Small business, big community

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Marcy Shinder, VP of brand marketing and strategy for American Express Open
Marcy Shinder, VP of brand marketing and strategy for American Express Open

As brand-new small business owners, Con­nie and Thomas Betts had quite a lot to deal with when they started the Cascade Alpacas Ranch and Foothills Yarn & Fiber store in Hood River, OR. Not only did they have to fix up the ranch and install the yarn store, but they had to purchase four alpacas at around $10,000. After only a few years in business, however, the Betts are reporting yearly revenues of $100,000, and say they get about 15-20 visitors to the ranch each weekend.

The Betts gained a great deal of support as members of Openforum.com, a Web site created by American Express Open, which offers cards and financing for small businesses. The site is just one of the many services that AmEx Open offers to small business owners, which also includes in-person networking opportunities, seminars, mentor programs and financial tools.

“We've tried to serve small businesses differ­ently and better, in a way that is really relevant,” explains Marcy Shinder, VP of brand marketing and strategy for Open. “We have an array of initiatives that we pursue because the way that our customers experience them is that AmEx gets them as a business owner.”

Relevance is key to customer loyalty

American Express Open's customer loyalty strategy is rooted in the concept of giving small business owners things they actually need to grow their businesses. Airline miles and cash rewards are great for consumer credit cards, but small business owners have special needs which Shinder breaks down into three categories: financial needs, access to information and social interaction or networking.

It's no surprise, then, that many of Open's initiatives are designed to give small business owners the chance to meet each other, learn about business and better control their finances.

“We're about being the card that connects customers to the best in the business — the best products and the best services,” Shinder says. “We have an amazing membership, so we're also about helping them connect to each other.”

Members of Openforum can find videos, arti­cles, expert blogs, success stories and advice from other business owners, as well as networking and publicity opportunities. The site also allows users to register for live events and webcasts, and links to the Open homepage.

Other offerings, such as Open's co-sponsored Inside the Entrepreneurial Mind forum, follow that drive to provide useful content. And Open Book, a printed collection of high-level articles, also seeks to deliver meaningful information.

The company's Plum Card, first introduced in 2007, offers trade terms (usually reserved for busi­nesses) to smaller companies and entrepreneurs. Users get early-pay discounts and deferred-payment options, all of which are designed to work with the dynamic cash flow typical of small businesses.

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