UAE: How passion can become profession using social media – ZAWYA

We speak to UAE-based 20-somethings who have carved out niches with social media as the bulwark — in very different ways. But the common thread in their diverse narratives is how their professional lives and personal likes have intertwined subliminally in the process. And since nothing succeeds like success, let’s get on board with a new career path that charts its trajectory on platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and YouTube.

Noor Ul Ain, 23

Noor is the founder and CEO of Spade Digital, an agency that focuses on social media marketing using TikTok and Instagram Reels. She’s also a food and lifestyle influencer, content creator and blogger/vlogger.

In 2020, right after I graduated, my partner and I started Spade Digital. We decided to specialise in creating TikTok and Reels marketing videos because we realised social media video marketing was going to be the future. As a business, we have successfully worked with over 30-plus clients… recently, my partner and I were invited by Dubai Media City to host a workshop on creating viral content as business owners and content creators.

Other than that, I have my own social media pages and my blog where I create content around food… food, because that’s where my passion lies.

I was planning to study engineering because my family expected me to do something ‘conventional’… but when I joined university, there was so much exposure on the different kinds of courses on offer that I decided to pursue social media marketing as a career… and that’s how my career path was formed.

During the pandemic, we noticed that those businesses that kept promoting themselves on their social media pages survived — and thrived… whereas those who didn’t were affected adversely. Covid — which really made social media part of our lives during the time we were staying at home and following its various platforms — has been a big wakeup call in the way we conduct our lives these days. Take the simple case of how we zero in on a restaurant if we consider dining out. These days, people (generally) don’t Google dining out options; they go to Instagram and check them out… they see how restaurants’ social media pages look like, what kind of postings they have… If I, as a consumer, feel a particular restaurant’s social media is enticing and on point, if their pages look good, there’s a likelihood I’m going to go and try their food.

At a broader level, even newspaper companies are posting live updates on their social channels because they know those are getting noticed first.

We know overall attention span is waning, so how do we communicate whatever it is that we want to communicate within those first 7 to 10 seconds? Simple: stick to good storytelling… Strong headlining is really important. And keep at it… when companies come out with content, one video is not sufficient to promote the brand. They need to have a volume of short, educational content. Content needs to be concise and straightforward, and using a social media influencer — a familiar face — will help… that is how you can actively engage with the target market. Putting up flyers and word of mouth are not going to be enough.

Social media also instils confidence to users when potentially purchasing a product. As a customer, you would go online to check reviews on YouTube or Instagram to see what people are talking about.

You can find Noor on Instagram at @noorulaiin and on TikTok at @noor.ul.aiin.

Nehsan Selvaraj, 24

Nehsan is founder and GCEO of the Nehsan Group, a life coach and international speaker, a singer, an author, and a former television presenter. While he’s based in Dubai, he works with the Malaysian government on youth entrepreneurship.

At 19, I became a television presenter in Malaysia. This was five years ago, and it was a turning point in my life: I suddenly became famous. People would approach me and tell me how much they admired and appreciated me. That really connected to something in my heart, it was emotional… I realised I have the power to connect with people.

Around that time, my partner and I started the Nehsan Group with our own savings… I relocated to Dubai, and, today, my business is based out of Kuwait, the UAE and, of course, Malaysia. We are constantly growing our portfolio… currently we deal in fashion retail, healthcare and beauty, F&B etc.

Whenever I talk about my business, the first thing people say is ‘You are so young and you are doing all these things’, and I really want to break this stereotype, this age barrier. It’s one of the reasons I use social media to talk about myself. It’s boring to talk about my business brand — though we use social media influencers for our marketing campaigns — so I’d rather inspire people with my own life story…

On the business side, we use social media for our branding and communications, it’s the most potent medium… Example: When we started a bottled water brand, we tried to advertise in publications and do promotions, but the influencer marketing route worked the best. If you are a social media influencer, your followers connect with you emotionally, they trust you… they automatically connect to the brand. But there has to be honesty.

At the Nehsan Group, when we use influencers, we allow them to try the product, and tell them to give an honest opinion… to not lie, to not make a sales pitch. If there is a problem, then you should talk about it. That is how you build trust…

Social media also offers good business potential in the personal:work intersection… let me give an example: if my post goes viral, there are companies that approach me… ask me to come on board with them, consult with them, ideate for them… (I plan to start my own social media marketing company, where I will share our success formulas with clients). A lot of my own success is reflected in the success of my company, and a lot of my company’s success is reflected in me — so when others see the success level of my company, I am invited to share our formula for success, our strategies. So, even though I use my personal social media handles to promote myself, often that translates into company gains as well.

