UAE social media influencers call for fairer deals and more transparency
Leading social media influencers and bloggers have hit out at companies across the UAE for not valuing the services and expertise they provide.
Individuals claimed their profession was at times underappreciated in the Emirates and was certainly often undervalued.
Their comments were met with scorn by a number of bloggers, who argued their hard work was critical to the success of many firms operating in the region.
“There is so much negativity about bloggers which is unfair,” said Shirin Van Dort, a lifestyle blogger with more than 50,000 followers on Instagram.
“Nobody wants to pay bloggers in Dubai. They want you to do the work for free and that is a bad mentality that has to change.
“I totally disagree with how people are trashing bloggers and influencers. It is not just about posting on Instagram, we have to hire professional photographers and sometimes pay for someone to edit the videos we create.”
Ms Van Dort, 29, from Uzbekistan, said she had been blogging for two years but could not afford to undertake the role full-time because companies often refused to pay her for her services.
She also criticised the cost of new licences required by social media influencers that were introduced by the National Media Council earlier this year.
The legislation requires any influencer who is paid for their content to have a trade licence and an e-media licence costing a combined Dh30,000.
“We won’t be able to afford to buy the licence until companies start paying us for our services,” Ms Van Dort said.
“The only people who can afford to buy the licence are the rich who have money to throw away.
“There needs to be more scrutiny about who can qualify for the licence.”
One blogger who has seen both sides of the debate is Laura Rooney, from Northern Ireland.
She has her own Hungry Girl Dubai persona on social media, while also working as a PR manager.
Her main gripe was the number of people on social media who claimed to be bloggers but who had actually bought their followers.
“The issue that we all face as an influencer, social media user or brand is the air of secrecy and blatant falsification of numbers that has resulted in the whole lot of us being tarred with the 'one click buys 100k followers' brush,” said the 33-year-old.
“The fact is anyone can be a perceived influencer overnight with followers, likes, comments and video views easily available to purchase. With just one click you can give Kim Kardashian a run for her money.”
As social media users become more savvy it was critical for bloggers to act transparently, Ms Rooney warned.
“The majority of users know when someone is being paid to promote something, and people feel duped when this isn't stated,” she said.
“The reality is some influencers are now making a lot of money using social media and their followers know this — it's not a reason to unfollow, as long as they are transparent, genuine and true to the brand.”
Sana Chikhalia, who has more than 73,000 followers on Instagram as well as her own website, welcomed the introduction of the licence.
“It has helped to regulate the market and now there is no problem receiving money for posts,” she said.
“It has helped to identify who the good bloggers are. Before the licence was introduced there was an oversupply of people calling themselves bloggers.
“Just because you eat in a certain restaurant or stay in certain hotels doesn’t make you qualified to be a blogger.”
Ms Chikhalia also claimed it was easy to spot bloggers who were genuine compared to those who are simply out to get something for free.
“If someone has only been blogging for a few months but has 500,000 followers it is suspicious,” said the 27-year-old Indian national.
“It is easy for PR companies to spot it. If most of your followers are from all over the world, it is not as valuable as a blogger who has less followers but they come from this region.”
Currently in the UAE, there are a number of agencies prepared to invest in the abilities of bloggers, even going as far as paying for their licence.
Aaron Brooks is the co-founder of Dubai-based firm Vamp that represents hundreds of bloggers in the region.
“I disagree that just anyone can become an influencer with millions of followers and think people are too quick to discredit influencers,” he said.
“It takes time, effort and talent. They create content which is often styled, photographed and written by them alone and earn followers over time due to the quality of what they produce.
“If a brand wants to access these hard-earned followings and benefit from them, then they should absolutely have to pay.”
One blogger on Vamp’s books is Courtney Brandt, from the USA, who has more than 20,000 Instagram followers and her own website which she uses to blog about food.
She argued part of the problem was caused by PR companies sending out blanket invites to bloggers, regardless of their expertise.
“I say no to about 80 per cent of the invites I receive,” she said. “I have to go to these places and take photos, edit photos and write articles between 500-1000 words long so I have to ask myself is it a good fit for my brand.
“I have to ask myself how much is my time worth?”
Ms Brandt also agreed it was critical that bloggers were transparent when endorsing products.
“I personally have not done a review for money but if you do a review for money then of course you are going to be biased,” she said.
“I’ve had been invited to cover events where the experience was not so good,” said the 38-year-old.
“In those cases I gave feedback directly to the PR companies that invited me and didn’t post about them.
“But if I am invited to an event the first thing I post is ‘#invited’ to make my followers aware. You have to show full disclosure.”
Lavina Israni, who has more than 63,000 followers on Instagram, said she believed the introduction of a licence had levelled the playing field for genuine influencers.
“Before the licence was introduced every third person was running around calling themselves a blogger and brands were confused about who they should invest their money in,” she said.
“It was hard to see who were the legitimate bloggers and who was just trying to get something for free.”
The 26-year-old also said she understood why some of her colleagues felt frustrated about being offered barter deals in exchange for their services.
“It is up them if they accept the offers or not,” she said. “In some cases the value of what you are being offered is greater than what you might have been paid.”
She was also dubious about bloggers who said the licence fee was too high.
“It is like any other business. You have to decide if you are going to be able to get a return of investment for your money,” she said.
“The licence has helped change the perception of bloggers. Previously some people might have thought we were divas but if you are prepared to invest in the licence it shows you mean business and brands are more likely to want to work with you."