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American Express: Turning the Corner Store into a National Movement

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Provided by Mbooth & Associates

When I was a college student I ran a small business painting houses. It only lasted a couple of summers so it never required a line of credit or even a credit card. But if it did, I’d likely go with American Express OPEN, the division of American Express dedicated to small business owners.

Why? Largely because its innovative approach to helping small businesses grow. Among these initiatives is its Small Business Saturday, introduced in 2010. I wrote a case study about it in my book, The Loyalty Leap for B2B. Here’s the distilled version of the initiative’s story.

It was 2010, at the height of the recession, and American Express’s small business customers were hurting for customer traffic. With the holidays approaching, there was little time to waste. Looking at the calendar, American Express saw the solution on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, the day after Black Friday and before Cyber Monday.

As Susan Sobbott, president of American Express OPEN, put it: “We wanted to ride the wave of this November shopping weekend, to capitalize on a new event focused on small businesses.”

The result, launched November 27, 2010, was Small Business Saturday; a movement that encouraged Americans to shop with independently owned businesses.

To get the word out, American Express initiated a campaign on Facebook with a dedicated Small Business Saturday Fan Page. Through charitable donation programs, a multimedia advertising strategy and free Facebook advertising, the Small Business Saturday page attracted more than 1.4 million fans. Factor in all the friends of those fans, and the Small Business Saturday message reached more than 100 million people.

Meanwhile, in the store, American Express rewarded consumers for their participation, giving a limited number of $25 credits to card members who registered and shopped at an eligible merchant on Small Business Saturday. To help small businesses identify themselves, American Express offered free, downloadable signage and promotion material from its website.

The program continued, and in the years that followed it tapped into the public’s social consciousness. Hundreds of partners worked together to get the word out. In some towns, Small Business Saturday has been parlayed into community-wide events. Communities in South Africa and Canada have started programs.

Essentially, American Express created a new marketing wave that small businesses could ride. By concentrating the initiative’s focus to a single movement in a narrow timeframe, and through one program, a network effect resulted. The more who joined the movement, the more effective and beneficial Small Business Saturday became for everyone.

In 2012, American Express operated its Small Business Saturday initiative for the third consecutive year, and it again beat expectations. According to American Express’s research, surveyed consumers who said they were aware of Small Business Saturday spent a combined $5.5 billion with independent merchants, surpassing the projected $5.3 billion. More than 150 corporations, including FedEx, Twitter and Clear Channel, banded together to promote shopping at small merchants for Small Business Saturday.

American Express’s Small Business Saturday movement is an example of an initiative that worked because it followed several of the steps to a successful B2B initiative. First, it took care to define the small businesses it would target – one hundred or fewer workers and $10 million in revenue. American Express knew, by using its data to score customers, that it had substantial upside opportunities in small businesses.

Next, it set up relevant touch points by providing its small business customers free marketing resources, while rewarding consumers for participating in the program.

Lastly, American Express implemented benchmarks and measured against them from the first year. Based on the program’s performance, it made modifications and the program flourished.

American Express’s OPEN program succeeds because it uses its data to understand the ambitions and needs of small business owners, from the independent housepainter to the family restaurant. This makes the next step – to provide a way to help them realize these aspirations – a sure-footed one.

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