Caterpillar Shares the Basis of Its Social Media Success

Representatives from manufacturers and other companies gather together to learn from the construction equipment giant's experiences

Developing a social media strategy can seem pretty daunting even for a small to mid-size business. Now imagine managing it for a $60 billion company with 125,000 employees and hundreds of manufacturing and dealer locations across the globe. Brian Stokoe, social media strategist for Caterpillar Inc., seems up to the task.

Stokoe spoke this morning to a large group of attendees at the Social Media Breakfast of Madison, an ongoing lecture program organized by a group of social media enthusiasts from businesses in and around Madison, WI. This particular breakfast sold out in a couple of hours, and was attended primarily by representatives from manufacturers and other companies seeking to learn from the construction equipment giant's experiences.

After sharing a bit of Caterpillar's background with attendees, including its extensive portfolio of brands and broad customer base, Stokoe discussed how a company of this size and complexity approaches social media. Its solution is an integrated approach.

Relationship building

Stokoe joined Caterpillar in 1999, holding various marketing roles before becoming the company's first dedicated social media strategist two years ago. Since that time, the use of social media by CAT customers has grown exponentially. "In 2011, Caterpillar's social media 'relationships' with customers grew by 300%," he noted. He attributes this to a cultural shift as a generation of "digital natives" who expect social media engagement.

The social media team's role is to act as "strategy owners" and consultants to help put best practices and resources in place. The team is part of the brand management organization, and also works closely with the dealer development group. The result is more seamless messaging across all business channels.

The social media strategy extends beyond brand messaging to focus on building relationships with customers. Stokoe pointed out that every physical activity, or "touch point," involved in a customer's purchase decision – from researching a product, to being issued a sales receipt, to after sale support – can have a corresponding social media component. The trick is to determine where, and what, social media fits in.

Basis of a strategy

Caterpillar's strategy centers around some common "themes" that pundits agree are necessary to develop an effective social media program:

Your customers are talking and you need to be listening. "What are they saying about your company or your brand?" he asked. "If you don't know what's being said, how do you know how to react?"

You need to be prepared to answer that social media "telephone" and engage in the conversation. "Don't let opportunities [to interact with customers] fall between the cracks," Stokoe emphasized.

For Caterpillar, this means positioning itself to respond quickly and effectively. It will soon be staffing social media inquiries 24/7. It has already converted some call center teams to be able to interact via social media; over time, the same strategy will be replicated with teams across the globe.

"We have teams monitoring what's happening who take actionable items and get subject matter experts involved," said Stokoe.

Be open and transparent. Stokoe admitted it can be difficult for a company like Caterpillar to be completely open in every situation. However, it's important to control the message being presented to your customers on social media sites. "It's better to participate," he stated. "Present your stance because if you don't say anything, the rumor mill will say it for you, and that can be far more damaging to your brand."

The organization has to be empowered. Depending on the size of your company, it may be necessary to empower different divisions or departments to manage their own social media program. For example, Stokoe's team works with 30 different groups within Caterpillar. "There is no way a central group can manage social media for the entire organization," he stated. As such, the various groups manage their own social media using a common platform and approach.

Be smart and selective. "Avoid the 'shiny object' syndrome," Stokoe cautioned. For example, he is often asked why the company doesn't have a presence on Pinterest. His response is Caterpillar's customer base is roughly 80% male and 20% female; the Pinterest demographic is 80% female and 20% male. For CAT, the math doesn't add up – at least not until the demographics shift.

Be willing to experiment. Find out whether and what types of social media your customers are using, then be willing to take the plunge. That said, it's equally important to gauge the results of those efforts.

"Think about what you're doing with a new channel or platform," Stokoe advised. "How do you define your success criteria?" Make sure you have the leverage to pull the plug if it's not providing value.

Take advantage of "thought leaders"

Social media engagement can be taken to the next level by getting subject matter experts, or "thought leaders", involved. "We rely on CAT experts to be the face of the company," Stokoe said. "The people behind the logo are the experts."

Subject matter experts within your organization can be a valuable resource to promote your brand, services or expertise. Examine your customer base to identify the best approach to get their thoughts and faces out to the market and develop their following. Available options can include industry discussions, online forums, blogs, etc.

It's important, however, to avoid sending these individuals out into the wilderness without guidance. "It comes down to management of the editorial planning and coordination," Stokoe stated. "Look at the journalism role as critical to make sure the content is presentable (on target)."

Put guidelines in place

You can undermine your social media efforts and damage your brand in a heartbeat if you fail to have guidelines on what should – and should not – be posted in your company's name. Stokoe cited the KitchenAid Twitter debacle as an unfortunate example.

Caterpillar offers training and documentation to all of its employees and dealers to ensure consistent messaging and to outline social media procedures. It also has thorough documentation on how corporate representatives should react to problems or situations that may arise.

There is also a "SWAT" team in place. "It's a group that can get together quickly to develop a message or response to whatever happens," said Stokoe.

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