#ChiefEvangelist Twitter Canada’s Kirstine Stewart

Twitter Canada’s Kirstine Stewart hopes to ramp up usage by spreading the word about the social media giant.

As an English lit grad who had whizzed through university just shy of her 20th birthday, Kirstine Stewart wanted to keep up the momentum in her first job as a receptionist. Her boss, Isme Bennie, president of Paragon Entertainment International, chuckles at the memory of listening to Stewart as she tried her hand at dealing with potential clients rather than simply passing on their calls to management. Fast-forward several years to Bennie and Stewart — now Paragon’s top sales executive — at a quirky Hong Kong industry party that included a fortune-teller’s booth, where the oracle foretold that Stewart’s life, were she willing to embrace momentous change, would be one of extraordinary transitions.

Welcoming the unknown has long been Stewart’s forte. No longer the young grad with dreams of perhaps becoming a music composer or of a job in the precarious world of Canadian publishing, she is now eight months into her reign as managing director of Twitter Canada. The intervening 25 years of her career showcase a dazzling rise to the top echelons of television broadcasting in Canada and the US. All of which have armed her for a challenge rife with questions as to how and even whether social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn can be monetized to levels that justify their enormous initial public offerings.

“I wasn’t really surprised that Kirstine would take the leap and leave to fully engage within a digital age that’s so new that I’d bet even fortune-tellers might blanche at divining where it’s going,” says Bennie, now a media consultant. “It seems she’s done her thing with traditional TV broadcast and is remaining the same old Kirstine with the same mindset: ‘Hey, what’s that peeking over the horizon?’” Indeed, Stewart’s April 2013 announcement — naturally, via the Twitterverse — was more than a little stunning. On April 28, the first woman to helm CBC English services programming — arguably the most powerful (and scrutinized) position in Canadian broadcasting — had blithely changed her Twitter handle from @KStewartCBC to @kirstinestewart in her congratulations to the CBC ’s Dragon’s Den end-of-season show. And, in the tweet’s 140-characters-or-less format, a veiled farewell for those who missed the name change.

Kirstine Stewart tweet 

And then the next day, official word from Adam Bain, president of global revenue at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters:

Adam Bain tweet

And minutes later:

Kirsten Steward tweet

But Stewart was beaten out by seven minutes with the CBC’s terse missive — even by Twitter standards:

CBC News Alerts tweet

This flurry was indicative of something more than the moment-to-moment timeliness for which Twitter is famous. A certain urgency was afoot. In a few short months, the much anticipated IPO , which would value the company at an opening price of US$26 a share and close the day up 72% to US$44.90, or US$25 billion, would be announced. All regions in the world — including Canada, where a survey of Anglophone Canadians found one out of three social media users check their feeds daily, and almost one in five of those Canadian Internet users surveyed use Twitter (up 80% over 2012) — had been given their marching orders to drive ad sales to ensure that this hoped-for valuation would have some merit by the November 7th IPO.

“Like the news through Twitter, I was gone in a flash, seconds,” says Stewart. “No hard feelings or bruises on either side from my perspective. I was welcomed in to the CBC and welcomed out. Now, I look ahead to the new, and relish it.” Stewart might seem an unexpected choice to lead Twitter’s Canadian operation. No Silicon Valley techie or engineer, she comes from traditional media; and, of late, from public broadcasting, where the corporate mandate is not the cultivation of profit but cultural programming that will “inform, enlighten and entertain.” Yet during her seven-year reign at the CBC, Stewart had built a reputation for an ability to choose ratings and revenue winners. Her vision and mandate for Twitter Canada is to connect not only more aggressive advertising to users’ Twitter feeds, but also programming links from traditional broadcasting.

For broadcasters and the brands they represent, new media and its power to reach and influence consumers within the digital world is still somewhat of a mystery. So, for Stewart, educating the confused and the reluctant is a key mandate. “When Twitter hired me,” Stewart says, “one of the things they said they wanted me to be was their chief evangelist. That means a lot of meetings and speaking engagements where I tell people how to use it better. Much of my day is spent either with content providers or brands or in big groups who want to know more about what Twitter can do for them. There’s a big gap in education that we have to fill.”

Bain and Stewart hope to ramp up Twitter usage (and its monetization) through a combination of allying with traditional broadcasting and what the company calls “promoted tweets” — tailored advertising and programming tweets that join the user’s stream of Twitter feeds based on the company’s monitoring of his or her tweets. “When I was a programmer, one of the things that frustrated me the most was that I operated somewhat in a vacuum,” says Stewart. “You broadcast outward with no conversation. The benefit of moving over to Twitter is that I’ve always been motivated to find out why: why do you watch this show, and why do you come back? Who are you?”

For multimedia researcher Aimée Morrison, associate professor at the University of Waterloo, such precise consumer targeting can be a little unsettling and may become a turnoff if Twitter fails to handle its users with care. “It’s a bit creepy, isn’t it?” she says. “They know I’m married, kids, a pet — and the food it likes. I’m being data-mined; I’m not a client of Twitter but more its raw material.”

