American Express’ Open Forum was originally launched in 2007. It is an online resource and social networking hub for small-business owners and entrepreneurs searching for practical information and tips for industry experts. According to Compete, OpenForum.com passed 1 million monthly unique visitors for the first time in March.
This success, in part, is due to Jason Rudman, the Vice President, Portfolio Management and Implementation – Prepaid North America at American Express, who leads OPEN Forum’s content strategy and development. eMarketer spoke to him about the evolution of the platform and how American Express OPEN is using social media to arm small business with the information they need.
eMarketer: What need is OPENForum.com appealing to?
Mr. Rudman: OPENForum.com enables small-business owners to communicate and share ideas with one another. We had done some research and we knew small-business owners were looking for connections with other business owners. For example, you’re a graphic designer, I’m an accountant. We meet, online or offline, and start talking about our businesses, and that’s how businesses generate ideas and more business.
eMarketer: What are the key features of OPENForum?
Mr. Rudman: I would divide OPEN Forum into two basic areas. The first is “content,” which is anchored in the idea hub. It’s essentially a virtual trading post of insight between industry experts and small-business owners. The content on OPENForum.com is original and exclusive to us. It’s aggregated around seven topic areas. It’s not like we have an aggregated RSS Feed and we pull in content and display it under our brand. It’s all original content, not repurposed from other publications and Websites.
eMarketer: And the second piece?
Mr. Rudman: The second part is the connection piece. Connectodex is OPEN Forum’s proprietary tool that enables small-business owners who are American Express OPEN card members to create a profile. The profile allows them to log on to the network, share an idea and connect with other business owners. They can tell the other people on Connectodex what their business does, promote and market it.
eMarketer: Connectodex is like a social network for entrepreneurs.
Mr. Rudman: We’ve established it as a small-business owner’s identity on the Web. It functions similar to your Facebook identity, but it’s geared to your small business. You have to be an American Express OPEN Cardmember to have a profile.
eMarketer: What do small-business owners want from OPEN Forum? What are they telling you?
Mr. Rudman: What I’m hearing is, I think I need to use social media, but where do I start? What should I do with my Facebook fan page? How do I start a Twitter handle? On the site, we have writers, including myself, discussing the fact that social media needs to be considered as part of the overall marketing plan. Small businesses need to identify clear objectives for it, understand who their audience is, the channels they want to use and how much time they want to dedicate to it. It’s not unlike Marketing 101.
The kind of social media marketing you do depends on the kind of business you are. B2B brands have unique challenges.
eMarketer: How are you tracking and measuring social marketing initiatives?
Mr. Rudman: We’ve grown the traffic on OPENForum.com roughly 350% year over year. That’s unique monthly visits in 2008 versus 2009. We have more than 8,100 Twitter followers and over 9,000 OPEN cardmembers with profiles OPENForum.com.
eMarketer: As for benchmarks, what do you need to show your bosses to prove social media marketing is effective for B2B marketing?
Mr. Rudman: That’s a great question. We look at monthly unique visitors to OPENForum.com, page views and return visits. All of those are increasing at a phenomenal rate for us. I mentioned that we’ve had roughly 350% growth year over year in unique visitors.
For us, Twitter is a tool for amplification. It’s not only about the number of followers but the retweets on articles. Five times a day we broadcast different pieces of content via Twitter to help with amplification. We use Twitter as a broadcast channel.
For example, Paul Rosenfield, CEO of Fanminder, an online mobile marketing service, is what I would call a power user on OPENForum.com, because he’s figured out how to do some great stuff with it. He’s found partners, customers, investors and employees through Connectodex. Paul developed a social medial toolkit as a cost-effective way to help build his company as well as a following. He has a Facebook page and a blog and uses OPEN Forum as a tool to get up to speed with what other small businesses are doing.
eMarketer: Do you have any other examples of small businesses that have successfully leveraged social media through OPENForum.com?
Mr. Rudman: Donna Johnson, the CEO of Indie Business Media, uses Twitter to have conversations and share information with her customers and prospects. She reaches out, they reach back. I wrote about her in an April 14 post. It’s all about sharing and connecting. Twitter is a way to connect one on one or one to many. You can develop personalized relationships. It’s a facilitator.
eMarketer: How is American Express OPEN using Facebook?
Mr. Rudman: American Express as a company has a fan page that serves as a place for cardmembers to share thoughts about OPEN Forum. We use the Facebook fan page as another channel to share OPEN Forum news with our 50,000-plus Facebook fans.
eMarketer: Are there any social media initiatives that have missed the mark?
Mr. Rudman: Well, I would position it as more of an evolution in our thinking. We initially designed OPEN Forum just for our American Express OPEN Card members. We felt that credentialization as a small-business owner would help minimize the clutter that is endemic on some social networking sites. But I think we realized that we had an opportunity to broaden the conversation without sacrificing that credentialization.
So in January we announced an integration with LinkedIn. The LinkedIn API (Application Protocol Interface) gives us an opportunity to extend the OPEN platform to LinkedIn users. I think this enriches the discussions on the site. It also brings new insight on how we can continually better service more business owners’ needs. Now LinkedIn users can be part of the conversation.
eMarketer: Are there any social media best practices you can point to at American Express OPEN?
Mr. Rudman: I would point to our working relationship with the legal department. We involve them early and often. When anything is new, questions are asked. For example, OPEN Forum was the first American Express division to get a Twitter handle (@OPENForum) in August 2009. The legal department can be helpful.
eMarketer: What’s in store for American Express OPEN Forum in the way of social media marketing?
Mr. Rudman: We have Pulse, a tool for finding and following small businesses on Twitter that aggregates insights by industry. We will be looking to come up with the next version of Pulse which will verticalize tweets by industry. If you think of Twitter as a river, we’re taking a fishing net and scooping out the relevant tweets by industry. With Pulse, we have about 1,000 participating businesses with an aggregated Twitter following of 3.8 million.
For example, we seeded Pulse with the top 5% of business owners who we saw on the Web who were contributing meaningful things in social media. When you join Pulse and identify yourself as a restaurateur, you’re in a focused conversation with other restaurateurs who are talking about that industry. You would see that restaurant’s specific tweet as opposed irrelevant, general tweets.