Contently Case Story: How Amex Turned Small Business Saturday Into a Storytelling Machine

Great brand publishing doesn’t happen overnight—it’s a process that has a beginning, middle, and end. Contently Case Stories is a series highlighting some of Contently’s most successful clients, and telling the stories of how we worked together to produce great content and great business results.

Having a content strategy that works is amazing enough, but creating a national holiday? That puts you in another marketing league altogether.

Yet this is exactly what American Express accomplished when they launched “Small Business Saturday,” a yearly campaign that encourages consumers to shop at local small businesses. Founded in 2010, the event takes place on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and this year it will be held on November 29.

Unlike other post-Thanksgiving sales events such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Small Business Saturday shifts the focus away from large retailers and instead highlights three things: small businesses, their neighborhoods, and their loyal customers.

This comprehensive approach has had an impact. Last year, approximately $5.7 billion was spent on small businesses on Small Business Saturday. So far, the campaign has reached 3.38 million likes on Facebook.

While it might not be a holiday in the strictest sense, a growing number of governors, senators, city officials, and non-profit groups have been showing their support of the movement. Even President Obama has been known to shop at local bookstores on Small Business Saturday. Plus, the campaign is starting to go international: It inspired a similar event in the U.K. last year, which American Express actively supports.

This year, however, American Express is doing something extra to bring the message to life—they’re producing longer, richer content through Local Business Stories.

Creating an immersive, personal storytelling experience

Hosted on OPEN Forum, American Express’ online community for small business owners, Local Business Stories are immersive, multimedia narratives featuring small businesses that have made an impact in their community. Each story is almost 2,000 words long, accompanied with large photos and high quality video. The stories are also responsive, making them look good across different mobile displays.

So far, two business stories are live: “Strictly Bicycles From Fort Lee, New Jersey” and “Duke & Winston from Philadelphia.”

These longform features seem like a natural extension of the brand, given that American Express has had almost a century of experience as a brand publisher. “This series came about as we were thinking about how to bring Small Business Saturday to life on OPEN Forum,” said Carrie Parker, OPEN Forum’s director. “Small businesses are the fabric of local communities and while shopping is an important element of Small Business Saturday, the day is also about celebrating the local small business owners.”

Sharing business stories is nothing new in OPEN Forum, which already contains myriad blog posts covering different small businesses all over the country. What makes Local Business Stories different is that it gives the reader a chance to dig deeper. “We wanted to use the community element as a theme tying the series together, and focus the content on the impact these businesses have had,” explained Parker. “We regularly feature small business stories on OPEN Forum, but with Local Business Stories, we created an immersive story-telling experience to delve into the business owners’ journeys and their deeply personal stories. “

To produce these stories, American Express looked for businesses that they already had a relationship with, either as an American Express merchant or a Small Business Saturday participant. According to Parker, the challenge was picking only four businesses to feature, given that American Express has relationships with businesses owners all over the country that have compelling stories to share. “Once we identified the businesses, we had our writers work with them to uncover their stories—how they grew, what adversity they faced, and what they felt was important to share with others.”

(Full disclosure: Contently’s talent team provided American Express with journalists, photographers, and videographers for the Local Business Stories features.)

“Every business owner deals with challenges in running and growing their business. We wanted the challenges of running a business to come through in these narratives along with the lessons learned along the way,” Parker added. “Ultimately, we want readers to be inspired and learn from the business advice shared in these stories. “

Telling stories that build an audience

Though only two of the four stories have been published so far, OPEN Forum’s audience is already responding to the content. “While it is early, we are already seeing higher engagement including more return visits and nearly double the time on site from a typical article,” said Parker.

Parker also added that this new approach is just one part of OPEN Forum’s journey as they become more innovative with their content and grow their audience of millions of small business owners.

“At the end of the day, our goal is to deliver valuable information to business owners looking to grow their business,” she said. “The longform format of Local Business Stories gives us a new opportunity to engage with business owners. and we are excited about continuing to explore new storytelling approaches like we do with this series.“

Invest in your customers’ stories

What we can learn from Local Business Stories? For starters, a sound content strategy doesn’t mean simply broadcasting your company’s stories to an audience. Instead, it also pays off to invest the time and effort in looking for the stories that already exist within the communities your company serves—the stories that resonate with people in a personal way.

By turning our attention to the struggles and achievements of small business owners, American Express has shown that their own brand doesn’t have to be in the spotlight to gain loyalty. Given all the planning and thought they put into Local Business Stories and the rest of the OPEN Forum content, every day might as well be Small Business Saturday.

Image by American Express
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