Messaging startup enlists Arab pop star to boost downloads

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Despite what you may see on the Instagram account of a Saudi royal, the Arab world is traditionally a very private place. From the high walls of old cities throughout the region, to the fact that residents are still extremely wary of using their credit cards online, privacy and security play a lot on the minds of people here.

With that in mind, the American ephemeral messaging app Ansa is currently in the middle of raising a $1.2 million USD round in an attempt to tackle the Middle Eastern chat market, currently dominated by WhatsApp.

“This is a huge population which loves technology, but has serious security concerns,” says Anthony Mouawad, Ansa’s Lebanese business development officer, over a coffee in Beirut’s Sassine Square. “No one is targeting them.”

Like other off-the-record messaging apps like Telegram and CyberDust, and P2P apps like FireChat (which has been adopted recently in force by protestors in Hong Kong, who use it to chat offline), Ansa allows users to send each other messages with a self-destruct timer of varying lengths, kind of like SnapChat for texting. Further, Ansa doesn’t allow users to take screen shots, and even lets users know if the person they’re chatting with has tried to screen shot their conversation. You can even take back a message if someone hasn’t read it yet. Foolproof? Sounds pretty close.

Arab pop star Yara

Ansa’s real difference is, according to Mouawad, its interest in the Middle East. After launching in September 2013, being feted at several different tech conferences, and registering over 100,000 users, the team, led by CEO and founder Natalie Bryla, hired Mouawad to respond to a growing number of downloads from the Middle East, namely in Egypt (followed by Saudi, the UAE, Lebanon, and Kuwait).

One of his first marketing pushes has been to onboard the Lebanese pop diva Yara, who signed up after a few thousand downloads. The singer is giving her fans the opportunity to chat with her on Ansa for 10-15 minutes, “allowing them to interact with her in a new way,” says Mouawad. “Yara wants to encourage the entrepreneurship drive in the MENA,” he continues.

The Yara deal came as a bit of a fluke, Mouawad admits; given the fundraising push and the constant effort to streamline the app, the team has little time to think about marketing right now. He confirms, however, that much of the fundraising round, of which the team has already raised $700,000 USD, will go towards convincing MENA users to drop WhatsApp for Ansa.

“Are you trying to upset WhatsApp?” Wamda wanted to know. “If we can, why not? People want more privacy, and we can give it to them,” Mouawad laughs.

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