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
Case Study: AmEx Small Business Saturday
In 2010, American Express launched Small Business Saturday - a shopping holiday in the US on the first Saturday after Thanksgiving. The idea was to encourage shoppers to patronise bricks and mortar businesses that are small and local.
The initiative, supported with a campaign by Crispin Porter + Bogusky, was well-received and in 2011 AmEx set out to build on this by cementing Small Business Saturday as a regular fixture in the US' pre-Christmas shopping season.
In its second year, Small Business Saturday was even more successful. Five thousand small businesses participated and 103 million Americans 'shopped small' on the day. Small Business Saturday became a social phenomenon - generating 2.7 million 'Likes' on Facebook and it was a top trending topic on Twitter. Even US President Barack Obama tweeted his support.
In response to widespread support from public officials, the US Senate unanimously passed a motion declaring Small Business Saturday an official day - realising AmEx's goal of making it an official part of America's national holiday shopping season.
The third Small Business Saturday took place in the US on Saturday November 24 2012.
The idea for creating a special day evolved as a way to capitalise on 'Start Booming’, a new creative platform for American Express OPEN (AmEx’s small businesses service). The ‘Start Booming’ campaign launched in July 2010 to celebrate small businesses and show how they were helping to revive the still-struggling economy.
"The 'Start Booming' campaign was all about reflecting how small businesses were re-imagining their businesses with new approaches making themselves stronger and more cost effective as they came out of recession.
"It was prompted by an awareness that things had changed and it was inspired by stories of resiliency and recognition that the tools we offered were part of that. For example, we knew business owners were choosing to re-invest points earned on their cards to off-set business costs rather than seeing them only as a reward."
Allison Silver, Vice President, Brand, Advertising & Advocacy for American Express OPEN
Following the launch of Start Booming, research conducted by AmEx showed that for its small business customers, the number one business need coming out of recession was getting new customers.
"So we asked ourselves: what can we do to actively help small businesses in this respect?," Silver explains. "We are marketers and we have a customer base of millions of consumers, so how can we mobilise this to encourage greater support for small business?"
Already established in the US's all-important pre-Christmas shopping period were Black Friday - the day after Thanksgiving which marks the traditional start of the Christmas shopping season, and Cyber Monday - the Monday after, so- named to encourage people to shop online. AmEx hoped Small Business Saturday would encourage shoppers to patronise bricks and mortar business that are both small and local, too.
"The biggest ideas are generally those that are programmes or initiatives which demonstrate something - something that by its nature conveys the idea within it. Small Business Saturday was just such an idea.”Mark Taylor
Vice President Group Creative Director
Crispin Porter + Bogusky
The first Small Business Saturday was devised, developed and implemented in just a few weeks. Consumers were urged to support it through a national TV and radio campaign. A logo and simple artwork for in-store displays were created for participating small businesses to use. AmEx acquired advertising inventory on Facebook then offered it to its small business account holders at no charge. New American Express OPEN customers were also incentivised to promote the event.
Small Business Saturday 2010 was a big success generating more than 1 million Facebook 'Likes' and nearly 30,000 Tweets.
"We didn't know how big it was going to be. From a cultural standpoint we obviously hoped that it would take off but we were blown away by how fast it happened and the extent of it. More importantly, it drove real results for small businesses across the country that day."
Mark Taylor, Vice President Group Creative Director, Crispin Porter + Bogusky
The following year, AmEx set out to cement Small Business Saturday in US culture as an official national shopping day by placing the concept directly into the hands of small business owners – the plan was to bed it down and built its scale.
"Year two needed to be about mobilising the movement - encouraging more businesses to participate; increasing public, private and political support; and building partnerships with other corporations to support the small business cause," Silver explains.
Every major retailer in the US advertises Black Friday - the biggest shopping day of the American shopping year. AmEx alone could not compete with this, so working with its agencies it developed a plan to win support not just from small businesses, consumers and public officials but other larger companies it could partner to promote the cause.
"An important focus was to leverage our own assets - for example, AmEx sales people who, when meeting new merchants, could also discuss the role they could play in Small Business Saturday," says Silver.
"A particular challenge was logistics as this cut across all our agencies and many different departments within AmEx - our small business group dealing with merchants accepting AmEx cards; another group dealing with small businesses that use them; our PR, advertising and research divisions. It was a quintessential cross-functional effort run by a cross-functional team led out of AmEx OPEN."
The strategy had three main pillars:
"The first element was to put the tools in the hands of small business owners and rally them to own the day. The second was to speak to consumers to encourage them to support the movement and go our and shop in small business on Small Business Saturday. The third was to lobby Government officials to make it 'an official day'."
