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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  • Very interesting insight into the methods applied by “big business” into the world of social media. When companies like Cat can find a real use for social media, it helps smaller companies consider the platform as well. Thanks for the insight!

  • When I was looking at companies on Facebook and Twitter for a presentation last year, the Caterpillar Facebook  page really stood out as a great way to do a Facebook page. They were engaging with their audience really well and were miles ahead of other manufacturers. The Twitter account was not quite to that point of development, but this is a great way to show manufacturers that you can indeed wedge your way into Social Media.

    Good stuff!

  •  This case study is refreshing to see. Caterpillar are a reminder that Social Media can be used by most businesses, if used in the right way. It wouldn’t have been long ago that an industrial giant like this would have sneered at the thought of doing a web site. To see them embrace the social space is a lesson for many.

    I am sure I will be referring to this case study in the future, thanks Mark.

  • Great point Dave. You can bet these companies are pouring tons of resources into these efforts. By watching them carefully, we can learn a LOT!  I know I do.

  •  I have been really inspired by the CAT blogs.  They have become a great outreach program for the company and are really a best practice in building an engaged community. A great reflection of the company culture, too.  Thanks for taking the time to comment Margie!

  •  I really like the interview here and since I come from a construction family biz that operates in heavy equipment, I’m keenly aware of a part of the demographic that CAT is trying to reach.  I’d like to pass this on to my Dad, as I try to nudge him towards social media, but upon a quick search was unable to find the Blog that you reference here.  Can you give me a link?  Thanks!

  •  I think that is a great reminder Dave.  Companies were resistant about websites too. Heck, I remember that my boss was resistant to email!  Super point. I’m glad this post will be useful to you!

  • This interview is loaded with great information Mark! The ideas and methods Caterpillar utilize can work for many  businesses.

    I loved the answer to this question: “How do you keep company blogs human enough to attract attention like this?”

    I think many businesses may be amprehensive to the idea of promoting key personal or employees on the social web. I like the trust they put into their employees and the freedom they provide them to share their area of expertise and passion for the company with others. 

    There does need to be a social media policy in place, but it doesn’t have to prevent the human side of business to shine through to new and existing customers. 

    The social side of business is about personality. That comes from the top down. 

    The most important thing to think about for any business or brand is “What do people think about when your brand comes up in conversaton?” 

    Based on this article, what will always come to my mind when I think of Caterpillar is “trust.”

  •  Of course Erica. Thanks for asking. Actually Caterpillar is a best practice in that they have a number of blogs segmented by industry:

  • CAT was one of the firms Dr. Julie O’Neil and I studied last year — they were arguably the best of eight companies in applying social media. Ford had the volume, but CAT had the interactivity — the forums showed a real effort to have dialogue with their customers. Very impressive.  Julie and I presented our paper at the International PR Research Conference in March 2010, and again at PRSA in October 2010. We plan to continue our research…

  • Wonderful points Mark. I should have asked about the social media policy. Maybe Brian will come on the blog today and add a few comments about that. I’m sure CAT is pretty proud that their brand is associated with trust! Well said!

  • Sean, is your paper or presentation available anywhere? I would love to see this and I think a lot of readers would jump at the chance to read this. Do you have a link?

  • As I was reading this case study, I found myself thinking this is what my business is all about. 

    This may seem strange since our companies are extremely different and yet similar in that my focus is also on the “approach and growth” as this relates to clients.  Specifically, tracking engagements and strengths in my day-to-day social media presence; listening and responding currently with a global perspective; and looking forward to being and having a stronger presence.

    Your case study presentation has helped me further conceptualize and formulate my position in this “social space.”  Thank you Brian, thank you Mark! 

  • Hi Mark (H.). You nailed it. The social media policy should help articulate the way you want employees to represent the brand in social media channels. We have a policy in place that basicaly says… 1) Represent yourself as an employee of Caterpillar 2) Don’t provide confidential infromation 3) Only speak about things you know, and demonstrate your expertese. I think it’s a great recipe.

  • This is just such a fantastic post Mark. I shared this on Facebook because I want my bosses to see it. I am also printing it out to refer to later.

