Instagram as your website: What we learn from the Middle East

In Bahrain and beyond, entrepreneurs and small business owners are seeing the potential from the mass usage of Instagram.
3 May 2018

Instagram is slowly becoming an alternative business directory in the Middle East. Source: Shutterstock

When it comes to social media as a business tool, there are interesting lessons to be learned from across the world.

Take Bahrain, for example. It may not spring to mind when you think of countries who are leading the way in social media and e-commerce innovation – but I had an amazing few days there last week on business speaking.

Wherever I go in the world, I am always fascinated by the way in which social media is utilized sometimes quite differently by different cultures. Much of this comes from necessity.

For instance, in Japan, where LinkedIn never became popular, Facebook has become the social network for professionals. I receive much business communication and even quotation requests through Facebook Messenger with Japanese businesses.

Throughout Asia, all of the native and popular social networks there surpass exponentially the userbase of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and even Instagram combined in each of these countries.

I’m speaking of the social networks of the future, specifically LINE (Japan), Kakao Talk (Korea), and, of course, WeChat (China).

What I did not expect was to find out how fundamentally different Instagram is used in Bahrain, and, from what I hear, much of the Middle East.

While there are many success stories of e-commerce companies which have targeted young and often female demographics and found success on Instagram in some parts of the world, they pale in comparison with the seemingly widespread success of physical or virtual local stores from many industries on Instagram in the Middle East.

I did not have time to visit some of these stores or interview many people to get enough data to prove my point, but every attendee to my social media marketing workshop said the same thing: in Bahrain, if you do not have an Instagram account, you are an anonymous entity.

The Instagram account, where people prefer the simple engagement and direct message capabilities, goes hand in hand with the widespread popularity of WhatsApp there for mass messaging and communication.

Sure, Instagram is growing in popularity in much of the world, so I can see, in countries where the Asian apps mentioned above do not exist, that Instagram might emerge as the most popular social network.

What I did not expect was the amount of I-commerce (Instagram-commerce) being conducted every day there, bypassing websites.

I was in Manama, the capital and largest city in Bahrain, albeit with a finite population and size, but the same example could be used in many cities.

Basically, entrepreneurs and small business owners are seeing the potential from the mass usage of Instagram and are literally opening up shop on the platform. These are mainly local “mom and pop”-type businesses, some with a storefront and others being run from people’s homes.

The idea is to simply publish photos of your products and tell people they can call you on WhatsApp at a specific number and ask for a specific product – often given a number in the photo – after which the product is delivered directly to the home and money paid.

I heard there was a company working on a cryptocurrency that would make this financial transaction even simpler.

In Bahrain, Instagram is the phone directory and WhatsApp is the telephone.

When you want to buy something – a cake from a bakery, photo supplies from a secondhand shop, that special article of clothing from a boutique – you go to their Instagram page, which has become a catalog of their goods, and you follow instructions to order.

Instagram is working on shoppable images for all, but sometimes technology is not the answer for the needs of the consumer. Perhaps there is an important lesson here that local businesses can learn from Bahrain and the Middle East and implement in their own locale.