An Interview with Kersten Stevens: How Social Media can be used to Engage Diverse Audiences

Kersten Stevens is an accomplished jazz and gospel violinist, as well as a creative and talented social media executive. Not only did she bring down the house as a six-time winner of The Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night and win a People’s Choice Award for Best Contemporary Gospel Album, Kersten is CEO and Chief Thinker at her own firm—Think Suite Media, LLC.

In the nearly eight years since its founding, the social media consulting firm has expanded and diversified the digital footprints of many public figures, nonprofit organizations and cultural institutions, including The Apollo, whose community she grew from 8,000 followers to a global audience of more than 325,000!

I first met Kersten while consulting with The Apollo. It has been exciting to watch her grow to a leader in the field of digital marketing. Since that time, I have had the opportunity to experience the impact of her creativity and insights on numerous projects, and I firmly believe her pioneering work using social media to advance diversity and inclusion will continue to advance the field. Kersten is an inspired leader who believes in the power of creativity and collaboration, and I believe the followers of Arts and Cultural Connections should know all about her.

 Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you begin your work in the arts?

 Kersten Stevens: My love of the arts began when I first started playing the violin at the age of 3. My mom placed me in a Kinderhythms class, which exposed me to all of the string instruments.  I attached almost instantly to a faux violin—a cereal box with a ruler taped to it. I used a second ruler as a bow. From then on, violin became synonymous with my existence! I also played the alto-sax from 4th grade through my senior year of high school. So ultimately, Saturdays were spent in orchestra; Sundays were spent performing in church, and school days were spent in band class or jazz band.

As if a young black girl playing classical music wasn’t an example of diversity in and of itself, I also was lucky enough to study jazz and gospel styles under greats like the late jazz violinist John Blake, Jr., and MacArthur Award-winning jazz violinist Regina Carter. It was through their guidance and the study of those genres that I became a performer and recording artist, opening for Ray Charles my senior year of high school; performing for the likes of actor/director Denzel Washington and former U.S. President Barack Obama, and winning Amateur Night and Showtime at the Apollo a number of times. I have always involved in the arts.

Donna: How did you develop your skills in digital marketing?

Kersten: My first foray into digital marketing came in 2011 when I embarked on an effort to raise $18K to record my third album, Inspire Me, back when crowdfunding was all the rage.  I worked with a friend to produce a video, design graphics, strategize posts for social media—all the while not even realizing that what I was doing was in fact digital marketing! I was so focused on raising the funds, that I almost missed the number of skills I was developing in the process. LOL!

Ultimately, the fundraiser was quite successful, and a good friend of mine, who was working at the Apollo Theater at the time, took note! They reached out and hired me to produce video content, tweet during Amateur Night at the Apollo, and blog in a new micro-department aptly named Amateur Night Digital. What was supposed to be a short digital content experiment, quickly turned into managing the Apollo’s institutional social media strategy, and the rest is history!

Donna: Where did you see you could have impact in the field of nonprofit arts organizations?

 Kersten: I felt I could make an impact in the non-profit arts world in three major ways: First, as a creative, improvisational person, I knew I could navigate well in the constantly shifting world of non-profit arts and entertainment. I actually had fun pivoting on a moment’s notice, delivering on beat, and in key! Plus, I knew I could learn a ton in an environment that kept me on my toes, especially in an arena—social media—that was still being charted.

Second, I felt my background in performance gave me a unique perspective about what it takes to sell an experience of the stage. What makes a patron buy a ticket? Why does a performer take the stage? Somewhere in-between those answers was the key; the special sauce of marketing a show on social media, and I felt I knew all the ingredients and that made me an important asset. At the Apollo Theater, that understanding was doubly unique in that I had performed on that historic stage numerous times.

And third, I have a background in both performance and academics. In addition to playing both the violin and alto saxophone, I danced and sang in musicals as a kid. And I double majored in Music and African American Studies at Yale. It was when I began consulting at New Jersey Performing Arts Center that I realized how all of my various experiences would be a real asset! When it came to promoting a show or tweeting live during a performance, I quickly realized I was able to contribute as much accurate commentary on a performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 5 as I could about Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Herbie Hancock, Los Temerarios, Tony Bennett—you name it! Ultimately, it was the diversity of my background that truly gave me everything I needed to make a real impact in the arts.

Donna: How did you approach thinking about your diversity work, what were the influences?

 Kersten: I’ve found it important to speak to the content or the art as authentically as possible. Lovers of classic hip hop need a “HIP HOP HORAAYYYY HOOOO,” where Harry Potter fans respond to “Accio! Confundo! Crucio!” Classical buyers want a complete list of Shostakovich pieces on program, but Ailey buyers are interested in what the choreographer was thinking.  Knowing how each audience reacts is crucial to getting the reaction desired.

But let’s go deeper, because the funny thing is the key to approaching diversity is in fact its inverse—finding and understanding what truly unites all audiences. This understanding helps reach the masses AND makes all programs and genres more accessible. I’ve learned that a tweet or post must balance through lines and authenticity simultaneously.

What’s the value of a through line? My best example: No matter the demographic, social media users want a conversation, an exchange, an experience, to agree—or disagree—to comment, to retweet, but never to be sold. So, the goal with any post is to elevate content over message, so that the tweet yields a result (retweet, click, purchase) because it resonated on a level accessible to and familiar with the consumer, i.e. “Get in the door,” is preferable to “Buy your tickets now.”