    The best thing about this is that Cat is creating such a great community. What a fantastic example for those who insist blogging cannot work for their business.

    So glad I saw this Mark! Great interview too.

  •  Excellent questions and comments.

    Like Mark, I feel this sums up the potential so well for many organizations who have smart employees with something to say: “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.”

  • My apologies for my bad manners in not addressing you in my comment as well. I also appreciate your feedback here. 

    Although Caterpillar has been serving the marketplace for nearly a hundred years, you’re brand is stronger than ever; at least in my mind anyways : )

    I’ve also owned CAT machinery in the past and have always had great service and a great experience with CAT professionals.

    Thanks Brian.

  • Very cool interview Mark.   Every social media person needs to read this.

    I loved Brian’s comment about putting a human face even on a B2B website.  I think that social media offers a great opportunity for corporations to put a human face to their business.  And, it sounds like this is working for CAT.

    Another example of this is Matt Cutts from Google.  He has become the humanity of Google’s algorithm.

  • As someone who grew up in a rural town of 2,000 up in Maine, I am in love with this interview. There’s a misconception that the blue collar industry is made up of stubborn luddites. In reality, they are chiefly concerned with preserving their way of life — and that means getting access to important information as quickly and easily as possible. If a smart phone and Twitter feed is that resource, you can bet they’ll be on them.

    Thanks for an article that dispels some of these common myths, Mark.

  • Hi Mark! As ever, thanks for providing great content – love that your looking at non-obvious places for expertise and relevant cases, and Brian’s clearly got that to share!

    If this question isn’t too “in the weeds” (feel free to take this offline via Twitter DM or similar)..I am curious about how Brian (or Caterpillar) evaluated what community platform would work best for their needs. Brian, what were the “must haves” and “nice to haves” that factored into to your using the platform I saw on your community site?

  • Very interesting connection.  Your synapses are working overtime these days! 

  • One thing I like about this is that CAT has their act together. The social presence is simply an extension of their strong brand. They don’t have to worry about “fixing” anything. They can move ahead and engage with confidence.Glad this helped the education process Nancy!  

  • That really is a significant quote, isn’t it? Love that. Thanks for pointing that out Doug.  

  • Great analogy Fred. Thanks for connecting those dots. I appreciate you took the time to comment today!  

  • You’re most welcome. I have a blue collar heart and also get defensive when they start putting people in categories. I mentioned the other day that my childhood hero was my great uncle. A plumber, never finished high school … and a decorated and beloved astronomer. My family is made up of farmers, steel workers and laborers. But they all worked hard with dignity and bettered themselves through their hard work. Blue collar is definitely my comfort zone! : )  

  • Thank you Mark. And, thanks for noticing ; )

  • Thanks, Mark!  That’s perfect.  Again, so glad to have something so relatable to my parent’s business! Thanks for sharing your interview with us!

  • This is a great interview with tons of great information. I’ve always wondered how B2B companies can effectively integrate social media (particularly the industrial sector) and Caterpillar is a fine example. I like it when Brian said “carefully select the channels we use to interact with our customers”  and follows to talk about job sites and forums which reminds me that such sites are often underrated in the social-rush.

  • Micocrane

    using modern strategies will help inventive marketing.

  • Outstanding, Mark! Thank-you for sharing this. Caterpillar is not a brand “most” would think is ripe for the social web which proves it’s not about (say it with me) the tools. Brian seems to be an excellent steward of the brand and those important to its continued success which includes suppliers and customers. Bravo.

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  • Hi Lori. Sorry for the delayed response. The platform selection took place before I became directly involved with our social media efforts, so I had to get some help on this question. Here’s what I found:

    Our technical requirements were driven by our customer’s needs. They were as follows.

    • Connect with customers who’s business needs are not being met with traditional channels
    • Giving customer’s access to Caterpillar 24/7
    • Foster peer to peer interactions. Customers helping customers
    • Increase customer interactions
    • Discover and extract the voice of the customer
    • Improve product and application knowledge for high opportunity business segments
    • Enable self service support
    • Use blogs to give customer expert advice

    Here is the vendor criteria we used.

