digital world required a considerable level of flexibility from ADM. This helps businesses build resilience and capability of working around challenges and taking advantage of opportunities.
- Agility: ADM took the courageous leap in the early stage of the pandemic when the whole world was still trying to make sense of the disaster. This quick decision making and implementation saves the business a chain of losses and opens breakthroughs for possible gains.
- Courage for pioneership: Both flexibility and agility require courage, but ADM also proved a courage for pioneership as they jumped into unfamiliar territories. They created a parallel virtual universe for a magazine that has lived on paper for decades and betted on SVoD services, which remain rare in the MENA region. This kind of courage is about accepting that hard questions cannot be met with easy answers.
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