OPEN Forum, American Express’s community platform for small businesses, has been widely praised. The site focuses on spreading news and information among small business owners, even if they’re not American Express customers. This year, the company is working on more initiatives that go “beyond payments.”

I caught up with AmEx SVP Mary Ann Reilly to talk about the company’s 2010 plans and how digital and mobile is changing the way AmEx does business.

OPEN Forum doesn’t have a clear ROI directive. Is that going to
change any time soon?

OPEN Forum started — in its 1.0 iteration —
as a concept to bring live events online. What we learned was that the
cocktail party before the actual event was actually more worthwhile for
people. We constantly heard from users, “You have this large base of
small business owners I’d like to do business with.” There was a desire
and need for small businesses to have content and education and they
wanted to be connected to other small business owners.
We are measuring our goals, but our goals are about engagement. We’re
not focused on the number of unique visitors and the time spent on the
site yet. We’d run into trouble if we tried to measure right away.

What have you learned from OPEN Forum?
What came out of Open Forum have been a lot of interesting learnings. Small businesses gave us permission to go beyond payments and have been very vocal about telling us what they need. They have been saying “We think you could help us with this.” 

We want to continue to help small businesses grow, instead of trying to push products and drive profitability. We have such a large marketshare in small businesses, but the economy has a big impact on the payment space. If we can grow the pie, we grow. We’re helping our businesses grow their business. We’re also helping them drive revenue and improve cash flow, which diversifies revenue for us beyond payments.

What are some of the learning you’ve found?
One issue is that people wanted to get paid faster, and we’ve been able to deep dive into that space for small businesses with AcceptPay. Most small businesses are still using paper invoicing, which we saw as a big opportunity. We went out there with a beta for friends and family for feedback early on.

Another thing we learned is that it’s not about educating on the product – it’s about educating the customer. We had created how to videos for AcceptPay. It worked you through the product and how it worked. But the feedback we got from customers is that they wanted to know what it was going to do for them. We didn’t have the customer impact in there. So we created a new video (available here), of a customer interacting with the product and what it’s done for his business.

What is AmEx doing in the mobile space?
We think mobile is very important. For us, it’s the next shiny object. We have a desire to move quickly. We’re talking with our small business customers on what they want in the space. They have a unique set of needs compared to individual

We’re creating an AcceptPay app, because we’ve heard from customers that there’s a need for getting paid faster. They want to know what payments they receive that day and send out invoices on the go. That’s launching shortly, and we’re going to continue to get feedback from customers. We want to move forward in the mobile space in a way where we are creating similar experiences for things that customers have said they need access to on the go. We want to create those right tools for where they are when they need them.

What about something like Jack Dorsey’s Square? Do you see new mobile payment companies as competitors?

Companies like Veriphone and Square are doing interesting things. I don’t think it’s necessarily
a winner take all thing. I think Square is a great concept and we’ll see where it go. Especially in the small business space, mobile has a lot of potential. Imagine being a plumber and being able to get paid immediately. Also, as an AmEx customer, getting your points is critical to your business. They’re building a point bank to help to fund their businesses. For small biz owners to be able to buy supplies at point of sale where people don’t normally accept credit cards, that’s a big deal.

But it’s a space that’s very open. I don’t think we have to be creating our
own technology. There will definitely be partnerships in mobile. For
instance, PayPal accepts AmEx. By virtue of that they are a partner, but
they’re also a competitor. There’s something about that that makes it
an interesting model.

What are some products outside of cards and payments that we might
from AmEx soon?

AccetPay is a big one for us right now. Another tool is InsuranceEdge, which is really the first of its kind. It’s a platform that
allows small business owners to search and compare different insurance
quotes in real time. This is the type of thing that is typically done through an agent and there’s not a lot of transparency.

We have another
product coming that will help small businesses in the marketing space
very shortly. I won’t say anything more, but watch for it, we’re very excited for that.