AutosPlus 2017: Meet Joanne Bou Jawad of OpenSooq

30 Jul 2017

AutosPlus2017 is the AIM Group’s auto classifieds conference scheduled for October 9 and 10 in London. Until then, we’ll run a series of interviews with the key speakers.

What challenges do auto site operators face in the market and what do they see coming up for the classified industry as a whole? What have been the most interesting developments in the last few years? Which themes will each speaker cover in his presentation?

Joanne Bou Jawad, chief operating officer of OpenSooq

In our first profile, please meet Joanne Bou Jawad, chief operating officer of OpenSooq, one of the leading horizontal classified platforms in the Middle East and North Africa.

Bou Jawad was born and grew up in Abu Dhabi and now lives in Dubai. Before joining OpenSooq more than three years ago, she headed the United Arab Emirates office of holding company iMENA, which is also an investor in OpenSooq. An engineer by training, she started her career working for Nokia Siemens Networks in Beirut.

Bou Jawad is usually in OpenSooq’s Dubai office, but on the day we spoke to her, she was visiting the company’s center in Amman, where the bulk of the team is located.

We asked her: Which unique challenges do you face in your market?

Bou Jawad: The market dynamics vary from country to country. OpenSooq operates in six, key markets, namely Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Libya, Kuwait and Iraq. As an example, while OpenSooq has near exclusive dominance with online car transactions in Jordan, there are some vertical players pushing hard in Saudi Arabia, which may be a challenge.

Internet penetration is still low in some countries, where we have a long way to go. Classifieds penetration is also still relatively new. Print classifieds are alive in many of the markets, but these are slowly being replaced by digital classifieds. We need to educate users about the value proposition of transacting online – be it selling, purchasing, learning or simply solving a problem. The same applies to classifieds — for example, a large number of people do not know that a car can be easily sold online, which explains the “for-sale” signs that still appear on cars on the streets.

There is also the challenge of trust regarding online purchases. As a result, there’s a need to further educate, to prove that it’s safe to pay online, and to provide users with different means of payment — even if it may be via cash.

Credit card penetration in the region is low, while smartphone dominance is very high. This creates further pressure on monetizing mobile apps. Payment challenges are another story, as each country has its own regulatory framework. There are at least six different online payment providers with no clear leader. Hence, you have to integrate with many different providers in each country.

What will you be speaking about in your presentation at AutosPlus2017?

My talk is titled “How to turn a free, mobile, user-friendly horizontal service into a money-generating automotive business”. How do you make a business profitable, while maintaining user satisfaction and liquidity? What steps did we take to monetize the business? It was not easy — I’ll be talking about our experience.

This will include, how we developed additional revenue streams on our platform, expanded payment options, increased the value and importance of premium ads and allowed users and dealers to benefit from premium memberships. The latter increased the number of ads sellers could post, added more features and includes the ability for a dealer to have its own shop page on OpenSouq with a unique URL. It also features a seller dashboard that allows users to easily manage ads, while seeing all the stats in one place.

We see a lot of changes in automotive classifieds. What are the most interesting developments worldwide you’ve seen so far?

Classifieds platforms are expanding beyond just the buying and selling of cars. They are capturing users from the very start of their search all the way to the completion of their purchase. Price and feature comparisons between different car models, price evaluations, providing financing solutions from banks, providing maintenance tips or even suggestions on where to service your vehicle are all becoming part of the platform. Basically, being the go-to place for the full user journey for anything automotive from A to Z.

In Latin America for example, some classified companies are holding training sessions, inviting users into their offices, and providing lessons on the value of having their businesses online. The ultimate goal is to become their online business partner.

How big a part of your business will artificial intelligence (AI) become?

The importance of AI is undeniably growing with time. It’s best to secure the basics first, before going into a more advanced level of AI.

For example, at OpenSooq we already do machine learning and have AI in place for listings moderation. Via machine learning, we follow scammers and their actions and also catch duplicates and bad behavior. The next level would be image- and text-recognition for faster and more automated moderation and eventually for an easier ad-insertion process. This will save a lot of human effort and enhances the user experience.

With the help of AI, chat bots can be built smart enough to solve user issues or find a user’s dream car with just a few questions. AI can automate the resolution of all kinds of user issues and can reduce queue time for the customer care team. The importance of this kind of AI will only increase with time.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges the automotive classified industry faces in the next three years?

Fraud / scam is a threat to all classifieds platforms that need to be impeded. Fraud operators are both intelligent and adamant; they do their best to learn and bypass our algorithms. The challenge is to detect their actions and take smart preventative measures. Our eyes need to be wide open.

Another challenge is to see the outcome of certain dealers and large players experimenting with new car sales online. If it works, new-car dealers will face further challenges and that will also impact the classifieds market. Many brands are now experimenting with being closer to the transaction, although each market has its own structure to cater to.

At the end of it all, classifieds must remember that they are for-profit businesses. A key challenge is that, no matter what revenue or profit-generating methods we have in place, the core will always be our users and dealers’ experiences. We must maintain optimum levels on all sides.

Additionally, we need to be pragmatic but creative in terms of searching for new revenue streams. The digital world is still unfolding and evolving, and within the disruption, we need to be pragmatic, but creative in terms of searching for — and capitalizing on — new revenue streams, despite possible competition along the way.

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Brian Blum

Brian Blum covers the U.S., Canada and Israel for Classified Intelligence Report, and contributes to our special reports and research projects. Originally from San Francisco and now based in Jerusalem, he has been with the AIM Group since 2004. He is the president of Blum Interactive Media, specializing in writing and multimedia content development for online, print, video and audio. His clients include newspapers, universities and non-profits. He is currently working on a book about the billion-dollar bankruptcy of a once high-flying Israeli startup.