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As head of Twitter Canada, Kirstine Stewart’s main job is convincing broadcasters and brands that the network is a place where they can engage with more people. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
As head of Twitter Canada, Kirstine Stewart’s main job is convincing broadcasters and brands that the network is a place where they can engage with more people. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

One year in, Twitter's Canadian arm strives to define itself Add to ...

It has been a year of growth, hiring, and thousands upon thousands of tweets at Twitter Inc.’s Canadian outpost, but Kirstine Stewart still struggles to find the right yardstick to measure its progress.

As head of Twitter Canada, Ms. Stewart’s main job is convincing broadcasters and brands that her company’s network is a place where they can engage with more people, whether they’re on their sofa or on the move. Even after many milestones, there is much more to do to convince companies to pour their marketing budgets into 140-character promotions.

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One year after it set up shop in Toronto, the company’s Canadian arm still holds to its startup ethos. There is no clear five-year plan, which makes it harder to explain what Twitter is, and will be. For now, Ms. Stewart has been extending a hand to nervous former colleagues in the broadcast world – her last job was heading up CBC’s English services – and promising to help them find “new life” and new audiences in a fast-changing digital landscape.

“We have a great opportunity to help transition traditional media into a newer space,” Ms. Stewart said in an interview. “Did video kill the radio star? No. Things move and change. That’s just the world of media.”

Among the success stories so far is the fact that all of Canada’s major broadcasters signed on to Twitter Amplify, a program that lets them embed videos and other content into tweets targeted at users with particular interests. Thanks to the power of algorithms, the corporate account for Hockey Night in Canada can now blast out clips of goals scored in the NHL playoffs within moments, reaching targeted hockey aficionados who are not yet among its 248,000 followers.

The key is Twitter’s ability to mine data on hundreds of millions of users – some of whom have come to view the network as an indispensable tool – that is more specific than the broad age and gender categories that have shaped decision-making in conventional television. “I’m a 40-something woman with a couple of kids at home. I don’t watch Oprah,” Ms. Stewart says, to illustrate that “no one is ever typical.”

Initiatives like Amplify have driven Twitter’s rapid growth. Its first-quarter revenue more than doubled to $250-million worldwide, and its global recruiting has nearly kept pace, rising from 1,500 employees when Ms. Stewart became the first Canadian-based hire in April, 2013, to nearly 3,000 today.

The Canadian office has swelled to more than 20 people and expects to surpass 30 by summer’s end, which will soon force a move from its King Street West location to make room for new arrivals. Here, seniority is measured in months, or even weeks. Revenue has also “multiplied,” Ms. Stewart said, though the company doesn’t release country-specific figures.

Yet investors are still wary. Growth in the number of users has been slowing, and the first quarter saw just a 5.8-per-cent increase in the number of users, to 255 million. Some have questioned whether Twitter can secure the mass appeal needed to make it profitable. The company publishes select metrics such as ad revenue per 1,000 timeline views, and has 360 ways to profile its users, from location to gender or the device they use.

Even so, it can be tricky making those numbers tell a simple story that shows how Twitter measures up to Facebook Inc. or Google Inc. “People try to fit you in a box,” Ms. Stewart says.

She still hears from naysayers who think Twitter is filled mostly with people commenting on their lunch, but less often. More broadcasters, brands such as Visa Inc. and organizations such as the Canadian Olympic Committee have been experimenting with Twitter’s ever-expanding suite of promotional products.

But marketers often carve up their budgets between conventional and digital media, which can hamstring investments in Twitter. The solution, Ms. Stewart says, is education. She has brought on board new managers to work closely with particular industries, such as head of sports Christopher Doyle, who joined recently from CBC Sports. Their message is that businesses “have to think more in real time” about reaching users, and that Twitter can be the connector.

“It’s hard to define that success and explain it in a simple way,” she says. “But it’s pretty clear what it is when you’re on the platform.”

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