7 Content Marketing Lessons from American Express OPEN Forum

OPEN Forum is a site dedicated to small business owners hosted by American Express and is often referred to as the classic content marketing case study. However, for me it is the very essence of content and community marketing.

The mission of the site is to “connect small business owners to information, education, and each other.”  OPEN Forum is essentially a community that gives business owners:

  • Information and educational content. The content is very practical for example lots of ‘how to..’ articles
  • Insights from industry experts and business owners. There are over 200 contributors.
  • Tools to connect and collaborate. The Connectodex feature can help generate new leads by intelligently matching businesses with similar needs and interests.
  • User generated content.

The site is aimed at small businesses and small business owners who are time pressed and in constant search for ways to improve their business. The site focuses very clearly on their needs with insightful content in multiple formats such as videos, infographics, blog posts, articles and audio. It also attempts to be helpful with practical tools, how to content, marketing tips, and latest industry forecasts. The site has user generated content but also content from publishers such as Inc.com.

The success of the site is not in doubt with millions of visitors, hundreds of contributors and currently over 190,000 twitter followers. Whilst Amex is not sure of advertising dollars, Scott Roen, VP of Digital Marketing say “Roughly 85 – 90% of our traffic comes from organic means. Not advertising.”

Scott is very clear that their focus is on “three core areas – information, education, connection.”

Site Overview

See the site as it looks when logged in as at May 2013. You can see instantly some of the key features:

  • on the top right it brings in your LinkedIn contacts and suggests you might to share with them
  • it allows you to ask advice or give advice in the centre of the page
  • you can personalise the site by following individuals or topics and then their streams are fed to your page
  • it gives me ten invites which I can issue to my contacts, which are highlighted in the dark blue band, which helps spread and grow the community
open forum

open forum


Key Marketing Lessons From Open Forum

1. Provide valuable content

Designed to help business owners grow their business. This is not a case of altruism, but rather of enlightened self-interest. Many small businesses are Amex customers and if they grow that is good for Amex.

OpenForum is all about providing value to customers with a clear focus on information and education. The community is built around this and works because it meets their collective need. In the case of OPEN Forum it is a clear case of marketing as a service.

This is just one example of an article from the site, this one is relevant as it is about being a content marketing leader.

2. Allow users to login with existing social tools

Scott has been clear about the benefits of letting users log in with LinkedIn. “When we first launched, any comment required you to log in and register. Then we realised if we allowed people to comment through their LinkedIn login, engagement literally doubled. Almost overnight. We started with LinkedIn because it seemed like the right business orientation.”

There was a similar experience at Kineo when the discussion forums were moved to LinkedIn, engagement and participation increased significantly.

3. Encourage users to share and remember email

There has been a lot of talk about social media channels and sharing, and clearly it is important to encourage sharing. Interestingly on the OPEN Forum site in 2011 email was the highest sharing tool, with Facebook the second highest sharing mechanism. Significantly more than LinkedIn. This may have changed now with the growth in LinkedIn since 2011, plus the new functionality that pulls in your LinkedIn contacts and encourages you to share.  Either way the important lesson is provide multiple ways to share.

4. Don’t use content to sell, establish authority

Too often content such as white papers are marbled through with sales promotions. American Express intentionally do not publish self-promotional material but focus on giving customers content that they want and need.

The topics that interest small businesses include personal productivity, business management and finance.  These are areas that American Express can legitimately comment on without selling but rather than promoting American Express cards, their content marketing approach means they have become a trusted authority on supporting small businesses and developed longer term relationships with customers and potential customers.

The benefits to American Express OPEN from this content and community marketing include building brand equity, acquiring new customers and developing the loyalty of existing customers. There is no need to overtly sell their services.

5. Use multiple contributors

You don’t have to generate all the content yourself. You can use contributors and syndicate content from other sources in the same way that American Express use content from Inc.com.

The Forum features many well known and respected contributors. This also helps drives traffic to the blog through cross promotion. The site also gained credibility quickly because of these experienced voices. We try to follow this advice at Anders Pink with multiple contributors and  guest bloggers who can add interesting content and bring new visitors.

6. Be in it for the long haul

Developing a content marketing community like OPEN Forum is not for those looking for an instant return. Mary Ann Reilly, Senior VP at American Express advises “don’t just dip your toe into the water, stick to your commitment.”

7. Use your community and allow them to engage with each other

OPEN Forum actively uses the community and gathers feedback. Mary Ann explains “When we launched AcceptPay (e-billing and payment acceptance), we put a video out there and got feedback that said, ‘great, we understand how it works, but what’s in it for me?’” They were then able to engage with the community and explain the benefits.

Anita Campbell who has been involved in the project sums up another key feature when she says “The best part for me is that American Express OPEN is totally hands-off when it comes to the conversational element. They have had the guts to let the conversation happen … to let the conversation be directed by small business owners and entrepreneurs, and not try to control it.”

What do you think?

Take a look at OPEN Forum if you haven’t already and let us know what you think. You can also learn a lot about growing a business from the site, we can’t recommend it highly enough.

More Anders Pink B2B Marketing Case Studies.

By Steve Rayson