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With 109.9 million cards in circulation and an estimated valuation of $18.3 billion dollars (according to Interbrand), American Express need never worry about where their next round of funding might come from. Why then, do they continue to set the gold standard for content marketing, hustling to create some of the most trusted, most genuinely useful advice for small business owners and entrepreneurs? Courtney Colwell, director of content marketing at American Express OPEN Forum, says that “It all stems from our mission of helping these businesses do more business. With our small business customers, their growth fuels ours. It’s a win-win if we can help them succeed.”
There are certain fundamental business truths Colwell and the American Express OPEN Forum team adhere to, which are applicable to businesses of any size, as well as startups and even sole proprietors. Whatever your headcount, whatever your industry, responding first and foremost to the needs and wants of customers is the best way of creating loyalty and encouraging growth. Here are some tips from my interview with Colwell.
First, tell us what OPEN Forum is.
Colwell: OPEN Forum is an online community and content site that provides small business owners with insights, ideas and connections to help them grow their businesses. I say community first because that’s where OPEN Forum originated, to enable business owners to connect with other business owners. The content came later, but it also significantly increased engagement, including more connections. So we expanded the types of article, video and other content, but still with the focus on maintaining a peer-to-peer experience. This means that most stories and advice featured are from or about other business owners, rather than from our brand. We like to think of it as a place where businesses convene to exchange ideas and advice, and we’re the host.
Content on OPEN Forum is mostly responsive, meaning that what’s there, is there because real business owners asked for it (for the most part). American Express has the resource to be able to do that, but what might that kind of responsiveness look like for a very small business or entrepreneur?
Colwell: It comes from listening and taking input from your customers through whatever channels you may have. Being a large company, we can gather that input from across a number of channels, from what we hear from customer service and client managers, search and social, as well as from our network of OPEN Forum members. A small business owner may not have all those inputs at his or her disposal, but there is also something to be said for quality compared to quantity. Just getting feedback from a few customers can provide great insights.
Even for large organizations, this kind of highly-involved content marketing is a lot of work. How would you convince small business owners and entrepreneurs to go this route in favor of say, paid advertising?
Colwell: I would not necessarily advocate one over the other for all situations. It depends on your goals. Content marketing may help build a relationship with someone who will, hopefully, remember you. It’s also a way to continue the relationship past the point of sale. It’s about building brand equity. You’re providing value beyond a product or service, making their overall experience with your brand even richer, more memorable, and long-term.
Many startups find that as they grow, certain aspects of their business begin to slip; usually things which end up distancing them from those people they set out to help in the first place. What are some of the fundamental practices and philosophies you would advise people to hold on to?
Colwell: Having a strong mission for your brand, especially one that has customer at its center, can help you maintain focus. We know our customers want ideas and advice for running their businesses, and we know they want it from other business owners. They want that voice of experience. So while OPEN Forum has grown and evolved over the past ten years, our mission has remained consistent, as has our focus on maintaining a peer-to-peer experience.
What’s one thing you’d like to see small business owners do more of?
Colwell: Defining a brand mission that can carry through all your marketing efforts, including content marketing. Having a strong idea of what you stand for can help you determine what to try in terms of creative messaging or even channels to test into. It can also help rule out tactics, which can be just as important. Being willing to experiment is another thing I’d suggest. Speed and agility are advantages small businesses often have over larger companies, so use that. Be the early adopter of a social channel, for example, if it makes sense for your brand and your customers.
What’s one thing you’d like see small business owners do less of?
Colwell: There is a risk of focusing too much on optimization, doing more of what is currently working without that experimentation. You have to plan ahead as your customer’s habits will change. This is especially true in content marketing. We had previously invested very little in video because it didn’t drive as high engagement on our website as other content types, but as our audience has become more mobile and is consuming content in social and other channels, we have seen increased video engagement.
Listen, learn and respond.
However large or niche your business, at some point what you’re doing ends up in the hands and minds of real people, the ones with the power and the money to allow your brand to grow. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a team of 2 or 2,000; listening to what customers want and what they don’t want, and responding in kind, is the only way to go. Content marketing plays an important role in this, and how you position your strategy to support your mission, is going to be crucial for success.
Disclaimer: Entrepreneur is not affiliated with American Express or OPEN Forum in any way, nor is this a paid piece of content.