What makes American Express’s content site a raging success

Small-business owners were searching for information. American Express had the expertise, but first it had to listen to what its customers wanted to know.

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan’s distance-learning portal RaganTraining.com. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations, and interactive courses.

It’s an alarming statistic, hinting at shattered dreams and financial ruin for hardworking moms and pops all over the U.S.: Nearly 60 percent of small businesses fail within four years.

American Express wanted to reduce that number, says Carrie Parker, director of American Express Open Forum, a content marketing website dedicated to small-business education.

What the company figured out was this: Small-business owners excel in the area of their expertise. If they build widgets, they know those darn widgets inside and out.

What they tend to lack, however, is the knowhow to run a business: finding real estate, setting up payroll, and hiring temporary support.

“They are desperate for content,” Parker says.

Thus American Express created Open Forum—an information and business community platform—to provide just that. The result is an object lesson for communicators and content marketers of any stripe. Look for ways to focus editorial output on consumer needs, not on blabbering about your organization’s righteousness.

In the Ragan Training session, “Creating shareable content: Lessons from American Express Open Forum,” Parker explains how Open Forum shapes its site through a savvy mix of great stories and feedback from its community of readers.

The approach makes financial sense for the credit card company, but helping business was more than that, Parker says. It is a calling for people who see successful small businesses as individual cells in a greater economy of growth.

This video clip is taken from the Ragan Training session, “Creating shareable content: Lessons from American Express Open Forum.”

Everybody’s talking about how content is king (or, for the smug contrarians, is not king), but how does an organization leverage content in a way that will spark sharing and spread its brand? Use an organization’s mission and experts to authentically engage users in conversation, Parker says.

Open Forum began as a series of conferences and events to educate small-business owners about best practices, Parker says. AmEx also has programs teaching people how to land a government contract.

“We do that because we know they need advice,” she says.

Open Forum started in 2007 with conferences and events for small business owners. As they exchanged business cards and hobnobbed, American Express realized they were hungry for information.

The platform launched Small Business Saturday to push local shopping between Black Friday and Cyber Monday over Thanksgiving weekend in November.

The day was created “so local businesses didn’t get lost in the shuffle,” Parker says. Every year it brings tens of millions of customers through the doors of small businesses.

At the start, AmEx created an online platform to post its conference videos and help people share business information. Parker’s team studied how journalists would play a role in this, visiting newsrooms for media such as Business Insider, Mashable, and Vocus to learn the mechanics of their news production.

“We wanted to learn how,” Parker says. “Not the ‘what.’ But how do they operate. … We wanted to replicate a lot of that as we built out our newsroom.”

Today that has grown into a site with a paid editorial staff as well as guest writers. Scores of people contribute in five areas: leadership, marketing, customer service, technology, and money and finance. Users sign in with their LinkedIn credentials, creating a social aspect.

Stories range from “The Critical Numbers You Need to Know for Business Success,” to “7 Smart Tips for Collecting From Late-Paying Customers.” There are also fun business features, such as a recent seasonally appropriate piece titled, “Churro Ice Cream Sandwiches: Coolest New Food Mashup?

As the Open Forum indicates, the site was built not only as an editorial medium but also as an insight-sharing forum. Community members can post a question and get answers from business owners. This has added user-generated content to the site.

“It’s also been inspiring on our editorial side,” she says. “So, we’ll pay attention to some of the conversations that are going on within the community. And we’ll take cues from them: ‘Wow, there’s a lot of dialogue around this particular social media topic.’ Then we’ll want to write a piece on it.”

It’s an approach that could help a lot of organizations learn to focus their messaging on what truly interests their customers.

For more from American Express’ Open Forum and other communications leaders, check out RaganTraining.com.

@r_working

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