06/13/2014 09:12 EDT

INTERVIEW: Kirstine Stewart Of Twitter Canada Talks About Spreading Wings, Changing Landscape


A lot of hashtags have happened since Twitter set up shop in Canada a year ago -- from #Wearewinter to #Inadrunkenstupor, Canadians have expressed national highs and lows together in 140 characters or less.

Kirstine Stewart, head and first employee of Twitter Canada, has guided the fledgling operation toward revenue growth and Twitter Amplify partnerships with every major broadcaster in the country, a first in the Twitter world.

The former CBC head of programming joined Huffington Post Canada for a chat on everything from the shifting media landscape to how she used Twitter to make her World Cup picks.

Huffington Post: One of the major reasons Twitter set up shop in Canada was to forge new advertising partnerships with brands and media. One year in, how are the relationships with advertising and media partners faring compared to what what the company expected?

Kirstine Stewart: We went into this hoping for one thing and then getting a lot more than we expected. I think it’s probably just a testament to the pent-up anticipation around Twitter and what we could do with people when we were actually physically here and able to help them through interesting partnerships and figuring out the technology and using it different ways with their brands.

This is the only country in which all major broadcasters are signed up for Amplify. The media partnerships have been fantastic, the brand partnerships have been great, doing some stuff with Toyota, Oreo, Visa, RBC — amazing things like chats through the Olympics with RBC, they hosted the closing ceremonies with George Stroumboulopoulos. It’s been amazing. We’ve always said the possibilities with 140 characters are limitless and I think Canadians are proving that.

HP: Twitter made US$250 million in revenue in the last quarter. I know you don’t break out revenues by country segment, but can you give us an idea of how Canada stacks up internationally?

KS: We’re obviously doing well, you can tell by the support that we’re getting from the organization overall. We’ve grown from one person —that was me — to six, to twenty something and we’re still growing. I think that’s an indication of how strong the market is here and it’s been a great year.

HP: Much has changed in Canadian media the past year since you left your job at the CBC to join Twitter. There have been a lot of shakeups, especially at your former employer. What insight have you gained to share with those in traditional media about shifting consumption habits?

KS: I think everyone is facing the same kind of challenges in the media landscape, whether it’s television, newspaper, magazine. The traditional media space is looking to its very near future and saying “how does it reach the people that want the content?” And I think the media businesses that will do the best are those that put the user or the reader or the listener first.

I think we have the opportunity to reinvent what media is to consumers and to people who watch and listen. We’re in a really interesting time with some of the best content being developed right now. I think it’s the struggle to figure out how the business model works in an age where people are getting content in ways they never have before.

HP: Obviously, Twitter is one of those ways. And one of the most appealing things about Twitter for advertising and media partners, I imagine, is the ability to mine that data from millions of users and really target it. What type of data do you provide partners with and how do they use that data?

KS: What Twitter is able to do is by providing an open platform where conversations happen people talk a lot about, in conversation, their interests.

I always liken it to a space that I would have been dying to get into when I was programming a network. I would get a report card every morning and I was told “18 to 25 males or 25 to 44 females” with maybe some demographic information around it, were watching a particular show.

(It lacked) that depth of understanding of why, what attracted them to come back again and that person's interests, particularly in the moment. The information that Twitter has from these conversations is not what people like or dislike or desire, but what they like or desire in that moment. We can kind of slice that 360 ways, and in whatever way you’re trying to target someone in the moment we can make that match. We’re like the virtual matchmaker between the brand and a person who needs something in the moment.

HP: How do you balance the desire for information with users’ privacy concerns? Could you tell us what Twitter does to balance the two and maintain the enjoyable user experience?

KS: Well, essentially everything that’s on the platform is open and public. It’s not like one of the more gated social media platforms. We are advertised as being open and out there and conversational. Anybody can read anybody else’s tweets, everybody knows that when they sign on. So there’s a certain understanding that what you’re going to talk about is discoverable.

The interesting thing for me is I come from a space where advertising is seen as an intrusion or interruption in that traditional linear world. It sort of bridges my life in the past and in the future.

