While many marketers are wary of expanding their advertising efforts into Iraq due to recent violence and fears over the advancement of ISIS, online marketing in Iraq still offers many opportunities for great ad visibility and return on investment. In this profile, we will look at what it takes to build a successful marketing campaign and how the country’s conditions affect digital advertising in Iraq. We’ll start off with necessary background information on the country, then look at the relative prospects of various aspects of internet marketing: Search Engine Optimization, PPC advertising, and the states of social media and mobile marketing.
Below is a brief summary of the population, economics, and current political situation of Iraq. It is vital to have a basic knowledge of the population in order to write your marketing campaign successfully and in a culturally appropriate manner.
Iraq is one of the youngest countries in the Middle East – it fully gained independence from the UK in 1932, and formed a republic in 1958 – with one of the largest populations. As of 2015, Iraq’s population hovered around 37 million – making it the 37th most populated country in the world. This is a young population, with nearly 50% of Iraqi citizens under the age of 25. Over 99% of citizens classify as Muslim, with less than 1% Christian and other religions. Approximately 60-65% of Muslims are Shia, with Sunnis making up 32-37% of the population. Arabs comprise 80% of the population, and Kurds 20%. This information is important to marketers because it tells us to market to a young consumer base, with respect paid to the Muslim values of the population. It also warns marketers to neutrally target their ads between Sunni and Shia, and Arab and Kurdish groups.
The decreasing oil prices of the past few years have had a bleak effect on Iraq’s economy. The country has struggled to implement laws and develop institutions that will keep economic policy strong in the face of an oversupply of oil – the export of which makes up over 90% of government revenue. Corruption, outdated infrastructure, rampant unemployment, and lack of foreign investment make it difficult for Iraq to raise GDP and living standards. As of 2015, Iraq’s GDP was $168.61 billion – a sharp decline from the GDP of $232.5 billion just two years before. Iraq also has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world – hovering at 16% in 2012.
The two official languages across Iraq are Arabic and Kurdish. Turkmen and Assyrian neo-Aramaic are also recognized as official languages, but only in specific areas with large ethnic majorities. The most common language is Arabic, due to the large Arab majority in the country. The two most spoken dialects of Arabic are Mesopotamian and North Mesopotamian. Most searches in Iraq are conducted in Arabic, using Arabic characters as well as the also popular Arabizi (the use of Latin characters to phonetically spell Arabic words). A significant amount, but fewer, searches were conducted in English and Kurdish. This information was found by examining the searches that brought visitors to various Iraq-specific websites such as google.iq and dwarozh.net, using Alexa analytics. However, many of the top-ranking Iraq-specific websites are written in Kurdish. Marketers targeting Iraq for advertising campaigns should generally target their keywords in both of the official languages.
Iraq’s highly unstable security and sharp economic downturns in recent years have resulted in a high rate of censorship, with Freedom House allotting it a 71/100 Press Freedom Score in 2016. The country’s high murder rates for journalists, especially those covering conflicts and demonstrations within Baghdad and the fight against the Islamic State, demonstrate a governmental paranoia that has resulted in strict and rigidly enforced regulations over what can and cannot be documented and said in the media and online. Any defamation or insult of the government can result in a prison sentence of up to 7 years. In addition to these harsh punishments for defamatory language, journalists and publishers are occasionally left without a platform. Apart from the shutdown of websites deemed critical of the government, internet services and social media platforms are regularly shut down – justified as a method of prevention against the spread of the Islamic State. These developments in censorship are largely tied to the advent of the Islamic State. In 2014, Freedom House had reported little government restriction on the Internet. Between 2015 and 2016, however, enforcement of censorship became much harsher and the Internet penetration rate decreased from 17% to 11.3%.
