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Scott Roen is vice president of digital marketing for the award-winning American Express OPEN Forum, which was established to position the financial service provider at the center of small business relationships.

We talked with Roen about how AmEx took its offline learning to develop the online community and what has been discovered about driving engagement. 

What is American Express OPEN?

The brand was launched in 1995 to serve small business owners and has become the leading payments provider in the segment.

What led American Express to create the OPEN Forum?

We were hosting offline live events across the country starting in 2001 and we were out there talking to small business owners, going to trade shows and events. We saw small business owners were voraciously consuming content. They just networked, networked, networked.

They walked out of these trade shows with stacks and stacks of business cards. We realized we had a great opportunity to bring a lot of this online and make time for them to network. 

We launched in 2007 not to become the next Facebook, but to help small businesses do more business. That’s OPEN’s mission and it has also been the core of the OPEN Forum – information, education and connecting businesses with each other.

Where did you begin?

We started off by bringing in a few experts in spaces like social media. As the traffic built, as people started sharing and responding to articles, we realized we were on to something.

The tipping point for us was right at the peak of the financial crisis in 2008. We were trying to figure out what to prioritize and what to cut back on. If there was ever a time to be in this market and help, this was the time. So we double-downed. Business owners were looking for answers. They were not sure how they’d make it to the next month. They were connecting with other small business owners to make it through some really difficult times. We realize now how big a decision that was at the time.

In 2009, we launched Connectodex, a digital business card exchange, as a way for people to search and request connections with each other based on their business needs.

How many members are part of OPEN?

We don’t typically publish our membership base. We have been growing at triple-digit rates for quite some time. If you look at the site statistics, in January it hit its all-time high of 1.3 million page views. If you look at Twitter, we have more than 40,000 followers to date.

How do you measure the business impact?

There isn’t a specific card product associated with OPEN Forum. Truth is a large percentage of visitors don’t have any products or services with American Express. It is really dedicated to small business owners, regardless of what their relationship is with AmEx. Our mission is to help entrepreneurs, advocate for them, and be the #1 market share leader. If we help business owners and they’re successful, we know we’ll be successful, too.

How many partners do you have?

When we started in 2007, there were a handful of content experts. People like Guy Kawasaki, who had his own following.  Now we have over 200.

We have some official sponsorships. For example, FedEx and Marriott sponsor a section of the site and provide some of their own social media experts and content. In a lot of cases we have contributing authors who are there because they have a point of view. We’re really looking at this as a platform to provide education and connections. Contributors must have something that will be helpful, add insight or value. We’re really not trying to pitch products or sell.   

We are focused on the United States, but anyone from around the world can access the site and when we look at some of our metrics we see a surprising share coming from international markets.

How has the site evolved over time?

A lot has happened along the way, especially in social. What is most important is just trying to make it as simple as possible for people to be able to share. So much of our volume has come from people sharing the information with their peers. Roughly 85 – 90% of our traffic comes from organic means. Not advertising.

People are coming to us because they search on an article. They read it, they share it through their Facebook friends or their followers on LinkedIn.

Here’s one insight we came across. When we first launched, any comment required you to log in and register. Then we realized if we allowed people to comment through their LinkedIn login, engagement literally doubled. Almost overnight. We started with LinkedIn because it seemed like the right business orientation.

But next to email, which is our highest sharing tool, Facebook is now our second highest sharing mechanism. Significantly more than LinkedIn. From a business publication, it was a little surprising to see people were sharing more over Facebook than LinkedIn at such a high rate. But more people are active on Facebook.

We’re trying to look for more integration points where people are choosing to go. They’re not necessarily thinking of Facebook or Twitter as personal vs. business.

Are there verticals and business sizes where you focus?

We’ve focused more at the specific category level. When you look at small businesses, in things like innovation or money there are so many needs and discussion opportunities. If you’re a dry cleaner or a service-oriented consultancy or own a garage, some of those challenges or issues are universal.

Marketing is the most important thing. The #1 concern of small business owners is how to get new customers. On OPEN Forum, you see articles like To Groupon or not to Groupon? Should I consider using Foursquare? What are some tips on email marketing?

It’s all about how to get new business. The field is changing every day. Cashflow is also a major concern and cashflow management. Tips and tools in those categories tend to be where we see a lot of interest.

While we have a diverse set of business owners, they do seem to be more digitally savvy and have the interest to learn where they should be playing.

What about frequency of visit? What is the behavior pattern?

We have some very engaged groups for whom this is a daily routine. We get the emails, the thank-yous. For them, this is something they do when they wake up in the morning. It’s more important than the Wall Street Journal because it helps run the business better.

Then you have a larger base who visit because their colleague sent an article. What we’re trying to figure out is how we continue to scale, yet make sure we’re really serving the base that use this as a resource everyday.

We added mobile towards the end of 2010 and our iPhone app has been downloaded over 30,000 times. As we take a more distributed approach to get out to wherever people choose, people are interacting with it. Those are the ones who are really engaged because they just put it into their routine.

Do you use the community as a sounding board for product development?

We’ve used it in that fashion and got some great feedback for OPEN Forum as well as our AcceptPay payment system. We’re definitely looking at this community to get insights. By bringing these people together, we can also get a better understanding of their needs and goals.

What are some of your new site enhancements?

Education is an interesting area.  For example, Project Re:brand.  We get calls all the time from small business owners looking for branding and marketing advice. What we realized is we have some of the best branding boutiques as customers of ours. Rather than having us answer the question, we matched a group of marketing and branding agencies with business owners. It was filmed as a business makeover approach and put up on OPEN Forum and YouTube.

The videos are pretty fun to see, but also provide simple discrete actionable takeaways for other business owners who are watching the series to figure out how to maximize the brand. We got fantastic reviews from business owners and the series got fantastic traction. Those who participated loved it. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there. I think we can get more creative about how we educate business owners and make them more effective.

Is there an optimal length for the videos?

Yes, especially for business owners. I don’t know that we’ve cracked the code. We’re testing right now what the optimal length is. We're talking the sub 10-minute mark for sure. We have a number in the 40- or 50-minute range. It’s very difficult for someone to put that kind of time aside. We've put up seminars and speakers, but we need to start cutting and pasting it into chunks.

One of the reasons mobile and Twitter have been so successful with small business owners is because it’s easier to tap in when they’re waiting for the next customer or when travelling if you make it in digestible small chunks of time.

What’s on the horizon?

I don’t see our three core areas – information, education, connection – changing anytime soon. We’ll just be going deeper on each one of these with better best-in-class content. We're in a pretty interesting time. This decade is a transformative period for AmEx.

Laurie Petersen

Published 12 April, 2011 by Laurie Petersen

Laurie Petersen is Principal at LP Strategic Communications and a contributor to Econsultancy. Follow her on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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