How American Express Found Its Social Media Groove


American Express went from virtually zero social media presence in 2009 to being hailed by Advertising Age as the “real winner” at South By Southwest this year.

How did AmEx do it? Leslie Berland, SVP of digital partnerships and development at the company, attempted to retrace the brand’s steps during a talk at Mashable Connect, and then dispensed a few social media tips on Friday.

Berland highlighted two major inflection points in AmEx’s social media marketing history: its introduction of Small Business Saturday and its promotion of Sync at SXSW. The former started with a “lofty goal,” which was to “start a movement,” Berland said.

Launched in 2010, Small Business Saturday was designed as a response of sorts to Black Friday, which comes the day before. The idea is to motivate consumers already in shopping mode to spend their cash at their local mom and pops. Berland says her aha moment with the program was realizing that it was a great fit on Facebook, where the SBS Page drew 1 million fans in three weeks. (It now has 2.8 million fans.)

That’s a respectable showing considering the brand only began focusing on social media in 2009, when it set up AmEx’s first Twitter account. Berland recalls that it took three weeks to come up with the account’s first tweet. No wonder she likens getting a large brand on social media to giving birth.

Berland’s coup de grace was this year’s SXSW promotion for AmEx Sync‘s Twitter tie-in, which appears to have captured the hearts and minds of much of the event’s attendees.

The effort, which introduced a program that offers cardmembers discounts for tweeting advertised hashtags, began before SXSWers even arrived. Berland secured 30 minutes of free Wi-Fi from GoGo to 80% to 90% of the flights to Austin, Texas, that included a plug for Sync. Then, once in Austin, AmEx offered 700 tickets to its Jay-Z concert. The concert became a major draw at the show, an outcome that reflects Jay-Z’s popularity as well as AmEx’s exacting standards as an entertainment partner. As Berland recalls, there was a long list of potential concert draws, but the brand was seeking someone who was both hip with the local crowd and popular nationally. (Justin Bieber was among those who didn’t make the cut.)

Though Berland’s talk included some trite advice (“Think like a startup”), she was more candid in her QA with the audience. When one attendee challenged her about her statement that “90% of our strategy is defined by the things we don’t do,” Berland said she meant, for instance, that it’s wise to resist the pressure to embrace all formats. “What I’m often challenged with often is a lot of ‘I want this, we want that’” she said, referring to internal pressure. However, “It’s not a ‘build it they will come,’ thing.”

Berland also said it doesn’t make sense to back a Facebook campaign with traditional media like print and TV ads. “If you’re running a program on Facebook, buy ads on Facebook.”


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The contents of each bag given to Mashable Connect attendees.


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Mashable Connect attendees gathering in the hotel lobby.


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While Thursday didn’t have a full day of activities, there were things planned for Thursday evening.


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In this photo from left to right: Mashable reporter Brian Hernandez, a Mashable Connect Guest, Mashable Community Assistant Stephanie Haberman, Mashable Reporter Sarah Kessler, and Mashable Features Editor Matt Silverman.


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On the right is Mashable’s Marketing Manager Jennifer Diamond with another attendee.


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More happy Mashable Connect attendees.


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Attendees were invited to a speed networking session to get know other attendees the first night.


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You’d have two minutes to get to know the person sitting across from you.


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At the end of the two minutes, attendees got up and slid to the right.


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Second from left, Mashable U.S. and World Reporter Alex Fitzpatrick makes connections at speed networking.


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Attendees were able to meet almost everyone during the session.


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Mashable Editor-in-Chief Lance Ulanoff listens during the speed networking session.


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At the sound of the chime, it’s time to change seats.


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Mashable Community Manager Meghan Peters talks to another Mashable Connect attendee.


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It’s always important to start with the handshake.


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A lone smartphone a picture of the Mashable Connect Thursday dinner.


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Guests proceeded into the dinner room, where they would eat and listen to a keynote from Mashable founder and CEO Pete Cashmore.


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Mashable COO Sharon Feder addresses the Mashable Connect crowd with the help of Mickey Mouse.


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Mashable founder and CEO Pete Cashmore addresses the Thursday night crowd at Mashable Connect.


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Mashable founder and CEO Pete Cashmore addresses the Thursday night crowd at Mashable Connect.


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The crowd listening to Pete Cashmore.


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The entire Mashable staff in attendance gathers on stage with Pete Cashmore.


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Some delicious looking dishes being served to Mashable Connect guests.


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Mashable COO Sharon Feder laughing at Thursday’s Mashable Connect Dinner.


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Mashable founder and CEO Pete Cashmore enjoying Thursday’s Mashable Connect Dinner.


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Mashable U.S. and World Reporter Alex Fitzpatrick talks to another Mashable Connect attendee.


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Mashable’s CTO Robyn Peterson, Sales Director Adam Berberich and founder and CEO Pete Cashmore share a conversation at Thursday’s dinner.


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Mashable Senior VP of Communications Stacy Green addresses the crowd during dinner.

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The contents of each bag given to Mashable Connect attendees.


Mashable Connect attendees gathering in the hotel lobby.


While Thursday didn’t have a full day of activities, there were things planned for Thursday evening.


In this photo from left to right: Mashable reporter Brian Hernandez, a Mashable Connect Guest, Mashable Community Assistant Stephanie Haberman, Mashable Reporter Sarah Kessler, and Mashable Features Editor Matt Silverman.


On the right is Mashable’s Marketing Manager Jennifer Diamond with another attendee.


More happy Mashable Connect attendees.


Attendees were invited to a speed networking session to get know other attendees the first night.


You’d have two minutes to get to know the person sitting across from you.


At the end of the two minutes, attendees got up and slid to the right.


Second from left, Mashable U.S. and World Reporter Alex Fitzpatrick makes connections at speed networking.


Attendees were able to meet almost everyone during the session.


Mashable Editor-in-Chief Lance Ulanoff listens during the speed networking session.


At the sound of the chime, it’s time to change seats.



Mashable Community Manager Meghan Peters talks to another Mashable Connect attendee.



It’s always important to start with the handshake.




A lone smartphone a picture of the Mashable Connect Thursday dinner.


Guests proceeded into the dinner room, where they would eat and listen to a keynote from Mashable founder and CEO Pete Cashmore.



Mashable COO Sharon Feder addresses the Mashable Connect crowd with the help of Mickey Mouse.


Mashable founder and CEO Pete Cashmore addresses the Thursday night crowd at Mashable Connect.


Mashable founder and CEO Pete Cashmore addresses the Thursday night crowd at Mashable Connect.


The crowd listening to Pete Cashmore.


The entire Mashable staff in attendance gathers on stage with Pete Cashmore.


Some delicious looking dishes being served to Mashable Connect guests.


Mashable COO Sharon Feder laughing at Thursday’s Mashable Connect Dinner.


Mashable founder and CEO Pete Cashmore enjoying Thursday’s Mashable Connect Dinner.



Mashable U.S. and World Reporter Alex Fitzpatrick talks to another Mashable Connect attendee.



Mashable’s CTO Robyn Peterson, Sales Director Adam Berberich and founder and CEO Pete Cashmore share a conversation at Thursday’s dinner.


Mashable Senior VP of Communications Stacy Green addresses the crowd during dinner.



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