Case Study: Caterpillar and blue collar social media marketing

One of the common complaints I hear is that social media marketing doesn’t seem to fit for many businesses … “My customers don’t tweet or read blogs.”

And while that may be true, don’t assume you know where your customers are getting their information, especially if you haven’t checked for awhile. Even in the past few months there has been a cataclysmic shift in the way people obtain and share information.

Case in point: Caterpillar.  You probably couldn’t name a more conservative, blue-chip, blue-collar company than The Cat. And yet earlier this year I named their blog community as one of the Top 10 in the world for the remarkable connection they are creating with their customers.

I was fortunate to be able to interview Brian R. Stokoe, Social Media Program Manager for Caterpillar to get some insights into how his team is creating social media magic with an atypical demographic:

Mark: Caterpillar is a very traditional blue chip B2B but seems to be integrating social media as good or better than many consumer-oriented companies. Did the culture of Caterpillar enable this transition to new media, or did new media influence the culture of Caterpillar?

Brian:  It is true that Caterpillar is well-known for having a conservative culture, but the management here has also keenly recognized the sociological changes that have come with new media technologies. Our CEO, Doug Oberhelman, always has his iPad in-hand, and promotes the idea that we need to use technology to make Caterpillar better.

The company also recognized the potential value in social media to connect with our customers. Overall, I’d say the culture has been transformed by the changing world. I’m not sure the experimental nature of social media would have been embraced 10 or 15 years ago. Caterpillar is less reactive and more aggressive than ever before.

Your words “less reactive” surprise me. I think of social media as being a highly reactive platform.

I was specifically speaking about Caterpillar’s use of marketing technologies. We are aggressively using more of the technologies before they become main-stream.  In the past, we would avoid leveraging new marketing technologies until everyone else in the world had demonstrated how to use the tools. So we were reactive.  We are now willing to participate and leverage tools that may still be evolving.

Our techniques for using these tools are always founded in industry best practices. So yes, listening and responding are key in the social media space. The public facing two way conversation is great for us. The Caterpillar brand is built on the backs of great relationships. Social media technologies provides the opportunity to publicly demonstrate our customer / business relationships

Can you describe the major pillars (or platforms) of your social media strategy?

We are recognizing the power of the big three social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — but we’re also exploring other platforms that are highly used in specific areas of the world. While those are valued external social media platforms, we have also proven the value from the industry blogs and forums that are managed and hosted by Caterpillar.

I’m amazed at the level of engagement you routinely attract on your blogs. It’s quite unusual for a large company. How do you keep company blogs human enough to attract attention like this?

I think the key to our success is putting a face to a name makes a lot of sense in our industries, especially the highly technical and complex industries Caterpillar supports. Credibility is key. The Caterpillar organization is filled with the smartest engineers and industry experts in the world. We want to leverage their expertise and promote the individual’s persona so the reader has a better understanding of who is speaking about a certain topic, and why should they be trusted.

How are you integrating new media with traditional marketing methods?

The organization that I am a part of is called the “Multichannel Marketing Group.”  As our name indicates, we are driving a culture that views marketing communication through a multichannel lens. It is our directive to consider the objectives of our business and decide how each communication channel should be leveraged to reach the correct audience in the optimal way.

Speaking of organization, how have you had to change the org chart to meet the needs of social media marketing?

Our organization has been massaged a bit to help accommodate the needs being presented in social media. Firstly,”I” am a representation of the organizational adjustment. My position is new and completely dedicated to the strategy and implementation of Caterpillar’s social media presence. Similar to the definition that Jeremiah Owyang and the Altimeter Group defined, Caterpillar is using a Multiple Hub & Spoke organization, where my organization is centrally located, to provide direction, guidance, articulate value, etc.

Our internal business units are working with my group to establish and ultimately take control of their day-to-day social media presence. With this empowerment, comes responsibility. We have to make sure the right people are involved from the business unit to ensure the social media presence is properly managed, maintained, and ultimately feels like a true extension of our web presence and brand.

I’m guessing many of your customers are in an industrial, construction, or farming environment. What special challenges does that present?

Yes, there are interesting obstacles that come with the “industrial”‘ type pf customer.  We have to carefully select the channels we use to interact with our customers. From our perspective, each customer segment needs to be evaluated separately. For example, a customer in the construction industry might spend most of their time on various job sites running their business or operating machinery. This customer might rely on social media channels such as Forums much more so than a Facebook page, because the majority of the time when they are connected, it is out of necessity to ensure their equipment continues working so their business keeps moving. This case also demonstrates the opportunity for mobile solutions. The ability to access the right information quickly is critical.

Sounds like a mobile strategy is key.

Similar to my role as the Social Media Program Manager, we have a person solely devoted to the Mobile strategy. Our paths cross often, but one benefit of leveraging external social media channels is that these tools already have a heavy focus of ensuring the mobile experience is well executed. This is good for companies like Caterpillar, because there is less investment required from our perspective.

From the outside it certainly appears that Caterpillar is on the move.  Internally, how do you measure your progress?

We’re still evolving but we do have a dashboard of the metrics we want to track.  This dashboard is intended to demonstrate a funnel of activities, starting at the high-level metrics (Gross Views, Connections, Audience Engagements…) then leading into more tangible metrics (Referrals & Conversions). What we find is that these tangible metrics must be customized by each group — because the business objectives are not always the same — while rolling up into larger buckets of corporate objectives. One other self-serving set of metrics we are tracking is our own engagements. These are gathered to ensure we are keeping our channels fresh and maintained

Looking out to the next 12-18 months what changes out there excite you the most about the social web?

I am excited about the location based social media tools (Foursquare, Facebook Places, Gowalla, etc…). We are still figuring out how to best leverage these types of tools for Caterpillar and the Cat Dealer network, but the potential is high as the concepts become more mainstream. We are also excited about the growth and use of social media technologies emerging from a global perspective. Our customers are in every corner of the world. As the social media technologies mature and become widely used, we are ensuring that Caterpillar’s presence is strong everywhere.

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