Caterpillar Brings Social Media to Blue-Collar Business

US News

When you hear the word caterpillar, what comes to mind? Bugs eating the plants in your garden? Mud-caked yellow vehicles carrying millions of cubic tons of dirt to the ends of the earth? How about social media?

In an industry not known for cutting edge connectivity, Caterpillar, a conservative firm with blue-collar roots stemming from its Peoria, Illinois headquarters, was recognized by U.S. News as one of America's Most Connected Companies, not only because it incorporates social media as an extension of its marketing strategy, but because it has begun to use it to include customer preferences in the design of its trucks.

[See America's Most Connected Companies.]

"Caterpillar considers social media to be a public demonstration of its customer-business relationship," says Casey Murphy, Caterpillar's social media strategist. "We recognize that the interaction and support Caterpillar and the Cat dealers provide to our customers is a premium experience."

For example, Caterpillar's CT 660, a multi-purpose truck body that can be customized as a cement mixer, refuse hauler, dump truck, or in other configurations, was introduced last summer in a concerted marketing campaign that used social media. Before that, while the truck was in the design stage, the company launched a website, the Online Customer Research Panel, that asked potential buyers to weigh in on features they wanted to see and discuss topics related to their business that would be relevant to the truck.

"Throughout the design and development stage of the CT660, we used an online customer panel to get real-time customer feedback on different design elements," says George Taylor, director of Caterpillar's Global On-Highway Truck Group. "This panel allowed us to give vocational truck customers interactive surveys and ensure that we were truly building the product that would make our customers more successful. In fact, we still utilize this online customer panel today to gauge customers' reaction to new enhancements to the CT660 and to develop initial feedback on our next truck model."

[See For Manufacturers, the Factory Floor Meets Global Networks.]

On the social media front, the firm's challenge is to communicate with a wide variety of users and customers. That's because Caterpillar's product diversity ranges from the iconic yellow earth movers to landscaping to mining equipment to retail--the company even has an apparel line designed for its vehicle's operators. "This is not a one-size-fits-all social media model that works for all our industries," Murphy says. "Some of our industries have a specific group of customers and applications, while others cross many industries and applications. We try to define our opportunities for engagement and build around that. Some will want thought leadership and application expertise, others a general awareness and a place to show they're a fan."

Throw in a global presence, and the Cat social media initiative covers a lot of ground, spanning business lines and time zones.

At an Arlington, Virginia-based Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation Webinar last April, Kevin Espinosa, the firm's social media marketing manager, described an integration issue where Facebook was being used by customers in addition to traditional communication channels like email and phone contact. Orders that come in through Facebook often have to be filled using phone and e-mail communication.

"We had a potential customer in Poland who wanted to rent 49 dump trucks," he says. "They didn't contact a dealer. They posted it on Facebook. Our social media program manager worked this on the phone to close the deal." In addition to sales queries, he adds, "We're also getting questions about specifications and parts inquiries on social media."

Espinosa also found that a single Facebook page for the entire company does not work when customers are as diverse as Caterpillar's. "The mining companies aren't interested in talking about electricity. You have to get into a segment-specific strategy. We had to make sure that when we're talking about mining on Facebook, we should be talking to the mining community and have a page that supports that. If we want to reach landscapers, we should reach them on their own Caterpillar-branded Facebook page. We're working with our product groups to make sure our marketing plan is integrated with the social media like it would with print."

Eventually, Caterpillar's plan is to have a social media expert embedded within each product group. "If we're trying to market globally from a central point of view in Peoria, Illinois, it won't be successful," Espinosa said.

Social media must be synchronized with other marketing channels, he says. "You want to integrate it with other efforts. Make sure there's a long-term plan around each product group. We need to know the region and the language they communicate in," he says.

[See There's Retail Magic in Silicon's Dust.]

The firm's social-media communications including Facebook and Twitter posts will eventually be syndicated to all dealers. "They can accept those posts or not, or modify them to their liking. We syndicate our content now through the website. We're going to do the same thing through social media," he says.

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