Allison Silver, Vice President, Brand, Advertising & Advocacy for American Express OPEN
Three distinct target audiences presented a major challenge: effectively involving and rallying each while speaking to all in a consistent, single voice. The task was made more complex, however, by the fact that it was not just about AmEx communicating to the different groups but recruiting then arming small businesses to communicate the message too.
To secure consumer support, Crispin Porter + Bogusky developed a cross-platform advertising campaign that would position Small Business Day as a national movement. Some of this creative work was run by AmEx, some by the small businesses themselves.
"Consumers needed to be made aware and understand their role: to shop. But to be compelling, we wanted to elevate the purpose of doing so to 'good movement' or 'cause' status," Taylor says. A commercial was made depicting a cross section of shoppers making 'the pledge to shop small'.
Securing this small business support involved a two-step process:
The first was to encourage them to come on board and convey the benefits of doing so. Many 'big box stores' have significant ad budgets to promote Black Friday small businesses cannot match. Crispin Porter + Bogusky created an advertising campaign in which small business owners were encouraged to unite to combine forces and fight back.
The second step was to create and deliver advertising small businesses could run to promote Small Business Saturday. The agency developed a marketing toolkit for small businesses to use to market themselves under the Small Business Saturday banner.
"We created a design library of logos and artwork to actual advertising executions from which they could choose with the tone of voice used throughout consistent with how Small Business Saturday had been communicated from launch," Taylor explains. "A consistent creative wrapper was essential to unite all fronts."
Creative executions were created for all different types of media - from online video to print and in-store signage, digital and social advertising. The agency also produced social marketing tools such as a YouTube maker, Facebook page builder and simple mechanism to launch special offers using Foursquare.
All marketing toolkit material was then distributed digitally via a hub that lived online, both on Facebook as well as AmEx's site.
The campaign's third pillar was securing support from public officials. In 2010, elected officials had quickly jumped on board to support the first Small Business Saturday. Unprompted, governors and mayors country-wide had held press conferences in support of the day.
Thanks to the momentum already built in year one, AmEx had an audience of officials already willing to listen. Another important factor, however, was what Silver calls AmEx's "big tent" approach to develop and position Small Business Saturday as being for all small businesses, not just AmEx's customers.
As a result, elected officials in Congress asked the agency for creative work to share in Congressional sub-committee meetings. Subsequently, the Senate passed a unanimous resolution declaring Small Business Saturday an official day.
Watch the Video Below to see Small Business Saturday in Action
AmEx's second Small Business Saturday in 2011 was a big success backed by 5,000 participating small businesses and 103 million Americans who not only pledged to but shopped small on the day.
Small Business Saturday became a top ten trending topic on Twitter with US President Barack Obama among those Tweeting their support. It generated 2.7 million 'Likes' on Facebook - a marked increase on the year before. And the marketing and promotional activity around it - both by AmEx, its partners and the small businesses themselves - generated 66% awareness of the day.
Effective recruitment of public officials helped ensure US Senate unanimously passed a motion to declare Small Business Saturday an official day - realising AmEx's goal of making the day an official part of the holiday shopping season.
Looking back, Taylor believes an important factor in the initiative's success was how closely it was managed and co-ordinated.
"We had to be very prescriptive about what we wanted to accomplish across the different audiences we needed to reach and we needed clear direction and voice to do so.
"This was achieved through true partnership - working very closely, hand in hand, not just with the client but all of AmEx's other agencies and third party partners."
Mark Taylor, Vice President Group Creative Director, Crispin Porter + Bogusky
Silver identifies three further factors.
"First, we unlocked a cultural trend that was already happening. There were lots of grassroots call to buy local - we tapped into that whisper turning it into a shout. Second, the rise of social media enabled the amplification of this message in a more organic way," she says.
Above all, however, was AmEx's decision to reach out to other organisations and public officials to back the cause.
"This was - and still is - more than a marketing campaign for AmEx. It's AmEx telling people about the importance of small business and giving small businesses the tools to do the same to encourage everyone - customers, corporations and government - to help small businesses because doing so helps the economy."Allison Silver
Vice President, Brand, Advertising & Advocacy
American Express OPEN
If you think you have a campaign that deserves a Pencil, enter your work into the D&AD Awards and see if our judges agree. When it comes to awards, nothing matters more.
For more creative inspiration and the opportunity to get up close and personal with the world’s best design and advertising, join us at D&AD Festival.