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5/20/2011
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American Express Revamps OPEN Forum Community

Website catering to small businesses adds social media links, picks up pace of development.

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American Express has revamped its website for small business outreach, adding social media integration and moving toward a schedule of regular, incremental upgrades.

The new OPEN Forum design allows members to log in and comment with a Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter identity, rather than their OPEN Forum passwords. The site's own Web community features have also been upgraded, with a new way for members to subscribe to content that is most interesting to them.

That community is being "brought to life" in this release, with a better way for members to see who else is in the community, particularly within their own industries, "so they can see they're not alone in there," said Scott Roen, the VP in charge of OPEN Forum for the American Express OPEN division, which caters to small businesses. "We're going to be scaling up and curating the best content we can curate ourselves, but we also want to inspire business owners, engage them, and get them interested in communicating with each other."

In addition to sharing the advice of prominent business and marketing gurus such as Guy Kawasaki with the small-business community, OPEN Forum is also going to start publishing more content submitted by its members, Roen said in an interview. "We weren't sure how many business owners would be interested in that or what the quality would be, but we're finding there's a huge interest in being able to share knowledge in a professional setting."

Matt Kavney, managing director for national accounts at SmartBrief, a service that syndicates OPEN Forum content, said the new design is more inviting and easier to navigate, while the social logins make it easier for people to communicate. "They're giving people a little more of a regular reason to come find good content on the site," he said.

The Web community continues to run on custom software developed by American Express. The feature for commenting on articles looks a little like the Disqus social plugin, and Roen said his team investigated using standard Web components. Moving to a commercial community management platform such as Jive is something he is definitely thinking about, he said. "We definitely have an interest in it and have to be open to leveraging outside software."

Meanwhile, one tactic for enriching the OPEN Forum environment is adding an application programming interface that outside developers can use to integrate their software with the community, Roen said.

His team is also picking up the pace of development by moving to more of an agile development methodology in which three-week sprints of coding will lead to a release of incremental improvements every nine weeks. In contrast, since OPEN Forum launched in 2007, its development has essentially been punctuated by one big release in the summer of 2009 and another this week. That lumbering pace is not going to work anymore when the rest of the social Web is changing so quickly, Roen said. "The platform itself is going to have to move a lot more quickly."

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