Amex: 4 key learning points for financial brands

Here are the main lessons we learned from Amex OpenForum:

– Be in it for the long haul

– Remove barriers

– Follow your customers and they will follow you

– Build relationships on the principle of reciprocal atruism

Opening up and sharing is probably one of the scariest principle to follow in such a heavily regulated industry such as banking and finance. Yet, oddly one of the most cited, praised and admired content marketing case studies comes from just that sector. The American Express OpenForum has been around for a few years, but over the past 12 months content marketing companies and bloggers have been throwing themselves all over it as a showcase for how it’s done. We don’t want to feel left out, so here is our take on it.


Scott Roen at Finance Connect 2014 (source: LinkedIn)


How Open Forum started: events and networking

Amex has been into content for the long haul and this is one of the main reasons their strategy has paid off. The Open Forum actually started in 2006 at a time when Facebook was still confined to inner sanctum of the US campus community. However, it was more or less based on the same principles of sharing and learning. Open Forum was largely events based with speakers like Richard Branson and Seth Godin attracting a growing audience of small business owners looking for inspiration, real business advice and networking.

Over the years focus shifted to online and the site soon developed into a leading content marketing platform with a dedicated editorial team as well as star contributors. The real turning point, though, was when the Amex team started to plug into LinkedIn. Former VP Marketing Scott Roen – now innovating marketing at Black Rock – describes the change in approach: “We moved from a content marketing site to a site that allowed people to join in a more robust way and connect and learn from each other.”

Removing the barrier

By integrating Open Forum with LinkedIn Amex removed the barrier to joining the community. Previously, users had to go through the usual and much dreaded registration process, but now small business owners could become members simply by allowing access to their LinkedIn profile. The results were dramatic. In the first five weeks the platform recruited more members than in the preceding five years.

Today the platform attracts more than 2m unique users. That’s 10% of the target market. By lowering the barrier to entry and actively encouraging members not only to consume content, but also to share and learn Amex unlocked the true value of its community. The editorial team produces 10-15 articles and videos every day. Influencers regularly post insightful or thought provoking pieces, but perhaps the most powerful element is the question and answer section, which feels a bit like Quora for entrepreneurs.

Follow your customers and they will follow you

Amex decided to embrace the platform where its customers already did much of their networking. The decision to partner with LinkedIn was a key turning point for Open Forum. LinkedIn now accounts for more shares than Facebook and Twitter combined. By embracing a third-party networking platform Amex abandoned the conventional mantra of trying to force customers into an exclusive relationship with the brand. This didn’t come without risks, but a formal partnership with LinkedIn ensured that Amex was still in the driving seat to some extent.

Innovative native ad format

Together with LinkedIn the OpenForum team also developed an innovative native ad format. This helped leveraging the deep relationships the brand built over time to drive real leads and conversion for their products. The ad format now outperforms regular media buys on the web by ten times.

However, even the content marketing superstars at Amex do get things wrong. Last week the company announced changes to its native ad format after facing criticism for its editorial design. Nobody wants to be cheated into unintentionally walking into a sales pitch and in that way the old format damaged some of the trust Amex had spent so much effort on over the years. It was against their approach of ‘reciprocal altruism’ as Scott Roen described it.

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