Altruism drives AmEx small-business strategy

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With a philosophy that giving freely without expectation of immediate reward yields superior benefits in the long term, American Express Co. has recently been on a tear with its popular OPEN Forum community for small-business owners. Created in 2007 as a resource for the companies that AmEx hopes will drive future growth, the site now routinely tops 1 million unique visitors per month. The credit card company is fueling that momentum by introducing a slew of new features that meet members' demands for mobility and social media marketing. In June, it gave members the option of applying Membership Rewards points to Facebook advertising purchases. At the same time, it introduced YourBuzz, a free service that lets business owners monitor and contribute to discussions about their companies and markets in social media outlets. The company recently introduced an Android version of its free mobile app, building on the success of an iPhone app introduced last year. The site has had more than 1 million views from mobile devices in the past year, according to Scott Roen, VP- digital marketing and innovation for American Express OPEN. With so much invested in OPEN, you might expect AmEx to be laser-focused on ROI. While the company does monitor metrics such as Net Promoter Score, its principal motivations are altruistic, Roen said. "We did this to support small businesses, not to get new card members," he said, citing the motivation of "reciprocal altruism," a biology term that refers to an organism weakening itself for the benefit of another under the assumption that the favor will be returned. Procter & Gamble Co. has popularized that idea as a driver of marketing strategy.  "We have to be disciplined to not try to push everything through a metrics lens because we would lose the benefits of reciprocal altruism," Roen said. In that spirit, almost everything AmEx has done with OPEN has been aimed at making the resource more easily and freely available. In the past year the site has adopted Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter authentication, making it easy for members of those services to join up. User comments doubled shortly after LinkedIn was integrated and rose more than 60% when Facebook and Twitter were added recently. The mobile apps are free, as is YourBuzz, which was developed in partnership with digital marketing services agency Clickable. "We saw a lot of small-business interest in reputation management and managing social profiles," Roen said. "YourBuzz was developed from the ground up" to meet that need. (AmEx declined to disclose membership figures.) While financial results may not be the primary driver of OPEN investments, the company is gaining valuable insight into the needs of small-business owners. Last year's successful Small Business Saturday promotion, which offered incentives to both consumers and smaller merchants to do business with each other the weekend after Thanksgiving, factored into a 28% increase in small-business revenue in the U.S. compared with the previous year. The associated Facebook page, with 1.5 million "likes," is one of the largest b-to-b destinations on the social network. AmEx won't say how Small Business Saturday translated into credit card business, but it's gearing up to make the promotion an annual affair. Listening closely to the voice of an audience it wants to reach through a branded community gives AmEx a competitive edge. The company is running with it.
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