The Malaysian government has invited me to do an acceleration programme for youngsters, for upcoming startup founders, where I will be contributing with my ideas…

The way I see it, social media is not just about making money, it’s about how we can contribute, inspire others to do better, to be better human beings…

You can catch Nehsan on his Instagram @nehsanselvaraj, or stay updated with his Tiktok @nehsanselvaraj. Else, you can even view his content on YouTube @Nehsan Selvaraj.

Nidhi Kumar, 26

Nidhi is a dancing sensation in the UAE who’s performed at Expo 2020, and founder of the popular NKD Studios in Dubai. Her hugely-successful YouTube channel and other social platforms paved the way for her to take the ‘big’ leap from ‘virtual’ to brick-and-mortar

Six years ago, I became a YouTuber at 20, when I uploaded my first Bollywood-style dance video — that went viral with over 2.9 million views. So, I became a full-time content creator, becoming the first to start dance content on YouTube in the UAE. When I started out, social media was not as evolved in the UAE as it is today, so it was a big challenge, I had to basically research everything on my own, and start from scratch…

Social media gave me the agency to get into a brick-and-mortar business: after five years, I realised I had such a strong following that it was the right time to open a Bollywood dance studio, NKD Studios… I already had so many students because of social media… at 25, it was the perfect next step to take. And yes, I don’t like the word influencer… I’m an artist…

As a kid, I wanted to be an actor; then I wanted to be a dancer — even though I’m self-taught… I was in 10th grade when I choreographed a sangeet ceremony in the UAE… I loved performing arts, loved being in front of the camera, and I never had conventional doctor-engineer kinds of life choices in mind, even though I was a topper in school. My family has always been super supportive!

Immediately after graduation, I’d got an amazing job with an MNC in the UAE — but I quit in six months after completing a project I was handling… I had been choreographing in my head when I sat in front of my computer at work… I knew I had to give100 per cent to my dancing and social media career.

Social media looks great, but you need to be very strong to work with it, it’s not for the weak-hearted… One negative comment can set you back… And it’s very hard work — balancing that with running a studio can be stressful, but how much I love it… even though I have not taken a break in the last five years! (Laughs)

From 2pm to 6pm is my social media time: I work on my campaigns, do my shoots, post my stuff… I have seven social media platforms where I post every single day… I collaborate on different projects with clients, and I work out of both Dubai and Mumbai.

From 6pm to 11pm, I conduct my classes at NKD Studios… And then I come back home and plan the entire stretch of content for the next day, and go to sleep only around 3am…

Look around and see how social media has grown, the growth has been exponential: every single business, small or large, uses influencers to promote their brands… The projects I get are mostly all thanks to inquiries that come on our studio’s social media pages… we performed at Expo because of social media.

But even so, in just one second everything can crash, because at the end of the day, it’s technology. One day, Instagram was down, the entire world came to a halt, people were in shock… so you also need to have a backup plan… like I have with my studio.

Channels like TikTok, YouTube and Instagram will explode, so use them to your advantage, but, like I said, always, always have a backup plan.

The new generation of content creators, I feel, are following the exact same path that we, the old creators, followed… they don’t research like we did, and therefore I think they lack originality. I managed to remain relevant all these years because the work we showcase is original and we manage to stand out from the crowd every single time. That is our differentiator.

You may be getting a lot of Likes but if there is no engagement, there’s no point: you are only getting the scroll-through audience. They need to stick with you and engage, and for that you need to be original.

Those who want to watch Nidhi perform, can see her wonderful choreographies on YouTube @Nidhi Kumar. Otherwise, she also puts out shorter dance videos on Instagram at @nidhikumardance and TikTok at @nidhikumardance.

Alii Muhammed, 28

In 2012, after I graduated from school, I was really ill for almost two years… I used to be in bed most of the time, and gained an awful lot of weight. In 2014, I gave myself a reality check. I joined a gym, went on a diet and lost 20 kilos in four months.

