Spring '12 Brand

February 5-8, 2012 | Bonita Springs, Florida

How American Express saw amazing returns by giving back


American Express' OPEN Forum is arguably one of digital's best success stories. Here's how the company used its online community to galvanize politicians, invigorate brands, and change consumer behavior.

At the iMedia Brand Summit in Bonita Springs, Fla., Scott Roen, American Express' VP of digital marketing and innovation, explained how his company achieved one of marketers most sought-after objectives -- changing consumer behavior. Launched in 2010, the company's Small Business Saturday was endorsed by President Obama and public officials in all 50 states; the Senate passed a resolution to make it an "official day." An estimated 103 million Americans shopped small in 2011, and public awareness rose to 65 percent, compared to 37 percent in its first year.

In order to understand how American Express inspired politicians to stand up and support an initiative from a financial services company, you need to know about the award-winning online community that launched the project, the OPEN Forum.

Four times the size of its nearest competitors and engaging a third of the small business community, American Express' OPEN Forum is a digital success story. Born from the company's long heritage of taking care of cardholders, it became a resource for small business owners whose cash flow was in dire straits during the 2008 financial crisis. Three years after its inception -- and six weeks before the first Small Business Saturday in 2010 -- the idea for a specific day dedicated to helping small business owners came up in a meeting and the OPEN team decided to run with it.

"The truth is, there needed to be fertile soil for this to happen," Roen said. "We took our learnings from the OPEN Forum to determine what's on a small business owner's mind and went from there."

The "learnings" Roen mentioned were:

  • Brands are welcome as facilitators: American Express' role in OPEN Forum is as a provider of information, a discussion space, access to experts, etc.
  • Build for social to achieve scale: OPEN Forum is built off of Facebook and leverages social tools
  • Reciprocal altruism works: If you give something away and are authentically not expecting something in return, you end up getting much more back in return (i.e. brand loyalty, which increased as small business owners used OPEN Forum)

The discussions on OPEN Forum also made clear the most important objective in small business owners' minds: Get and retain new customers. So, that's what the goal of Small Business Saturday became.

"There were a lot of internal discussions on the commercial," Roen said, "We didn't say, 'Go to an American Express merchant and spent money.' We just said, 'Go support your local business,' and the returns were significant." As with OPEN Forum, American Express found that reciprocal altruism works.

With that mindset, American Express recently teamed up with the start up General Assembly to host the "Reinventing Local" Hackathon. Held over a weekend this past November, teams of New York City engineers, designers, and entrepreneurs came together to try and build products and services aimed at "reinventing local." By the end of the two days, they had 27 new, working products. Then, small business owners came in to take classes alongside the developers, so they could learn how to use the new technology.

While American Express has seen huge returns on both OPEN Forum and Small Business Saturday, it still has its eye on the prize. "Our No. 1 metric is driving people to small businesses," Roen said. "If they keep growing, we, in turn, will be successful."

Lucia Davis is associate editor at iMediaConnection.

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