Marketers targeting their campaigns in Iraq should be very cautious of this tight censorship and low Internet penetration. These advertisements should never include any kind of negative commentary on Islam or references to demonstrations or contention within Iraq, the fight against the Islamic State, and especially the government. Marketers should also be aware that due to government censorship, fears over the propaganda of the Islamic State, and poor infrastructure for electricity, only a small proportion of the Iraqi population will be able to connect to the Internet and see advertisements.
Iraq Internet Country Codes
Iraq offers one top-level domain in Latin characters. All domain names must be approved by Iraq’s Communications and Media Commission (CMC) department, and must not violate any Iraqi laws or moral/societal values. Domain name registration typically costs around $20 a year for non-Iraqi applicants buying a second-level domain, and $35 for the top-level domain. The top-level domain is restricted to certain groups, including non-profit organizations and IT service providers. All information related to qualifying for an Iraqi domain name can be found at the CMC website.
Popular Websites in Iraq
Following is a list of the 10 most popular websites in Iraq as of September 2016:
This list contains mostly well-known and world-popular search engines and social media websites. However, the position of Youtube.com as the most visited website in Iraq and the prevalence of Facebook and Instagram suggest not only a young population but one that appreciates visual media. Display advertising towards the overwhelmingly young Iraqi population could result in a successful and appreciated marketing campaign. It is also important to note, however, that the two Iraq-specific results in this list (dwarozh.net and nrttv.com) are Kurdish news and channel websites. Though Kurds make up only around 15-20% of the Iraqi population, the prevalence of Kurdish material suggests that the group and the language are worth targeting.
Popular Region-Specific Websites in Iraq
Following is a list of the 10 most visited region-specific websites in Iraq. These websites are generally directed toward the citizens of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region.
There are two important insights to gain from this list. First is that all of these websites (with the exception of google.iq) are news websites. This suggests that Iraqis generally value being well-informed on the cultural, political, and economic developments of their country. More importantly, however, is the language of these websites. All of these news websites are written in Kurdish – which is very surprising for a country with an 80% Arab majority. This information would suggest that even if the population of Kurds is low, the written form of communication is typically Kurdish. The fact that the most visited news websites in Iraq are in Kurdish may demonstrate that a majority population of the country can – and prefers to – read in that language.
Popular E-Commerce Sites in Iraq
Although e-commerce could prove a great boon to the standard of living in Iraq – allowing Iraqi citizens to compare goods to find reasonable market prices, allowing for an influx in foreign goods and commodities, and allowing for a more transparent market – e-commerce has been slow-growing in the country for a number of reasons. One of the greatest impediments to e-commerce is the low Internet penetration and lack of technology. Though smartphones are relatively common among Iraqi youth, few citizens own computers. More pertinently, the Internet is slow, expensive, and frustrating to use due to bad power supply and heavy restrictions on service providers. Another great problem contributing to the slow growth of e-commerce is the low level of literacy among the Iraqi population. Only about 80% of the population can read or write, and the ability to read and write English – the primary language of trade and e-commerce – is much lower. Perhaps the greatest problem hindering e-commerce, however, is the preference for cash. There are many reasons for this preference: distrust of Iraqi banks, scarcity of credit card products, and the desire for anonymity for tax evasion purposes. E-commerce is present in Iraq, but manifests as a very slowly expanding market.
Following is a list of the most popular Iraqi and MENA-focused e-commerce websites:
Search Engine Marketing in Iraq
According to a 2014 Usage Statistics Report by StatsMonkey, Google commands the lion’s share of the Iraqi search engine market with greater than a 90% share of traffic. Ask Jeeves, Yahoo, and Bing also carved out small shares of the market – with all other search engines receiving less than 1% of the market share. Though Google has a clear domination over the search engine market, other search engines command a greater representation in Iraq than in most of the other Middle Eastern countries. This information suggests that marketers should heavily concentrate their advertising efforts on Google search pages, but might benefit from devoting some time to advertising on the smaller and less competitive market of Yahoo as well.
