Monday, November 16, 2009

The Horror of AmEx’s OPEN Forum

The integration of social media marketing as a core component of an organization’s promotional program is still very much in the early adopter phase.

In my new business travels, I typically come across three scenarios at a prospective client:

1. A handful of innovators have engaged via blogs, Twitter and social networks, creating a disjointed, tools-oriented effort.

2. A disciplined, strategic initiative has been defined and put in place, yet its scope, duration and funding are limited.

3. There is no measurable involvement with the marketing folks often citing legal and/or financial considerations for the failure to participate in social media.

This is why my enthusiasm leaps when I come across a carefully crafted program run by a well respected, global brand. Market leaders tend to instill confidence among the masses in an emerging medium like social media.

Consider American Express’ OPEN Forum which publishes a wonderful portfolio of best practices, resources and thought leadership for small business owners. The site even sports a measurable sales component with an appropriately positioned option for a reader to apply for an American Express card.

My enthusiasm for everything OPEN Forum quickly turned to horror when I came across this Q&A with Jason Rudman, the program’s director of strategy and marketing.

Specifically, it was this comment from Rudman when queried about the goals of this comprehensive social media initiative:

Engage business owners in a new set of experiences that increase loyalty, value perception, and relevance of our brand and continue to lead in the online engagement space to attract partners, so as to ultimately create additional compelling benefits for Cardmembers and convert prospects.


Yes…I recognize those words to be part of the English language. However, they’ve been organized in a way that most likely makes little sense to a typical C-level executive who is responsible for the evaluation and funding of social media programs.

While American Express may be concerned about “value perception” and leadership in the “online engagement space,” most organizations are bit more real-world in their focus.

How can social media be leveraged to support lead generation and sales? Improve search engine optimization? Gather competitive intelligence?

For social media marketing to make the jump from experimental to the list of must-do communications programs, respected companies like American Express need to attach more measurable benchmarks to their efforts.

Hey Jason, drop the brand-only mumbo jumbo. Tell us how OPEN has helped American Express identify new customers.


Robin said...

Oh dear. I've met Jason and he's a good guy who usually is very articulate. Amex Open Forum is a terrific platform that has an enviable budget ($5M) -- real evidence of the company's commitment to social media.

Dan Hutson said...

That's some really unfortunate jargon he's using, Marc. I hope the language they use on the site is more audience-friendly. My limited time on AMEX Open Forum suggests that it is.

Lauren said...

I have to disagree with you that c-level executives won't understand what Mr. Rudman is talking about. In my experience, sadly, this is very common corporate-speak where marketing and strategy is concerned. But someone in Mr. Rudman's position should have broken himself from such a bad habit and developed a vocabulary more attuned to the small business audience to which he has focused his attentions so successfully. I wonder how many of OPEN Forum's customers understand what Mr. Rudman said the first read through.

It also strikes me that part of the exponential growth of social networking on a societal level has something to do with the desire for human connection in a technological age. It seems counter-intuitive, therefore, to use language that is dehumanizing when referring to social networking practices or, really, any marketing practices, since the goal of either (or both) is to develop successful relationships with current or future customers, employees, business partners, etc. As a result, the whole language of marketing, social or otherwise, needs to shift to a much more simple and direct exchange. Otherwise, click, your audience will move on to some other company that really gets them.

OPEN Forum's success is that they understand their audience and, as a result, are providing rich and enriching experiences, which would seem to me less like perceived value than actual value. In this way, they continue to engage new and existing "members" in the community that has become synonymous with the OPEN brand. And community is what social networking is all about...and that's very smart marketing.

CJ Boguszewski said...

@Robin - I agree, that's a great sign (quantitative commitment) but why do "brands" get in to the social media space and simply carry over the mumbo-jumbo corpspeak? Social media is about 1:1 connections and if you can't say it clearly, people will indeed vote with their "unfollow" button.

@Marc - good points that you make regarding the authenticity requirement. My question is, what sorts of metrics would suit Amex in this world of "OPEN Forum custodian"? What would you propose?


Anne Marsden said...

@Lauren - I completely agree - it very much seemed like Jason forgot to take off the "Corporate-speak" hat and put on the "human to human interaction" hat. Jason's response sounds perfectly on target for many Fortune 100 executive meetings...and fortunately not many other places.

I also agree with Strategy Guy that more straight forward measurements would benefit the company. Unfortunately, most companies of AM Ex's size can't help but obfuscate the objective in self aggrandizing verbosity.

Bob said...

Isn't it interesting how little of that statement has any specifics on "what's in it for the customer", and how ,much of it is focused on "what's in it for AMEX?"

Cruise Marketing 1 said...

Either Jason Rudman's thoughts were spewing at an incredible speed while typing them or he purposely wanted to show-off his advanced English literature skills.

You're right Marc, why not keep it coherent and state what the online venue is really trying to accomplish.


Marc Hausman said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

My concern or "horror" about OPEN Forum isn't so much with Jason's corporate marketing speak. Rather, it is AmEx's use of brand visibility and awareness as the evaluation criteria for success. is important to measure brand reputation, readership and audience engagement. However, this is also a great opportunity to track credit card applications that come from OPEN Forum members.

Now that is true ROI.

James Wallis Martin said...

Okay, so if AMEX was a blind date I can imagine AMEX at dinner saying "enough about me, let's talk more about me!".

This isn't social networking, this is bundled, over-produced marketing with all the slickness of a gloss brochure.

Get with the real issues facing small business owners all over the world, like clients late on payments which causes a cash flow crunch to meet payroll, pay taxes, with an already maxed out credit card. Where does anything the Open Forum talk about deal with those issues.

Social networks are about being authentic and having integrity. The AMEX Open Forum has neither in my opinion. Get off your marketing soapbox and glossy presentations and address the real issues or stop deluding yourself that you are connecting with small business owners.

You want to connect with small business owners, provide 4 hour overdraft approvals, process and release credit card payments within 24 hours (not your usual practice of 3-4 days, Visa can do it in 24 hours, why can't you?), and how about eliminating penalty interest rates which are higher than loan sharks, especially when the money from the fed is at an all time low.

You don't need a fancy website to connect with small business owners, you need to simply meet our needs and spending over $5 million on a fancy website isn't how you do it.

Jason Peck said...

I'd be SHOCKED if they weren't tracking more than just engagement, branding and loyalty. I'm sure they're tracking things like how this is affecting new signups, retention, average spend on the card, etc. I'm pretty sure they would have specific goals for each. He just didn't go into that because there's no need to share their company's specific goals with the public. That's private.

steve said...

Conceptually Open Forum is a good idea but the execution has some real issues. Beyond the navigational awkwardness and slow response time, easily addressed infrastructure needs, the concept of a social media "cul de sac" is deeply flawed.

For most business people the scarcest resource is time and Open Forum creates yet another time killing inwardly focused, propietary destination. The first thing Amex demands you do is spend time registering to use Open Forum, and thereafter you can log on and utilize the site. I registered and have returned periodically to look at the content. But honestly, between my client responsibilities and the other "mainstream" social media I engage with, there's little discretionary time to visit Open Forum. Clearly I am not alone as the discussions have almost no participation. I'd be curious to see the traffic statistics for the site and to see the bounce rate of those who register and never return.

As a services provider American Express has engineered a very customer focused organization, but here they dropped the ball I believe.

Perhaps a better approach would be an Open Forum branded area within Linked In, or even Facebook. Here they could host their content and provide a forum for interaction within a critical mass environment that much of their target market already frequents. Rather than diminishing the American Express brand this would display a level of social media savoir faire and allow customers and prospects engage with minimal extra effort. Now that would really be an "open" forum.