The OPEN Forum, which originally launched in 2007, is AmEx's latest and greatest example of a loyalty service, a program designed to help small business owners grow their businesses by providing both insights and resources online. This is not a case of altruism, but rather enlightened self-interest. Mary Ann Fitzmaurice Reilly, SVP of Partnerships & Business Development for American Express OPEN, said, "We already have a large part of the pie so our biggest opportunity is with small business growth—if they grow, we grow."
This enlightened perspective has made OpenForum.com a runaway success. According to Compete.com, monthly traffic has grown to over 1 million visitors, matching other small biz resources. And over 11,000 small businesses have added their names to Connectodex, a combination social network and Rolodex for entrepreneurs that became part of the program in 2009. The program has also put giant American Express into the forefront of social media marketing. OPEN Forum was their first foray into Twitter and now has nearly 10,000 followers.
Recognizing that OPEN Forum is indeed the quintessential example of Marketing as Service, here are six key insights from OPEN Forum to charge up your brand's social media marketing.
1. Research: Build off a Target Need
Given the expense of building a Marketing as Service program like the OPEN Forum, you best start with a solid foundation of research. When explaining the origins of the OPEN Forum, Mary Ann revealed that, "Through our semi-annual survey, nearly 60% of customers told us that they found this new social media world really challenging." She added that, "Only 13% were tapping into social networking because they didn't know how," a need that the OPEN Forum has truly fulfilled.
2. Commit: Stay in It for the Long Haul
Embarking on a Marketing as Service program like this is not for those looking for an instant ROI. "This is a commitment that we made and are going to continue to make," noted Mary Ann, when I asked her about the program ROI. "We didn't go into this lightly and we didn't go into this as a test," she added, noting, "We leveraged insight and took a leap of faith." For other marketers considering such an approach, Mary Ann advised, "Don't just dip your toe into the water, stick to your commitment."
3. Partner: Don't Try to Do It All Yourself
Now in its third year, the program "takes a small army, both internal and external," offered Mary Ann, who mentioned a litany of external partners who help with site development, article content, online media and related live events. When discussing why AmEx sought outside help like Federated Media for bloggers, Mary Ann pointed out that, "You can't do it alone, there are a lot of experts—leverage them to make the most robust solution you can."
4. Evolve: Adapt With Changing Social Mores
Originally designed exclusively for cardmembers, in 2010 AmEx made the adventurous decision to open up the OPEN Forum to members of LinkedIn. Mary Ann said, "When we saw that LinkedIn was opening up its platform, it made us think about the direction social media was going in." Walking the tightrope between exclusivity and social media's openness, AmEx quickly discovered that "it allowed us to broaden the conversation beyond cardmembers which has really enriched the site for everyone."
5. Extend: Social Means Face-to-Face Too
Once embarking on an ambitious online program like OPEN Forum, marketers sometimes forget about the importance of face-to-face interactions. AmEx, on the other hand, has used the OPEN Forum to broaden its approach to trade shows, and according to Mary Ann they found, "a cross pollination of the physical and online social media worlds." She added, "With bloggers at trade shows actually having live discussions that we film and put on OPEN Forum," they were able to complete the marketing circle, working seamlessly between the offline and online channels.
6. Involve: Tap Into Your Community
One of the many positive by-products of building a community like OPEN Forum, is that you then have an opportunity for instant feedback including input on new products and services. Noted Mary Ann, "When we launched AcceptPay (e-billing and payment acceptance), we put a video out there and got feedback that said, 'great, we understand how it works, but what's in it for me?'" Responding with a new video that used a customer to explain how it works, Mary Ann acknowledged learning an important social media lesson, "It's not about us telling you what you should do."
While all of this may seem a bit altruistic, it is not in the least. American Express is committed to being the brand of choice for small businesses, a business that is highly lucrative. By helping small business owners grow their businesses with valuable content and networking opportunities, AmEx is essentially insuring its own future.