Nawaf Felemban is a rocket scientist turned management consultant. He recently founded Arabic website, Kasra.
As a rocket scientist with Raytheon, he developed advanced algorithms for Military Radars. As a management consultant with McKinsey, he advised CEOs and Ministers on education and healthcare reform. A dual citizen between Saudi Arabia and the US, he worked onvarious projects in Boston and across the Middle East.
In 2011, Felemban co-authored a report on the state of Arab youth titled E4E: Realizing Arab Youth Potential that was published by the IFC/World Bank.
Inspired by his work with Arab youth, he founded Kasra, an Arabic media startup. Kasra’s mission is to “unite the Arab world, one cat picture at a time.” Kasra wants to “break” the status quo of the Arabic Internet – away from polarizing language that alienates readers – to stories written by Arabs, in Arabic, that all Arabs can enjoy.
Since its launch in 2015, , Kasra has grown to three million monthly users, with a team of writers around the Middle East.
We caught up for a tête-à-tête with Felemban.
What made you turn from being a rocket scientist to a management consultant?
I’ve had a passion for science and technology since I was young – I decided I wanted to become an engineer when I was 15. It was later, when I volunteered as a science teacher in elementary and middle schools in poor neighborhoods when I discovered my other passion: education and the youth. There was more than teaching to education; I became more aware of the underlying issues, which led me to pursue management consulting to get involved in education and youth-related work.
You used to develop algorithms for military radars. Today, content is becoming increasingly data-led with algorithms understanding what consumers want, and sometimes even generating content that they’d like. In that sense, what are the parallels you can draw between the two fields? Has your experience in developing military algorithms come in handy in this field and if yes, how?
Yes, of course. A significant part of the algorithm work I did was around identifying patterns in data to extract insights that are difficult to see otherwise. For Kasra, we create Arabic content that users truly relate to and want to read. We use algorithms and data analytics for this purpose; it allows us to extract hidden insights on what content our users want to engage with and consume. This is very similar to the work I’ve done in terms of finding patterns in ambiguous data to extract meaningful insights.
The traditional approach of content has been a combination of perception, personal experience, and superficial research in the forms of surveys. However, this hasn’t been enough to understand the true needs of users. We need to incorporate tech. Content is unlimited, and the user base is large. This results in a vast ocean of data waiting for us to tap into it.
Kasra is focused on the revival of the Arabic language. Do you think it’s the Arabic language per se that is being lost, or a wider move away from the written word to visual content?
Perhaps in the far future, people will be communicating through visuals. However until that becomes a reality, our most intimate form of communication will continue to be words. With the prevalence of visual content in English-based media, we still observe an ever-evolving language base with new words being added constantly.
This is not the case in Arabic unfortunately. Our youth is discovering far superior content in English than in Arabic. This results in higher consumption of English content, gradually eroding our language, and maybe even our culture as a result.
We have a responsibility to revive the Arabic language through content because this is how we exercise our language, especially in today’s tech-connected world. Here, at Kasra, we try to deliver this vision by fusing media and technology. We create fun and useful content that readers want to read and share, and thus helping users express themselves in Arabic and, hopefully, evolving the Arabic language along the way.
What kind of audiences can advertisers expect on Kasra?
Kasra uses data and insights to craft highly relevant native ads, which come in the form of engaging content that users want to consume and share with family and friends. In addition, with our technology, we can reach and target any Arabic speaking audience online. We link clients to their target segments through content that readers truly care about and resonate with. We believe that native ads provide the best experience for both, users and clients.
What are the ad solutions you’d be open to while striking a balance between advertising to sustain the platform and good editorial content and formats to sustain users?
Whether it is advertising or editorial, all our solutions are content-based. In addition to our tech-oriented approach to content, Kasra’s platform is a safe place, where readers feel comfortable sharing content they like and expressing their ideas. This means no divisive topics, such as politics and religion. The quality of our content also adheres to high standards, so that readers know they can trust what they read.
So, again, the same applies to our advertising content. We create native ads that deliver value to the reader through engaging content while also helping brands promote their messages. This way we are able to deliver advertising solutions that also make for good editorial content.
What have your learnings been in the last year? Are you noticing any trends in terms of content formats?
Oftentimes, we notice that understanding of the GCC population is rather limited among other publishers. One example we often cite in this regard is food recipe articles. They typically are written in the feminine gender, assuming the reader is always a woman. In reality, a slice of GCC bachelor men also read recipe articles, and are turned off by the language. In addition, we found out that women themselves prefer reading recipes written in gender-neutral language. These kinds of insights underpin everything we write.
Our work with native ads has also revealed some interesting insights. We found out that readers appreciate transparency in native ads as long as the content delivers value to them. That’s why we clearly mention the advertising brand on the top of the sponsored article.
We also found out that videos and memes are powerful for reach, but written content is most effective for changing mindsets. This is simply because written content has higher read time; it takes two minutes, on average, to read an article as opposed to 30 seconds watching a video on autoplay.
What are your future plans for Kasra?
We want to continue investing in what we do best: developing proprietary technology that differentiates us from the rest, and delivering content that Arab readers find both relevant and engaging. We plan to also invest in improving the user experience on our website.
Furthermore, we want to continue being the leading publisher in Arabic native advertising. This requires us to expand our product offerings. We first started off native ads in the form of articles and quizzes, which have been doing extremely well. We recently launched branded memes, GIFs, and short videos. We plan to expand our range of formats even more, so that we can better serve our clients.