19 November 2009

Building Authentic Customer Communities: American Express & Meetup

During the WOMMA Summit in Las Vegas last week, I attended a session with American Express OPEN to learn about their nation-wide Meetups geared toward bringing small business owners together to learn, share and grow.

With over 7 million registered users, American Express OPEN Forum is an online "trading post" bringing together small business owners to share advice, insights and ideas to facilitate the types of connections needed to re-energize the economy. Of course, the more small businesses grow, the better American Express fares, too.

Despite featuring content by Guy Kawasaki, Anita Campbell and Mashable, OPEN Forum wasn't seeing large adoption among its target audience, so American Express partnered with Meetup to provide 30 local small business Meetup groups across the country with curriculum and financial support to help them perform better in a down economy.

Program Goals:
1. Pair OPEN with local small business Meetups to leverage their reach and develop a scalable program
2. Generate lift in OPEN brand attitudinal metric, showing it resonates among participants
3. Increase OPEN brand sentiment, ensuring small business owners understand OPEN is committed to serving their interests
4. Increase Meetup group organizer activity and morale

How It Worked:
1. New York City Retreat
- Discerning What Meetup Organizers Need
OPEN flew 30 Meetup organizers to New York City to better understand their needs as community organizers and small business owners, their members' needs and how OPEN could add value.

OPEN invited influential guest speakers and ultimately found that Meetup organizers wanted to increase the value and credibility of their groups and add more members.

2. Curriculum Development - Empowering Meetup Organizers
OPEN developed a 6-month curriculum for Meetup organizers delivered as a monthly "Meetup in a Box" and leveraged its existing partnerships to provide special offers and exclusive webinars to Meetups. OPEN also periodically brought Meetup organizers together in between sessions as a focus group, enabling OPEN to continuously evaluate and evolve the program.

3. The Results
Meetups provided OPEN with a nation-wide presence it wouldn't have otherwise achieved.
  • 82% of Meetup organizers responded that OPEN sponsorship improved their Meetups
  • Pilot program was a success - OPEN has now grown to 80 sponsored groups
Lessons Learned:
  • Organizers are a valuable resource to each other
  • Each group has different needs
  • Need better scale - can't always fly organizers to NYC, sending Meetup packs got expensive
Improvements for Round Two:
  • Mailed Welcome Kit to kick off 6-month curriculum, then create and provide digital content via Meetup.com and OPENForum.com
  • Provide direct financial support to Meetups so organizers can support their groups the best way possible

Unfortunately, I didn't get the statistics for percentage increase in use of AMEX OPEN Forum among Meetup participants, but the overall case study reminded me: social media are a set of tools, not a community. AMEX seems to have learned this when its state-of-the-art online forum didn't perform well out of the box. How do you build community?

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