American Express OPEN keeps 'pulse' on small business with social media

American Express OPEN is using social media to spur its own growth, but the growth of its small business customers.

The Fortune 500 series has historically focused on how large companies are using social media to help to further their own businesses. One company, American Express, has a division called OPEN that is exclusively dedicated to the success of small business owners and their companies. The growth of these businesses in turn means that OPEN will succeed, and the company has realized that social media has become a priority for small business owners and is putting a great deal of focus there with its social media activities and its new Pulse offering.

I spoke with Jason Rudman, director of strategy and marketing for American Express OPEN, about the company’s social media strategy and delivery, as well as benefits to its small business customers.

Q. [Jennifer] How exactly is American Express OPEN is leveraging social media to grow the business of its customers?

A. [Jason] Business owners tell us every day that their business resiliency and growth depends in part on their ability to connect with others for advice, support and networking. At the same time, many business owners have what we call a “high relationship IQ” but a “low social media IQ.” Beginning in 2007, OPEN Forum established itself as a leading source of business insight and advice. We have evolved the experience to be both an online resource and networking site created to meet the needs of small business owners, to help them solve problems and to start to bring relationship IQ and social media IQ into equilibrium, thereby helping our customers through the social media learning curve.

Q. How did OPEN’s social program begin?

A. Originally launched in 2007, OPENForum.com initially served as the on-line companion to a live event-driven platform created with the goal of providing key networking opportunities for small business owners to grow their businesses.

Q. What are the most important objectives that American Express OPEN is trying to meet with social media?

A. Engage business owners in a new set of experiences that increase loyalty, value perception, and relevance of our brand and continue to lead in the online engagement space to attract partners, so as to ultimately create additional compelling benefits for Cardmembers and convert prospects.

Q. How are you measuring the success of these programs?

A. For OPEN Forum, we keep a pulse on how we are doing by measuring engagement and soliciting feedback. The level of engagement in both our content and the business interaction among our Cardmembers is the best indicator of our success.

There are a set of metrics that we focus on monthly, such as unique visitors (UVM), repeat visits, time spent on the site, enrollments in ConnectodexSM [our proprietary networking tool for OPEN Cardmembers], etc., that form the basis for how we are resonating with business owners.

We are also starting to measure the brand impact that OPEN Forum is having for OPEN – it has been extremely positive since we started measuring our impact in Q4 2008, as well as amplification effect of our content and the “buzz” quotient of all that we do. Finally, there are some emerging stats that are peaking our interest – for example, how many times and how frequently is OPEN Forum being retweeted; this again shows a level of engagement and interest in what we are providing business owners.

Q. Marcy Shinder of American Express OPEN said during her presentation at the Conversation Marketing Summit that social media was invented by business owners. Why do you think this is true?

A. Small business owners are successful by building individual relationships – for example, with customers, prospects, vendors – based on an innate ability to talk to everyone, to get to know people. You might say this is “social IQ” and that many entrepreneurs possess this in droves. You see it frequently when a small business owner engages their customers or reaches out to new ones through a very personal style of marketing. Social media as we know it today is just an extension of this in the digital universe.

Next: Introducing Pulse -->

Q. Some have said that the social media industry is experiencing growing pains right now. Where do you see things going, and how do you think businesses like AXP as well as its customers will continue to benefit from it?

A. The landscape has changed; B2B marketing has been forever impacted by the advancement of social media. We see it very clearly as the way of the future for marketers to interact with their customers, and it’s challenging both the business owner and companies such as American Express to operate effectively in this new environment.

Business owners are starting to understand its potential to help grow their business and yet, back to the “low social media IQ” point, it can be a very scary place for marketers who see its potential but don’t know where to start. For companies, they will need to become more transparent and “personal” [an even higher “relationship IQ”], but most important, they will need to provide value through their social media initiatives. The promise is that, for companies that get it right, the benefits from the viral nature of social media will be theirs to reap.

Q. Beyond forums, what other types of social programs do you use to connect with customers, business partners, etc.?

A. American Express’ first foray into the “Twittersphere” was on OPEN Forum via @openforum, where, starting on July 14, 2009 we debuted a broadcast strategy of tweeting our content daily to amplify its reach. This fall OPEN Forum introduced Pulse, an innovative feature that can help business owners harness the vast information and collective brainpower of the popular microblogging website Twitter by aggregating and organizing relevant tweets in one place.

Q. What is a tough lesson that you've learned thus far in instituting these programs?

A. Not so much a tough lesson but more of a learning experience is that the world of social media is an emerging one that is challenging but, thankfully, is also bringing out the best in people through idea generation, innovation and results. OPEN Forum is the successful outcome of the integration of myriad ideas and priorities, cemented by partnerships across American Express, and a platform to try the untried and use our imagination to deliver the best experience for our users.

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