Omar Koudsi: Creating relevant Arabic content is Jeeran's recipe for success

mediaME speaks to Omar Koudsi, co-founder of Omar shares his views on Jeeran's "Reviews & Places" business strategy, growth of user-generated content in the MENA region, digital media expenditures and much more.

Q. As one of the first Arab online communities, you have witnessed the development of the Arab Internet landscape over the past decade. Tell us about your journey as a portal, and how you got to where you are today.

My business partner and I started developing websites during our university years. Jeeran emerged and we tried several business ideas as part of it. Some of them were more successful than others.
We started as a blog network which was being used, but not by enough people. Our work wasn't reaching too many people and we were not seeing growth rates that were satisfying. So we asked ourselves what we could do that would be unique to our site, and how it would differ from the other platforms that had been developed. So we thought of this 'reviews and places' concept and thought it would be useful in the Arab World. 
This next evolution of Jeeran aims to create something relevant to our community. This is where the concept came from. The search for something useful and relevant to our society made us develop the new
We knew it would be a challenge to develop the site. It was not something that could be developed by a programmer who lived thousands of miles away. It took a lot of time and effort, but we were drawn to the challenge because it meant we were really going to create something of relevance.  
We agreed on what the main concept would be, and decided we would create a site that would list places and services, and would allow people to review them. The concept was to create a place where you people could review places in a meaningful manner. We started in Amman, Jordan, and have since rolled out in nine other cities. 
This concept has been successful from the get-go because people saw the value in it. The value is within the framework of the site. We help people find what they are looking for, whether it be a restaurant, a lawyer, a real estate agent, or a car dealership. Other people's reviews are open to the public, and help people determine what businesses to interact with. 
Q. Tell us about the growth you are seeing in user-generated local content in the MENA region. Are we still suffering from a low percentage of Arabic content on the Internet?
The situation is much better percentage-wise when compared to 3 years ago, thanks to mobile and social media. The biggest change is that people around the world started to consider social media content as user generated content. Usage of Facebook and Twitter in our region is quite strong, so the total is much larger. However, I still think there is a lack of creative, innovative content in Arabic, with the exception of video. 
Q. You have recently hired a specialized media representative to handle all your advertising sales. Tell us more about the thinking behind this decision.
We are very happy with our decision to outsource our brand advertising to the Choueiri Group. Jeeran has always been a products company and not a media company. Our relationship with Choueiri Group will allow us to focus on products, while they handle the agency world.
Q. Digital media expenditures are growing in the Middle East. What in your opinion are the main challenges or obstacles for faster growth?
What we still lack in this region that is hindering digital spend growth is transparency and being performance driven as opposed to being relationship driven (the relationship between the site and buying agency).
The relationship driven model works for traditional media such as billboards, TV, and radio because it is very hard to measure the returns. However for online, you can measure results and know what you get out of your spend. Unfortunately, I still don't see enough emphasis given to the return on spend for online, but I am confident that is changing.
Q. What is your projection for percentage of growth in online spending in 2012 for the industry as a whole, and for Jeeran specifically?
2012 has had a slow start for many advertising sectors, but I am confident that the numbers will be compensated in the months to come. With the challenging political and economical situation in our part of the world, I think it would be good if we see 20% Year-On-Year growth in the digital world.
Q. Where does Jeeran go from here in terms of expansion and technological developments?
We have just released iPhone and Android applications. Through the applications, one is provided with a list of places, whether it be restaurants, clinics or any other service-providers. In addition, one has access to the places' telephone numbers and directions through Google maps. The results will appear according to your priorities and based on reviews made by the city’s residents. The applications are available free of charge.
Q. What, in your opinion, is Jeeran’s legacy as such a long term player in the digital media scene, and what advice do you have for entrepreneurs?
I would say my advice to digital media entrepreneurs is to never give up. I would advise them to not go for the easy solutions. Find something you feel passionate about and something you feel is of relevance, and really give it your best shot. It might take you several years to achieve your goals. It took us close to ten years to establish our business, but we never gave up and it paid off.