Since its launch in 2007, American Express’ OPEN Forum has been considered the poster child for content marketing. The highly innovative program for its time single-handedly proved the business value of brands providing useful content to their customers. Year over year, OPEN Forum continues to succeed and is known for being the American Express’ #1 source of leads for new card members. But what is it about this content marketing program that makes it so powerful and successful? To be honest, it isn’t that they have an ultra secret magic recipe no one else knows about. It’s simply that they’re doing everything they’re supposed to do, and are doing it well.
1. Remember your audience is #1
American Express OPEN Forum was created with the sole purpose of helping small businesses succeed. This wasn’t because American Express decided to develop an altruistic mission. They were simply farsighted enough to see how the success of small businesses would, in turn, benefit them. Mary Ann Fitzmaurice Reilly, SVP of Partnership & Business Development, explains, “We already had a large part of the pie, so our biggest opportunity was with small business growth – if they grow, we grow.” Realizing the potential impact this could have, American Express researched to find a need of small business owners for which they could provide a solution. Reilly explains, “Through our semi-annual survey, nearly 60% of customers told us that they found this new social media world really challenging. Only 13% were tapping into social networking because they didn’t know how.”
While a lot has changed in terms small business owners’ need for social media education, the fundamental strategy of providing solutions for their customers’ needs has stayed true. Today, OPEN Forum’s mission statement is, “Insights and resources dedicated exclusively to the success of small business owners.” This strategy is apparent in the content OPEN Forum provides too. When deciding the site’s content strategy, the American Express team put themselves in the shoes of the customers in order to deliver content they care about. Reilly describes this thought process,“How do you align your branded content with relevancy for your readers? In American Express’ case, using data to gain as much insight into the interests of our audience solves this challenge. What are our fans reading most often? What’s resonating with them? We used those answers to craft relevant content for our audience.” Even the content categories on the site align with core small business interests: Planning for Growth, Managing Money, Getting Customers and Building Your Team, rather than aligning with American Express’ card offerings.
2. Build a community on your owned properties
A core feature OPEN Forum provides is its platform that facilitates discussion between small business owners. Users can browse members, share advice, post questions and rate each other’s helpfulness. While this community feature was a large aspect of the program originally, a lot has changed in the social professional world since 2007. As LinkedIn gained popularity during the past five years or so, OPEN Forum decided to embrace and integrate the social channel rather than resisting and competing against it. As a result, this has expanded and enhanced OPEN Forum’s community experience, keeping the conversation going on their owned property.
3. Leverage outside expertise to build authority
In 2014, NewsCred and Redshift Research conducted a survey to find if content can help financial services companies gain the trust of consumers. Among the results, the study found that only 20% of respondents would trust finance content written by representatives of their bank, while 53% of respondents would trust finance content written by objective journalists with expertise in finance. American Express’ editorial strategy reflects these findings in how they leverage outside expertise to build authority. Reilly explains further,“It’s a temptation for many brands to get their employees writing and providing material to their branded content channels. However, this strategy often leads to non-credible pieces of branded material. American Express has learned that the only way to establish its authority on its subjects is to call in the experts.”
When OPEN Forum does identify situations in which it is appropriate for the content to be written by internal employees, however, they clearly identify that the piece is branded instead of trying to disguise it as objective. This transparency makes OPEN Forum more trustworthy since the audience isn’t worried about being mislead by the brand.
4. Understand that business owners are consumers too
Often times we see marketers get hung up on the difference between B2B and B2C marketing tactics. In reality, the line between these two audiences has blurred to the point where the strategies don’t have to differ drastically, if at all. Cisco’s Senior Director of Media, Julia Mee, explains, “Our customers are thinking about us as just a brand—they are not differentiating it as B2B or B2C.” American Express’ audience may be business owners, but they’re also credit card consumers as well. Because of this, OPEN Forum is forced to market to the individual and can’t think of their audience as either B2B or B2C, because in reality they are both.
5. Blur the sell
Some brands use content marketing as a tactic for growing brand awareness or improving brand health. Ultimately, however, marketing needs to provide value to the business, which means generating revenue. This is where things get tricky for marketers and most fail to effectively use content to fuel a sophisticated buyer funnel. “Consumers don’t like being sold to, but at the same time, you are tasked with trying to get your readers to become customers and ultimately brand loyalists. American Express has tried to find this balance so that it does not offend customers all while making it clear that its content is sponsored by the brand.” OPEN Forum is a rare example of a brand that uses different types of content to fuel the buyer journey very effectively. Here’s how:
Awareness Stage: Content around broad, shareable topics: Roughly 75% of OPEN Forum’s content is intended for top of funnel readers. Their posts such as, “How Unit Economics Can Help You Grow Your Business” or “3 Ways Smart Businesses Use Instagram to Drive Sales” answer questions many business owners have and are broad enough to be relevant to a large audience. They have nothing to do with American Express’ offerings or services, but simply answer common questions their target audience has.
Evaluation Stage: High-value, gated content on niche topics: Content fueling the Evaluation stage of the buyer journey should be valuable enough to justify gating and capturing leads. American Express does this with guides such as “Disrupt & Grow: How Drybar Became a $50M Business” that are exclusive to members. The content is free, but since it’s only for members, the reader must provide their contact information in order to access it. This type of content gives the helpful information prospects want and provides American Express with qualified leads to target and hopefully convert.
Purchase: Case studies promoting product offering: Finally, content intended to tip the scale and turn a prospect into a client should highlight customer success and promote products. OPEN Forum does this with its Card Member Spotlight case studies. These tell the stories of real American Express customers and how they’ve found success for their business with the help of their credit card.
6. Connect online and offline
We’ve discussed strategies on how retail brands use content to connect online and offline communities, but other industries may struggle since their products aren’t as versatile. OPEN Forum has found a way to do this through its events. The events directory allows members to choose between virtual events to attend remotely, and in-person events to attend in their area. Virtual events include livestreams, Twitter chats, webinars and Google Hangouts, while in-person events include everything from workshops to conferences to dinners and galas. This feature allows members who have interacted online to potentially connect in person at an industry event.
7. Make providing feedback easy… and LISTEN
Strong feedback calls-to-action are incorporated throughout OPEN Forum’s site and the strategy evolves based on that feedback. Reilly explains this strategy, “One of the many positive by-products of building a community like OPEN Forum, is that you then have an opportunity for instant feedback including input on new products and services. 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?’ We responded with a new video that used a customer to explain how it works. It’s not about us telling you what you should do.” Because the team listens to community feedback and takes action directly based on that feedback shows the value it places on the opinions of its members, and without a doubt, as a great deal to do with the program’s overall success.
8. Value email subscriptions
When people allow brands exclusive access to their email inbox, it is important to treat it with respect. OPEN Forum understands the value of this and as a result provides a quality newsletter to their subscribers. The subscription delivers a “Weekly Briefing” with only the top stories from that week. The weekly cadence is enough to keep OPEN Forum top of mind, but not too often to eventually annoy and overwhelm someone’s inbox. The content is brief enough that the reader can skim through and still receive value, or click through to go to the core site if they’d like. Finally the fact that it only provides the best content shows that it filters through the noise for you, saving the reader time and delivering only what matters to their audience most.