I showcased my journey on social media… on Instagram… you know, to inspire others with updates on my daily workouts, my diet, my cheat meals. But I didn’t get so much attention…

As my physique started improving, a lot of my friends started saying I should get into modelling. I spent Dh2,500 getting a professional portfolio shot so I could send my photos across to talent agencies… When I posted those photos on social media, there was a massive uptick in Likes and engagement.

People clearly liked my avatar in the fashion space. I joined university in 2014, and I would make friends take photos of me on campus, wearing something new every day — which I would post on Instagram. Those clicked, and there was a snowball effect.

I kept up the effort for the next two years. With the engagement growing, it was like I had found a new passion for myself.

In 2016, I started getting DMs from small businesses with offers to collaborate. It became an opportunity to create content to show bigger clients what I could do. I ended up working with brands like Daniel Wellington and Louis Vuitton… then I got invited to Arab Fashion Week — which was when I realised that there was an entire industry out there where a freelancer like me could get work, and could get paid to collaborate. It was an eye-opener for me.

I started focusing on my niche, which was menswear, alongside lifestyle verticals like food, fitness, hospitality. There was no money coming my way back then, but I was happy with the barter system… I was getting a lot of endorsements.

I completed uni in 2018, being very aware that there was huge potential in social media and I wanted to focus on it 100 per cent as a career choice, and that it was a matter of time before I’d make money. If I had done a regular 9-to-5 corporate job, that would have sapped all my energy. Luckily, my family were on board with my decision, so I worked on growing my page, growing my reach, improving my content…

In 2020, money started coming, I was doing two or three campaigns a month. Then, Covid hit, and while the first three months were okay, at

the peak of Covid everything stopped. No endorsements, no payments… gigs had stopped because I had started charging…

And then I realised that the dynamics of social media don’t revolve around one platform. My focus moved from Instagram to TikTok. With TikTok, you can monetise by going live. I play this game — PK Match — where on a split screen you co-host five-minute games, and make money through your supporters (they send gifts that have valuations in coins, and 1,000 coins equals 5 dollars, so as many coins you earn as gifts are converted to dollars and sent to your account). And I can rematch as many times as I want. All you need is a minimum of 1,000 followers. In June 2020, I started going live on TikTok; before that, I created videos to get followers.

Meanwhile, business is back on track and so, today, I have two major platforms: Instagram and TikTok. On one, I create content and collaborate with brands and companies… on the other, I game. On Insta, I am polished. I’m sharp. On TikTok, I am goofy.

Earlier, I would focus predominantly on Instagram, but today TikTok is my priority because its growth and (exponential) reach are phenomenal. I play for 4 to 5 hours… some days I make good money — the maximum I’ve won is $777 in a premeditated 5-minute challenge match… some days I make nothing, but that’s alright.

I see myself doing this for as long as social media exists… 110 per cent…

One could argue this is not conventional ‘ambition’. But I set my own goals. I have 200,000 followers on TikTok, so my goal could be that by the end of 2022, my followers should cross the 300,000 mark.

That’s my version of a goal.

You can stay in touch with current trends by following Alii across platforms which include: Instagram – @aliimuhd, TikTok – @aliimuhd, YouTube – Alii Muhammed.

Stephen King

In the past, we wanted to be movie stars, because that was the medium we engaged with — but today, youth want to be social media stars for the same reason. I see there are three manifestations of this social media trend. The first as a work-hobby: students produce and distribute content playing or roleplaying working as a content creator.

You can see this on TikTok or in Instagram Reels where students will attempt to follow the current trends but don’t attempt to go much further. This enables them to build a social network, start to build a public profile, and as a result learn more about the world of work.

The second is as a full-time profession. Here, students will begin modelling and undertaking projects for brands, especially fashion and makeup, to generate a primary income.

The third is the side hustle. This is an interesting emerging trend and is potentially as a result of the work-hobby creators maturing and realising that they can make additional income on top of their traditional work. This doesn’t require the effort of the professional creators and won’t generate the same financial returns, but can provide support to youngsters who are emerging from university and seeking their independence.

Am I surprised? No, not at all. Firstly, there is a significant effort to build capacity in youth to be entrepreneurial and this is just one way that this education and training becomes visible. Secondly, young people are swamped in media content and much of this presents examples of how social media can be used as work, or in support of employment.

Like in any industry, social media will only have a finite number of ‘positions’. Further, given the potential of social media channels to fade out of existence relatively quickly, I don’t see this as an opportunity to be a primary income source for more than a small number of content creators.

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