    • Cloud vs in-house installation
    • Security
    • Ease-of-Use
    • Performance
    • Scalability
    • Management/Administration
    • Flexibility
    • Features and functionality
    • Branding/Customization capabilities
    • Support
    • Vendor health

    Hope this helps!

  • Hi Lori. Sorry for the delayed response. The platform selection took place before I became directly involved with our social media efforts, so I had to get some help on this question. Here’s what I found:

    Our technical requirements were driven by our customer’s needs. They were as follows.

    • Connect with customers who’s business needs are not being met with traditional channels
    • Giving customer’s access to Caterpillar 24/7
    • Foster peer to peer interactions. Customers helping customers
    • Increase customer interactions
    • Discover and extract the voice of the customer
    • Improve product and application knowledge for high opportunity business segments
    • Enable self service support
    • Use blogs to give customer expert advice

    Here is the vendor criteria we used.

    • Cloud vs in-house installation
    • Security
    • Ease-of-Use
    • Performance
    • Scalability
    • Management/Administration
    • Flexibility
    • Features and functionality
    • Branding/Customization capabilities
    • Support
    • Vendor health

    Hope this helps!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks much for taking the time to dig into this – a nice set of criteria for those looking to evaluate platforms!

  • Such a great interview! Being involved in the industrial market as well, it’s very interesting to see how Caterpillar has leveraged the available tools for their specific use and turned them into quantifiable results. Excellent case study, and so relevant. Thanks to both Mark and Brian!

  • Hi Mark et al,

    Caterpillar may be “blue collar” at some level but certainly not at it’s social media level.

    This is a multi million dollar outfit that has many personel and I’d hazard a guess that the person being interviewed and supplying all the web activity doesn’t wear a blue collar!

    I work for a small UK company supplying tax refunds to tradesmen. Quite a few of these guys have a facebook account, one or 2 (as a company) have twitter and then some are on specific forums for their trades.

    The twitter accounts are pretty dormant – they were probably told to open an account, but they either don’t have the time or the inclination to use it.

    Being on the internet, reading blogs, keeping up with FB and twitter takes time and most “blue collar” workers do not have that luxury – they are the ones hard at it on a roof, up scaffolding, driving the big cat! To use the net for the stuff that we (yeah thats us lot here) do, you need to be sat at a desk or yeah, able to afford a nice ipad!

    Lets face it, the “blue collar” worker at Caterpillar, is connecting with his customers – who are all B2B big corporates with sparkly white collars!

    (apologies if anyone else said this stuff… theres a lot of posts to catch up and I just had to gush!)
    (btw, this is also @zzzzztt – Rosie)

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  • Mark, this is one of the most exciting examples of B2B social media in action. I use them as an example all the time because they are able to leverage the true value of what this is all about……
    Thanks for putting this together! 

  • I am so glad you saw this.  I actually had you in mind. I thought you wouold like this!  

  • Respectfully I disagree with you. First, what make you think blue collar workers have less time to spend on social media than white collar just because they are fixing a roof?  I think you have that backwards.  Second, look at the statstics. The demographics of FB and Twitter are all over the board. Of course LI is more buttoned uop button but the beauty of social media is that it is free and available to everyone.  Have you looked at the CAT blogs?  You might change you mind.  Thanks for commenting and adding your dissenting view. It is a very legitimate perpective from your experience … I’m just saying the data would say something else. 

  • You’re welcome Beth. There is so much opportunity for B2B.  Relationship buying based on a long sales cycle (typically).  Isn’t that the sweet spot for using social media? 

  • Amen brother. Well said!! 

  • Tons of opportunities for social and B2B. That’s where I do most of my work and I love it! very rewarding to see some of this stuff start to pay off!  

  •  Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the reply. If you’re up on a roof or putting up scaffolding, you have less time for the internet, full stop. Health & safety puts a stop to that ;o). C’mon, a guy at a desk, doing social media and blogging as part of his remit (as your interviewee) is going to spend more time on social media sites. Part of what I do is the marketing and social media for BetterTAX and so I spend lots of hours reading blogs, doing facebook stuff and tweeting etc etc.