State of SEO in Iraq
In this section, we will compare the relative metrics of Search Engine Optimization in Iraq and the United States by using Moz.com’s Open Site Explorer. We will perform searches for the common keywords “books” and “cars” on the specific Google websites of each country (google.com and google.iq) and take a look at the metrics of the top link on each country’s search results page. These searches will be conducted in English for the United States and in Arabic for Iraq. We will specifically investigate the relative trust in each link and the number of equity-passing links hosted by the page. This information will tell us the relative qualifications needed by a website in Iraq and the United States to gain the top placement in a Google search.
Books in USA vs. Books in Iraq
The differences in the SEO metrics required to achieve the top placement ad in Iraq and the United States are immediately apparent. The results for the Iraq website, jamalon.com (the numbers on the left) indicate a lesser level of MozTrust (an indicator of link trust and quality) and a fewer number of equity-passing links by millions than the U.S. top-ranking website amazon.com. This information implies that successful search engine optimization in Iraq requires much less website trust and relevancy (measured by the number of equity-passing links) — and is therefore held to a lower standard than that of the United States.
Cars in USA vs. Cars in Iraq
The search for “cars” in the U.S. and Iraq reiterates the stark contrast in SEO metrics between the two countries. The Iraqi top website for the search (iq.opensooq.com) has surprisingly few equity-passing links, and only attains a MozTrust of 3.87. The U.S. top site (cars.com) has nearly double the amount of trust, and millions more equity-passing links. We can conclude from the results of these searches that the competition for top links is much less in Iraq than in the United States and that the SEO required for the top link placement has much less strict demands in terms of equity-passing link numbers and website trust.
State of PPC in Iraq (Paid Searches)
Iraq’s expanding market offers great opportunity to savvy marketers with SEO skills and good knowledge of pay-per-click advertising. We will show in this section the ample room for marketers to easily and cheaply obtain high visibility on their advertisements.
Analyzing the PPC Differences between the US and Iraq
We will now take a look at the relative success and popularity of paid searches in Iraq and the United States. We will examine the state of PPC through searching for popular phrases that indicate intent-to-buy in order to find search pages likely to have high amounts of PPC advertising. The number and quality of the ads we find for these searches will give insight into the relative competitiveness of engaging in this type of marketing in Iraq.
We will begin by searching “cheap flights to London”, in English for the U.S. and in Arabic for Iraq:
These images make immediately apparent the difference between PPC advertising in Iraq and in the United States. The search results for the United States (shown on the right hand side) feature four pay-per-click advertisements (the maximum amount allowed by Google) that are all relevant to the search. On the other hand, Iraq’s search results page features only three pay-per-click ads. It was not able to fill the spots allotted by Google advertising. Even more striking, however, is the quality in the ads. While the top two PPC advertisements are relevant to the search, the 3rd result advertises cars in London rather than cheap flights to London. This indicates a low rate of competition for top spots on Google in Iraq.
Our next search will be for “apartments for rent” in the U.S. and Iraq:
A similar trend appears in this search for the two countries. Though all results on the search pages for Iraq and the United States are relevant to our keywords, only the United States provides pay-per-click ad results for this search. There is plenty of untapped potential for marketers in Iraq to easily gain top ad placement in the country search results due to low competition and – resulting from the low amounts of competition – cheap bid prices for those top spots.
Geo-Targeting Opportunities in Iraq
Iraq holds a high rate of urbanization, with close to 70% of its population living in major cities. This situation provides great opportunity for geo-targeting advertisements to various highly populated cities throughout Iraq so that ads are specific and highly relevant to the audience. Let’s take a look at the five most populated cities in Iraq. We have excluded from this list the cities that are currently under control of ISIS.
Baghdad is both the capital and largest city of Iraq. It hosts approximately 5,672,513 Iraqi citizens, and is considered the Iraqi center for finance and commerce. About half of Iraq’s large-scale manufacturing efforts are also hosted in the capital.
Al Mawsil al Jadidah
Al Mawsil al Jadidah is a large city in northern Iraq that holds a little over 2 million people.