What’s the benefit to accessibility? This is direct but bears repeating in some circles: All black people don’t just wanna see Dipset in concert! This is a fact!! It is the responsibility of digital marketers to paint broad enough strokes in their messaging such that an old hip hop head might consider purchasing a ticket to see Tai Murray perform Mozart’s No. 5 (or at least retweets the post to his/her/their followers).

Long story short: I approach my work in diversity through social media by finding ways to simultaneously stay relevant and authentic to the art and its core audience, AND then expand the message so the most people possible are invited to engage an experience outside of their norm.

Donna: What is the result and how you serve your clients, is there a broader sensitivity in how you advise them. Why does it matter? What is the impact?

Kersten: Let’s start with the Apollo and their most watched video of all time—a video of Michael Jackson’s performance at the Superbowl. Painting the broadest stroke does NOT necessarily mean long verbose paragraphs. It’s often uniting audiences around a common, international renowned event and an artist with strong relevance to the brand. In the Apollo’s case, it was the Super Bowl and Michael Jackson. The post? Michael Jackson had the best Super Bowl performance of all time. Yes or no? To date, the video has almost 42 million organic views (no boosting, no ads) and nearly shifted half of the Apollo’s follower demographics from Asia to South America. Now, the latter result was not entirely intentional, save for the fact that the post was intended to be a post people of all demographics and interests could get in on.  The impact is unifying different audiences around one global brand’s post.

The second example is the work I did at NJPAC, which I served from 2014-2018. When I began, NJPAC’s Facebook following was well-dominated by middle-aged African-American women who were amped to engage with content around Michelle Obama, but would leave crickets on anything having to do with older white men (i.e., Itzhak Perlman).  The Perlman shows were selling, but the ticket buyers weren’t following us on Facebook, indicating two challenges: How to write posts accessible enough to engage the core audience no matter what was posted and how to convert NJPAC’s various ticket-buyer audiences to followers, and therefore diversify NJPAC’s digital community? This was all super important because NJPAC is the most diverse performance arts center in the country, and its digital community needed to reflect that. So here are two ways I worked to address this:

First is one of my earliest posts on the NJPAC Facebook Page. The challenge was selling the performance of the opera La Traviata to a predominately Black following. Having studied it in college, I knew that it was also featured in my favorite scene in the film Pretty Woman. Apparently, that scene was everyone’s favorite, because 32 comments later, we had created an audience who previously wouldn’t have cared or engaged around content different from their “perceived” norm. The impact? The success of that post informed how I pitched promotions for classical shows moving forward. Four years later, NJPAC’s Facebook followers have diversified such that engagement is possible on almost any post, if the algorithm plays nice. That was a real accomplishment of my time there.

As to how I addressed the second issue of converting ticket buyers to followers—just briefly—we engaged them onsite in as many ways as possible. I implemented a social media lounge at events where audiences were expected to be engaged and where we wanted to better engage them. There was gobo lighting with the @njpac handles everywhere, and in all of the marketing collateral. It was a slow burn, but the proof is in the pudding!

Donna: What are the trends you see in diversity and inclusion and who is doing it successfully?

 Kersten: As to trends in diversity, I’m seeing three: Those who are woke, those who are waking up, and those who are asleep at the wheel. I’ll speak to the extremes:

Too many of the people in the C-suites of arts institutions approach diversity the same way Sandra Bullock approaches her situation in the film Bird Box–blindfolded. They know they have to go somewhere, do something about this big, luring thing called “diversity,” but they have no idea what it really means and, consequently, take a ton of wrong turns along the way. I’ve seen this happen time and time again: Rather than hire a social media manager with a background as diverse as its social followers or even its target, core audiences, the institutions do the opposite, and suffer major consequences with staff who can’t speak to diverse demographics except through tropes and stereotypes. When an organization isn’t committed to the diversity of its own mission who loses most?

Now, to those who are woke, and doing it for the culture: The Apollo is a great example! The Soul of American Culture is an institution that recognizes the necessity of diversity and inclusion and is doing a really fantastic job of building a staff of seasoned arts professionals with a myriad of backgrounds and strengths. But also, they are working to give balance to the programs of its stages, and the audiences that fill those historic red seats. Just because they have a responsibility to elevate the African-American canon does not mean they can’t celebrate the contributions of all artists and creatives. I’m looking forward to its expansion to new stages and am constantly inspired by how its renewed mission is coming alive.

Donna: What are your future plans for creating access to the arts through your medium?

 Kersten: My plan for the future is to identify more opportunities to use my expertise in social media and digital marketing to benefit as many institutions as possible! I’m passionate about elevating a brand’s digital footprint to the height of its mission, which I know, sounds like a lofty, unattainable goal, but the truth is that its accomplished with short, well-pitched, well-informed tweets – one, after the other, after the other. Thank you, Donna!

Donna: Thank you, Kersten, for helping us all understand how an institution’s social media strategy, which is an open invitation for engagement, can be used to reach, inform, educate, cultivate and open doors to diverse audiences. You’ve given us a lot to think about and add to our 2019 action plans.