But Bain might bristle at this perception. “Consumers come to Twitter in a certain mindset,” he says. “They’re in a mode where they’re asking questions like, ‘What’s hot? What’s new? What’s happening in my world?’ Marketers can help provide answers to those questions and be welcomed by consumers.” The logic is that people consume both information and brands — and they prefer to consume those things that are most relevant to their lives. “The very best marketers think hard about every aspect of their ad content,” Bain says. “Kirstine’s background in the content space [as an example] makes her uniquely adept at helping guide them to successful answers.”

For all media, competition for audiences in a sector now fragmented into hundreds of broadcast channels and Internet-based programming is the primary challenge to overcome. But not for Twitter, according to Bain. “On the business side,” he says, “while others are looking to compete with TV, we are building our business as a complement to television.” This merging of new and old media and the customizing of promoted tweets to support both seems to have investors atwitter, given the success of the company’s IPO. With Stewart’s years in television programming, Bain expects her to become the bridge between the traditional ways of communication and the still burgeoning online medium. “There is no one better in the world to tell this story of being a ‘force-multiplier with TV’ than Kirstine,” he says.

In 2000, Stewart moved to the US to run program management at Hallmark Entertainment’s US$300-million lineup of 17 international channels. Several years later — “perhaps I should be, but I’m not much of a five-year planner,” she sighs — Canada lured her back when she was tapped to take on the senior vice president post at Toronto-based Alliance Atlantis’ National Geographic, HGTV, BBC Canada and several other channels. In 2006, instead of recruiting from within, the CBC cast its net outward and hired Stewart as its general manager, television. By 2010, multiple ratings winners to her credit, Stewart was promoted to the coveted position of executive vice-president of English services.

“That’s exactly the kind of amplified networking experience that both our public broadcaster and eventually Twitter would be looking for,” says Duncan Stewart (no relation), director of technology, media and telecommunications (TMT) research at Deloitte Canada and considered one of the country’s more prescient tech and media researchers. For him, despite the extraordinary impact — and potential for distraction — of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and a panoply of competing social media, television has not only not faltered, it has maintained its super media status.

“Twitter has a strong desire to monetize its hundreds of millions of users,” he explains. “Given how many people view Twitter on smartphones, it’s really difficult to populate that platform with big ads. The biggest screen any of us have is the TV set; and therefore, the guys who are dominant on the tiny screen are really interested in working with the guys who dominate the giant screen because the two reinforce each other very well.” So when Deloitte’s TMT guru heard that Stewart had resigned from the country’s top broadcast position for an embryonic 20-person Twitter satellite office, he was more excited than surprised. “My reaction wasn’t, ‘Oh, what an odd place to go,’ ” he says. “It was, in fact, the opposite with, ‘What a natural place to go.’ ”

An admitted social media addict, the Twitter boss is in lockstep with the TMT prediction and Twitter’s conviction that a growing number of television viewers couch potato in front of their sets with the remote in one hand and their tablet or smartphone in the other. “Yeah, I can be a two-screen viewer,” Stewart says. “Long before taking the Twitter job, I was consuming media like so many others: chat, sharing information, the news — traditional and online — surfing and exploring new apps and products.” Any thought to unplugging and taking a break from the constant buzz is an impossibility for Stewart. In 2011, then 43-year-old Stewart married Zaib Shaikh, the star of her hit show Little Mosque on the Prairie. Their South African safari honeymoon at Sir Richard Branson’s Ulusaba Game Reserve is replete with pics of her thumbing away on her smartphone.

At her downtown Toronto offices, Stewart’s staff is almost entirely sales account reps promoting the wonders of the microblog’s ability to personalize its brand advertising and media content to individual users. Within a month of opening Twitter Canada’s doors, Stewart used her extensive broadcast connections to ink a deal with Shaw Media. The network has signed on to Twitter’s Amplify Program, which allows TV ads and bonus content from its programming to be shared on Twitter. And on the day of Twitter’s IPO, Stewart announced that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment would partner with the platform to “amplify” its advertising and sports content.

To garner a better sense of the impact of these crucial promoted tweets, Stewart also signed up TV powerhouse Bell Media to help it gather and collate analytics research on user viewing habits via Twitter Canada’s TV ad and content tie-ins. “Twitter was clearly looking to expand into the next phase of bringing television and other media into the platform,” Stewart explains. “And it was looking for someone with my kind of background. But you have to be able to work with your people, and have them work effectively with you.” “If Kirstine learned anything from me,” says Bennie, “it was just to go about your business and manage by letting people realize the best in themselves.” Not one to breathe down her employees’ necks, Stewart’s approach is to simply offer a supportive and positive environment, while she concentrates on the continuing education of the ad, brand and broadcast crowd.

Stewart’s ever-transitioning career seems to have stopped at a welcome precipice. The digital era and the continuing evolution of its vanguard social media offer many unknowns. And this uncertainty suits her to a T. “What drives me, I think, is curiosity,” she says. “I get bored easily, and although there’s a lot of focus right now on being more mindful, I tend to be in a rush. I think it’s because I’m always on that quest for more information, more context. So, as long as I have the energy to do so, I’ll just keep going.”

And to what heights? Bennie returns to the visit to the soothsayer. “Well, she did say that Kirstine would become prime minister one day,” she laughs. “The crystal ball may have been a bit misty on that one, but who knows?”