Caterpillar Constructs its Social Media Strategy

Social media marketing isn’t something that can simply be slapped into place. Doing it well means having more than an obligatory presence on Facebook or Twitter—it entails building an entire set of detailed processes from the ground up and integrating those processes throughout an enterprise.

So it’s fitting that this is precisely what Caterpillar, a company that sells construction equipment, went through when it developed a social media marketing strategy that brought together its 17 various business units, and that constituted four central pillars: customer support, listening, thought leadership, and promotions. It’s an initiative that, when first architected, was defined by trial and error and one that is still evolving to this day, under the purview of the company’s social media manager, Kevin Espinosa.

As with many social media strategies, Caterpillar’s began with a directive from upper management to maintain some sort of presence on the key social networks. “So one night, I created all of the Facebook sites, the YouTube page, and the Twitter page,” Espinosa recalls.

He had no plan. “But I saw I needed one,” he says, “so I came up with a strategy: an enterprise team with a seat at the table.”

He and his team also wrote out a social media playbook to back up his strategy—a “dust collector,” he says, that went largely ignored by every internal stakeholder. What Espinosa needed to do was to ensure the company social media strategy was relevant to Caterpillar’s business units, each of which had different goals and agendas. Simply put: a blanket company-wide approach wouldn’t work.

From the ground up

Today, Caterpillar’s various business units apply social media marketing in different ways. Electric Power, for instance, uses it for thought leadership. “We saw a lot of value in thought leadership,” Espinosa says, “driving people to communities and giving them expert advice on how to configure their generators, or how to size their generators.”

But for Building Construction and Products (BCP), the value of social media was about outreach. “They’re selling skid steers and small backhoes,” Espinosa says. “There are about 10 million users of BCP products out there, and BCP wouldn’t ordinarily be able to reach all of those customers with just a field rep.”

But the process of bringing these units into a comprehensive social media strategy was arduous. For two months Espinosa and his team members worked with each unit to learn their business goals, develop a content strategy around those goals, build out an editorial calendar, and allocate the resources unit managers would need to maintain social relevance.

“We call it the social media activation process,” Espinosa says. The core social media team at Caterpillar is small: just Espinosa and two others who report to him. But it’s also tapped into the greater corporation. Espinosa maintains lines of communication with a member in Caterpillar’s brand marketing department, as well as corporate affairs, and he’s in contact with marketers from each business unit.

Espinosa appreciates this structure. “We meet every week as a team and ask what’s going on,” he says. They discuss where each unit is in terms of social media maturity. If one unit is behind another, they develop a step-by-step process designed to bring flagging units up to speed.

These processes also made the listening component (the company uses Salesforce’s Radian6 tools) of Caterpillar’s social media strategy stronger. “It’s so much more focused,” Espinosa says. “We floundered before trying to listen to everything that was out there.” Now the company can focus only on what’s will have impact.

This is critical because while some elements of social listening are easy—for instance, understanding brand sentiment—it can be difficult to figure out the relevance of issues surrounding general discussion topics.

“The quick wins of social listening is giving the product group or product manager an issue that can be resolved right away,” Espinosa explains. Say a backhoe loader has continuous oil leakage problems and people are complaining on social media; Caterpillar can intercept those grumblings and send them to a product manager to address. Those wins are quick, and they’re great for the customer.

“Where it’s more difficult is topic analysis,” Espinosa says. “As you look at all of these 5,000 posts about a backhoe loader, what’s it really telling you? When you aggregate the data, is it talking about warranty? The price? Comfort?” Moreover, what can product managers derive from that data and apply to improve future incarnations of that Caterpillar product?

For Espinosa and his team, building out a corporate social media strategy—which is an ongoing process—ends when social is firmly embedded throughout the company culture.

“That’s the ultimate goal for us,” he says. “And that’s a hard thing to do, but that’s where you’ve sold it to upper management—where you can make the case that if they put $1 in, they’ll get $10 back.”

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