You get a lot of people talking about how advertising has that intrusive nature and then in this world, where we did the Amplify deal where we had Bud and the CBC and ourselves for the NHL playoffs here the CBC was delivering people in real-time a clip of the goal that just happened prefaced by a message from Bud Light. I was very curious to see the acceptance of that message by a community that was very desperate to get to the goal or get to the piece of content. And what you saw was people actually writing thank yous to Bud Light for bringing them this content.

When you give somebody what they want or need in the moment and therefore it isn’t seen as an intrusion, it’s actually welcomed. It’s “somebody has bothered to figure me out” rather than “someone has made an assumption based on I’m a 40 something year old woman, they presume I want this, that’s not right at all.” There is this kind of bespoke nature to it that kind of builds a profile to be helpful to people rather than clobbering them with messages or bombarding them messages that don’t make sense to them.

HP: The former head of CSIS recently called Canadians “stupid” for how much information they post online. What’s your take on that? Are we oversharers?

KS: So that whole TMI essence? It’s interesting, I think people do have to be aware of their digital footprint and what it is they do or don’t reveal. And I think most people are aware and set their own boundaries. I think that the difference you’re finding is that generations are willing to make that exchange of information if they perceive a value for it.

You hear about how the millennials, they want everything for free, well I think they understand that it’s not actually free, that they’re exchanging information for that access, so I think it’s just more that the value exchange has shifted and they need to be aware of what they are sharing in that moment.

HP: In the latest quarter there has been a decline in user growth and The Atlantic even wrote a eulogy for Twitter, declaring it a moribund social media network. What is your response to that eulogy in light of the waning growth and what is the strategy for attracting users and keeping old ones?

KS: Dick Costolo, our CEO has been pretty public around the challenges surrounding user growth and the strategies we’re putting in place to attack them around making the platform easier to use, making it more fun. We’ve seen some technology advances lately in terms of making the platform easier to jump on and easier to engage with others. Every move they make to refine the platform make it more attractive with more visuals and more opportunity to share content, it's speaking to that. It’s an evolution and Twitter is still in its youth in terms of where it is. And in various countries we are still seeing that user growth.

HP: In Canada, where is user growth at?

KS: We’re good.

HP: So have we seen a decline in user growth in Canada?


HP: What is it about Canada that we’re still seeing user growth at a greater pace than other countries?

KS: I don’t know necessarily that it’s at a bigger pace than other countries, but I do know that our own numbers are quite good. I think the reason for that is that now we’re here on the ground and some of the great work that’s been done. You know the whole #WeareWinter campaign? That was a collaboration between us and the Canadian Olympic Campaign. That got a lot of people active on Twitter and talking on Twitter in a way that’s never been done before. #WetheNorth with the Raptors, Bell's #Let’sTalk, these are things that might not have taken place or not to the same extent if we hadn’t been here. So I think we’re probably seeing growth because of our presence and I think that’s something you’re seeing around the world, when they first open offices you do see growth because that care and attention.

HP: How do you use Twitter differently now that you work for the company? Are your tweets any different?

KS: I think the only difference is that because I’m no longer where I used to be, there I had to cultivate a certain respect in personality on Twitter so it might not have been as free as it is now. And I think my use of Twitter has just expanded as I learn from people, you learn lots of tricks and lots of ways to communicate. As you learn and grow you learn everything from how to phrase something properly to how to sum it up in 140 characters.

HP: What is your favourite topic to tweet about?

KS: If someone looked at my feed, I think they’d say I tweet an awful lot about sports. It’s that in the moment camaraderie that you get that you’re not just turning to someone next to you on the couch, you’re turning to the world and it’s just a lot of fun. I’ve had Twitter bets with people in New York, that I lost ,with Rangers Versus Canadiens with Eugenie (Bouchard) I think those moments are rallying moments and it's fun to get involved in those kind of conversations.

HP: So, I guess we’ll have to look out for your Twitter feed during the World Cup?

KS: Yes, I’m looking forward to it. Go check out the Vine that Twitter Sports made! Over six seconds, it flashes all the different logos for the countries that are in the World Cup and the idea is that it’s like a World Cup roulette and so whenever you push on pause and it stops that’s either who you think is going to win or who you should be rooting for.

HP: So who did it say for you?

KS: It said I should be rooting for Portugal.

HP: And is that right?

KS: I guess I’m going to have to now.

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