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Understanding how to utilize credibility, emotional appeals and stories is vital to developing successful brand communications.  It’s what makes campaigns memorable, and more importantly believable.  These rules should act as a guide in all media, but they should be treated as hard and fast in the digital realm.   A brand’s success or failure online is largely contributed to whether consumers are able to relate.  And although we all hope for a utopia where consumers are unwaveringly dedicated to their toothpaste brand, the truth is most consumers use digital media to connect to other people – not products.

This all sounds like common sense, but unfortunately many companies fail to successful execute a humanized strategy.  They talk at consumers, sending out various bits of information that give the audience no reason to become involved.   American Express’s OPEN forum provides a compelling case study for how to do it right and get consumers talking in the process.

OPEN forum

Credibility is an uphill battle for every company.  Those that successfully establish it (read: Apple) reap mega rewards over the lifetime of the brand.  To gain credibility, ‘Made to Stick’ recommends letting consumers pass judgement independently. Although it’s scary to stop spinning, the companies that do can quickly create brand ambassadors.

American Express allowed their customers to create Facebook-style profiles and share business tips, exchange financial advice and promote their products and services.  There was a chance that unhappy customers could have used the forum as a sounding board for their complaints. AmEx took that chance and saw a 350% visitor growth rate over the past year (Fredricksen).  They were able to do this because they embraced a simple human truth: business owners care more about interacting with other business owners than their financial institutions.

Emotional appeals should not be brand-centric.  Alerting your Twitter followers that your company was just featured on the news or won an industry award does not count as an emotional appeal.  It’s like having a baby – although it’s exciting for you, no one outside your immediate family wants to fawn over your newborn’s picture for 2 hours.  Emotional appeals have to hit on something that has significant, personal relevance to consumers.

OPEN was founded on the insight that small business owners are fighting everyday to keep their doors open.  Most often, they don’t have deep pockets and are constantly looking for small ways to make a big impact in their business.  OPEN knew their customers wouldn’t feel a deep connection with a multi-billion dollar corporation.  The best way to help them was to let them connect with other entrepreneurs that had also taken a leap of faith in launching a new business.

Stories get our attention when advertising can’t.  Humans are wired to pay attention to stories – there may be valuable information that can help us in the future.  Compelling stories spark consumers’ interest and encourage them to regularly engage with a brand.

OPEN leveraged this knowledge by creating a space where business owners could share real stories of success (and failure).  Jason Rudman, OPEN’s content strategist, explains how this approach paid off:

“The content on is original and exclusive to us. It’s not like we have an aggregated RSS Feed and we pull in content and display it under our brand. It’s all original content, not repurposed from other publications and Websites…It’s essentially a virtual trading post of insight between industry experts and small-business owners.”

In other words, it’s all original stories coming from credible, real business owners that are financially and emotionally invested in their respective companies.  The result is an astoundingly involved community of over 9,000 American Express OPEN card members (Fredricksen).  In reaching out to consumers through digital channels, using an emotive approach is vital.

Fredricksen, Clark. (2010, 13 May). Case Study: American Express OPEN Forum Socializes Small Business. The E-Marketer Blog. Retrieved from

Heath, Chip & Heath Dan. (2008). Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Rev. ed.). New York: Random House, Inc.

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