Small-business owners can tap into American Express’s global community—Open Forum—for information and professional connections
As American Express communicators attended more and more trade shows, they found small-business owners were rushing to obtain two things: expert advice and contacts to build professional networks.
That observation led the card issuer’s team to speculate whether it could bring those resources to the Web.
“It’s not so much us trying to take an offline element and bring it online,” says Scott Roen, vice president of marketing for American Express’s Open Small Business. “It’s more to understand the small-business owner, to understand why they were going to trade shows and what was driving their interest and engagement there.”
In 2007, American Express launched Open Forum, which brought the expertise and networking opportunities available at trade shows to what has become the leading online community for small-business owners.
“What Open Forum has really taught us is that if you’re truly delivering some value—and that’s where the content comes in and the connections, and so forth—that you can get the engagement, that people do become truly appreciative of what we’re delivering,” Roen says. “It’s definitely very valuable for us as a company in building our brand engagement.”
Delivering the experts
Open Forum’s creators began by tapping into the quest for expertise, such as business advice from Virgin founder Richard Branson. “We started to realize how much desire there was to learn from not only the Richard Bransons but some of the more specific experts in fields that small-business owners cared about,” Roen says.
Soon, Open Forum was reaching out to expert bloggers; it now has 150 regularly contributing, he says. Many are already known as online commentators for sites such as Mashable, Alltop and Business Insider.
“When they write articles for us, they are usually exclusive on Open Forum, but they tend to tap into their own base to promote our articles and other things we have,” Roen says. “The relationship, definitely, is mutually beneficial.”
Federated Media, a publishing firm that manages bloggers, curates most of Open Forum’s expert blogger team, Roen says. But blog posts on the site aren’t limited to the already-published.
“We have a lot of requests that come in from a number of different sources that want to write on our behalf,” he says. “We evaluate them as they come in.”
For instance, Paul Rosenfeld, co-founder and CEO of mobile marketing company Fanminder, recently offered to write for the site.
As of Friday, 46 people had retweeted a link to his first column. Rosenfeld says he’s using his status as an Open Forum contributor in all his company’s promotional materials. “Everybody asks about it,” he says.
An authenticated community
Membership in Open Forum’s Connectodex, its online database of users and networking platform, is available only to small-business owners who have American Express Open cards.
“We want to make sure that we’re credentializing and ensuring that these are legitimate small-business owners,” Roen says. “A big part of the Connectodex is finding other small-business owners that you may want to do a partnership with, create a supplier relationship with or seek out as a customer.”
For instance, Rosenfeld, an early member of the community who has left more than 200 comments on articles, says he has found clients and a reseller through using the Connectodex. He never intended to do anything but work directly with customers, but the reseller persuaded him to give it a try.
“Now the resell channel is our biggest channel,” Rosenfeld says.
Most site users like knowing they’re connecting with a real person who owns a real business, he says. Despite that desire for authenticity, American Express doesn’t want the site to be completely gated.
“We really are trying to build a community here, so we don’t want there to barriers,” Roen says.
To be more accommodating, Open Forum lets LinkedIn users leave comments on the site.
Open Forum also has run a pilot program to work with Twitter to bring more comments to the site, which brought an “extraordinary” jump in participation, Roen says. Facebook users can also “recommend” articles in a way very similar to using Facebook’s “like” feature.
The White House metric
Roen says American Express keeps its membership and traffic numbers private—though it is public knowledge that it has gathered more than 12,500 Twitter followers in three years. But those numbers aren’t the best way to measure the site’s success, he says.
“It’s when you get a call from the White House or you talk with a small-business owner and you see the impact that you’re having that you start to truly appreciate the benefit of what we’ve done here,” Roen says.
In September, Open Forum hosted a Q&A session—at the request of the White House—about the new Small Business Jobs Act. Marie Johns, deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration, took questions from users.
Those kinds of events are very important to let users know Open Forum is monitoring the pulse of the small-business world, Roen says. The site’s main goal, he says, is to bring small-business owners “to the front of the conversation.”
“This is really conversational marketing,” he says.