Al Basrah al Qadimah
Al Basrah al Qadimah is a large city within the same governmate as Al Basrah. It is the second largest city in that area of Iraq, with a population of just over 2 million.
Erbil is the largest and capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan and a popular travel destination. Geo-targeting to this city might be best conducted in the Kurdish language. Erbil holds just under a million people.
Social Media in Iraq
With the advent of ISIS into Iraq and surrounding areas, the Internet – and especially social media websites – is often restricted by the government to avoid the spread of propaganda into the population. A large motivation for this blocking is also, however, the use of social media by Iraqis to coordinate discussion on ISIS and monitor the progression of Iraqi forces along battlegrounds. While this coordination can be useful to combat ISIS, it is also potentially harmful because ISIS supporters can follow posts and groups on Facebook to gather information on Iraqi plans and sentiments. For this reason, the Iraqi government has tried to limit Internet and block popular social media websites such as Facebook and YouTube multiple times.
According to the statistics in the above image by the 2015 Arab Social Media Report, 88% of Iraqis have Facebook accounts and use of other popular social media websites such as Instagram and Twitter hover at around 25% penetration. The same study reports that of the 88% of Iraqis with Facebook accounts, 99% access these accounts on a daily basis. This is an astonishingly high rate and indicates the great importance attached by Iraqis to communicating with each other and staying abreast of the perilous situation of ISIS in their country. This frequent use of Facebook – interrupted though it might be through censorship by the government – gives marketers in Iraq an interested and connected audience. Advertising on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter could potentially result in great investment return.
Most “Liked” Facebook Pages in Iraq
Following is a list of the Facebook pages with the greatest number of likes by Iraqi citizens:
Kadim Al Sahir
Barbie Beauty Center
These pages are focused in 3 categories: Iraqi celebrities, internet services, and news websites. These trends help emphasize our analysis that Iraqi citizens care deeply about knowing the current affairs of their country and being able to communicate and analyze this news with others over social media websites and the Internet.
State of Mobile Marketing in Iraq
Iraq’s mobile market is severely lagging behind that of other Arab nations, according to information from “The Mobile Economy Arab States 2015” report conducted by GMSA Intelligence. This report points to a low (17%) adoption of smartphones among Iraqis. These statistics are supported by Evolita. We can conclude that many Iraqi citizens do not have the necessary technology to participate in mobile browsing and shopping. The more common method of accessing the Internet for online browsing, use of social media, and news is in Internet cafés, on computers.
Another issue plaguing the expansion of Iraq’s mobile market is the lack of mobile money. According to “The Mobile Economy Arab States 2015” report, only about 17% of Iraqis have so much as an account at a financial institution – let alone a mobile banking app. Lack of access to online financial information severely hinders the ability of Iraqis to participate mobile shopping. These statistics, combined with the low smartphone penetration, paint a dismal picture for the prospects of investing in mobile marketing in Iraq.
Seasonal Promotion Times
Following is a list of national public holidays in Iraq that can be used to schedule seasonal promotions:
- New Year’s Day (January 1st)
- Army Day (excludes Kurdistan, January 6th)
- Eid Norooz (only in Kurdistan, March 21st)
- Labour Day (May 1st)
- Eid al-Fitr (end of Ramadan, date varies according to the Islamic calendar)
- Republic Day (July 14th)
- Eid al-Adha (Islamic feast day, date varies according to the Islamic calendar)
- Hijri New Year (date varies according to the Islamic calendar)
- Iraqi Independence Day (October 11th)
Iraq has a lot to offer marketers looking to further expand into the Middle East. The young population, great prospects of cheap and effective PPC advertising, and high usage of social media sites such as Facebook suggest that marketers could expect high visibility for their advertisements. However, the low Internet penetration of the country – combined with the lack of mobile banking and the strict government censorship due to the ISIS crisis – suggests that the reason there is so much free space for advertisements is that those advertisements may not be profitable.
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