    Yes, I can engage with our clients (and potential clients) mostly through facebook, cos they have smart phones that allow them, on a break, to check what their mates are up to. I can pretty much guarantee that hardly any, if at all, have read a blog about their industry!

    I’m not saying what you’re saying is wrong or a bad thing for “blue collar” “companies” to get using SM, I think they should, what I’m saying is, your article is a little misleading in as much as the blogger in question is no more “blue collar” than you or I.


  • There is nothing in the article implying that Brian is “blue collar.” I can’t fathom why you would think this is misleading. The point of the artilce is to show that a company typically thought of appealing to a blue collar constituency is succeeding in social media.

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  • Milo

     Great, we are in Argentina, and Finning (Cat regional dealer) is very active with us on our Blog, Facebook, Twitter and on the website. We are a regional Classfied web pago for Construction and Agricultural equipment. ( Also we have a blog in were we inform about market, or company news, related with our core, of course. Thnks! milo 

  • Awesome to have you comment from South America. Thanks!

  • Communicating with the target audience has always been the objective of good promotional marketing. Using social media to accomplish this task should be no different. That means, finding the right Web/social sites to reach that audience. For example, if you’re looking for industrial customers, Facebook probably isn’t the place to find them since it’s predominantly focused on consumers. For example, my client who fabricates tube and pipe needs to get in front of engineers and industrial designers, so we use the ThomasNet directory. If they ever add a social component, we’ll be golden.

  • Anonymous

    Great interview Mark.
    As a small company in the Electronic Manufacturing industry, I have been looking for ways to connect with new customers via Social Media. We have seen some success with seasonal newsletters, but I am not sure how using facebook or twitter would reach customers, considering most of those who receive our newsletters do not use these applications and would not be able to communicate with these outlets.
    Maybe you can provide some insight.

  • Well I think you need to first step back and assess where your customers are … and then be there. Unlike a lot of marketing observers, I don’t advocate a message of fear of missing out. I think you need to spend your time and resources in the appropriate way, with the appropriate message to achieve the most impact.

    Having said that, do you REALLY know that your customers are detached from social media? Now might be a good time to check. Or, is this where your market is headed? It’s a good idea to be in front of the pack.

    I would also say to keep in mind that there are lots of good reasons to be on the social web other than sales. It’s a great way to learn and meet new contacts and resources. I recently wrote a blog post on ten reasons to blog even if nobody reads it, which provides a compelling case for this platform, even if your customers aren’t there.

    So take a rational view of your market and don;t force social media unless it is warranted. But don’t overlook first mover advantage and the other benefits that are out there. Hope that helps!

  • There you go. That is sound advice. Good job Robin!

  • I think the article is interesting – as a member of the marketing department for a manufacturer I am always interested in learning how others in our industry are using social media to their advantage.  

    Given that, I am not sure I see any evidence of a “success story” at Caterpillar in the post.  Engagement in the blogs they host is high and worthwhile, but glancing at there Facebook pages I see nothing that could be termed a success story.

    How exactly is this considered a success?  Just because they are participating in the different outlets?

  • Erin Menard

    I second that, doing some research in the industrial supply area. any info on B2B would be great.

  • They were pretty with their viewers really well and were miles ahead of other producer. The Twitter explanation was not quite to that point of development, but this is a great way to show producer that you can indeed wedge  way into Social Media. Interesting approaching into the methods applied through “big business” into the world of social media. When corporation  can find a real use for social media, it helps smaller companies  as well.

  • I can confirm that blue collar people get information from the Internet.  Eleven years ago I helped a concrete tool company set up a Website and with a year they were getting half their leads from their Website.  Their leads were folks who poured concrete for a living.  Online marketing is turning traditional maketing on its head.  Social media just gives people more ways to find what they’re looking for.

  • Although whether you do a white collar job or a blue collar, it shouldn’t be a matter of status rather how good and honest are you with your job is the most important element in it. There are many examples around the world and we all should learn something from them.

  • Hi,

    Who actually creates the content? Is it out sourced or done internally by all the department heads or engineers and experts. Who takes care of the responses at the execution level.

    Because it is often difficult for me to explain to the client how they should not rely on an external agency to create their SM content. Especially if it requires domain expertise. 

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