Maria Lettman

Maria Lettman on how Cargill earned global thought leadership on a shoestring budget

We're looking at a population of nine billion people on earth by 2050 and a looming food crisis.

I'm here to bring hope. Thought leadership can be done with almost no staff and no budget.

That's according to research Maria Lettman, Cargill's Director of Social Media, shared in her presentation at's Brands-Only Summit.

According to Maria, that's why the 150-year old company turned their sights toward food security, the idea that, “every human being has a basic right to access to enough food.” Cargill decided food security would become their number-one priority in terms of global thought leadership.

The problem: They had no budget and no staff allocated to earning that thought leadership.

If you're going to do thought leadership of any kind, I urge you not to skip monitoring first.

“I'm here to bring hope,” she says. “Thought leadership can be done with almost no staff and no budget.”

First, she says to start with setting up a monitoring tool to bring in all facets of the topic. Pick a tool that will help you track the conversation in social media, traditional media, print, broadcast, and online media. She says this initial monitoring helped Cargill dispel the idea that another company was already a big influencer on food security.

“If you're going to do thought leadership of any kind, I urge you not to skip monitoring first,” Maria says. “This will help you use your limited resources wisely.”

For example, monitoring the conversation first helped Maria see that Twitter was the channel where people talked about this topic most. Any efforts they put into Facebook or LinkedIn would have been a waste of time.


“You have to ask strategic questions first, even when people want to jump ahead and start with the tactics.”

Maria suggests starting here to gauge your company's true appetite for the topic:

  • Who are we trying to reach?
  • What do we want them to do?
  • Where is the conversation happening?
  • How do we achieve the goal?
  • How do we measure success?

Asking questions like these helped Maria determine that Cargill's audience was a small, select one, made up of government officials, institutions like the UN and World Economic Forum, and some food banks. And that helped her determine every decision they made for this initiative.

“Our main coping mechanism for having no staff was to help establish internally what it takes to be a community manager.”

Maria developed this chart (below) to start conversations about staffing. It shows what a community manager needs to head up a global thought leadership initiative.

Cargill slide

“People were stunned when we said things like, ‘You need to be on Twitter for most of the day,' or, ‘This is not something you can do for five minutes on a Tuesday afternoon.'”

With no budget for content creation or promotion, Maria turned to curation.

She used complex search strings to bring the global conversation on food security into Cargill's monitoring tool, and that turned out to be great for content curation too. It was bringing one to two thousand pieces of relevant content in a day.

“Essentially, we turned our monitoring tool into our content engine,” Maria explains. “The main thing you should not rely on are the few common resources everyone else is already reading, following, or sharing. That's not how you become a thought leader.”

“When the UN calls your company and asks to partner with you because of what you're doing on Twitter, that's a win for social media.”

Maria explains that by building their audience and tracking interactions that mattered, they were reaching the right people and actually earning food security thought leadership. In closing, she shared some of these tips and tricks:

  1. Patience: “It's still worth it to carefully cultivate the audience you want. If you can get a million followers overnight, more power to you. But it isn't worth much if they're not the right million followers.”
  2. Start with curation: “It's better to be in the conversation every day, where your audience is, when they want to talk, and when they're having the conversations than to wait for those times you manage to scrape together original content of your own.”
  3. For events, “before” matters more: Maria explains that before the event is when interest is highest but supply of content is the lowest.
  4. Stick to prime time: If you have limited time, know when you're getting your best results and post during those times. Anything outside of that time frame may be wasted.
  5. Resist doing internal favors to share boring content: “You can probably write the world's most enticing tweet to get people to that lame content. But once they get there, don't make them regret the click.”

Find Maria's full case study at our Brands-Only Summit here and check out her presentation slides. Maria's been a member of since 2010. Find her on LinkedIn here.