American Express Member’s Project

Social IMC - Social strategies with bottom-line ROIAmerican Express Members Project

American Express Members Project is a great example of Social IMC. It shows a company who developed a complete private virtual site around the mission of a target market it wanted to develop. The initiative was great from a corporate perspective in that it branded the organization as caring about the community, the environment, and education. It also gave the target market a way to empower them to help achieve their goals.

This case is also a great example of positioning your product toward a private virtual community. American Express was able to use its product as an enabler for the community. Getting and using your American Express card resulted in more votes and more clout for you and your causes. It was and is an effective program that is still extremely effective in its target market.

Finally, it’s also a great example of OPN– Other Peoples Networks. See how they structured the community site to encourage individuals and their causes to participate within the community. They found a way for the community to self-promote the Members Project for American Express. This is a powerful way to market because the community does it for you toward people highly likely to join the community.

Target Communities

The target market was young people just leaving college and entering the workforce. American Express wanted to engage with them so they would consider getting an American Express card. The problem was this market is the most resistant to these types of offers. In order to engage with them, American Express needed to understand passions and trigger events of meaning to them. By understanding what they were concerned about and what they were discussing in the social cloud, the company might be able to develop a Social IMC type program to engage, empower, and acquire them. The key was to figure out how to empower them and, once that was accomplished, understand how to link the empowerment content to their credit card goals.

In examining their desires and aspirations, American Express found this younger, more upscale market did have some concerns and passions about the world they lived in. “Think globally, act locally” was a popular saying among this target market.[i] They were committed to environmental, educational, and social change at the local and national levels. Many were involved in causes in college and, after graduation, volunteered at not-for-profit groups addressing the issues that concerned them. They wanted to make a difference in their local community and, thereby, improve the world. This was the information American Express needed to create their Empowering Concept.

Create Empowerment

The first step in creating an Empowering Concept is to understand the mission of community members. This upscale, highly educated, and committed group had a clear mission. They wanted to assist local causes in improving their local communities by addressing these key social issues. However, while they wanted to volunteer, they wanted to do more. Many of the causes members supported were perpetually short of funds and resources. As a result, they could not make the impact they wanted in the world. They were on a mission to solve these issues and needed to find the resources to accomplish this mission.

In response to their needs, American Express created the American Express Members Project. It was a Social IMC strategy that truly demonstrates the power of social and the willingness of individuals to engage with companies if they are dedicated to helping their virtual communities achieve their goals. The Members Project was built to allow people to address their social passions and their drive to make the world a better place.

Individual members would join and then could nominate a local charity or educational institution to receive funds. The individual could then encourage others to vote for their cause. They could also vote themselves. Because they were working for the causes they cherished, many of the Members Project individuals contacted their cause for help. The causes, realizing they could receive funds they needed to achieve their mission, then contacted their members and donors to encourage them to join the Members Project and vote for their cause.

American Express made it easy for an individual to register their causes. It took minutes to register and nominate their favorite cause. It was simple and allowed the individuals to begin to get the money and resources they wanted to achieve their social mission. It was a win-win-win for the company, the individual, and their causes.

Originally, the Members Project was on its own website. You could visit it, but, to participate, you had to join. Joining meant going through an information exchange where you gave them your e-mail address, password, your nominated cause, and other information. Once accepted, you could begin supporting your cause with your personal votes and by marketing them to others.

Today, the Members Project is on Facebook.[ii] It moved from a website to Facebook several years ago. One of the benefits of moving to Facebook is that it simplified the registration process even more. All you have to do is register using your Facebook account. This makes it simpler for the individual and also gives American Express more information, and with Facebook registration, it’s fast and easy to do.

Go Viral

To originally promote the new Members Project, American Express enlisted the help of key celebrities who were committed to specific causes. To promote their new Members Project, American Express teamed with known and highly cause-active individuals. They created television commercials, YouTube videos, and print ads to launch their new cause.[iii] They also used PR announcements and announcements on social media to let the target market know about the goals and objectives of the Members Project.

One example is Yvon Chournard, CEO/Founder of Patagonia, whose cause is dam busting ([iv]

 In another cause, to promote education, American Express enlisted Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone project ([v]

In addition to video, American Express used print ads, press releases, and articles from key leaders to promote their Members Project initiative. Their promotions were initially focused on the start-up dates for the website and were designed to drive new graduates and young professionals in the target market to join and participate in the site.


From the first interaction, American Express knew who the individuals were, what causes they supported, and their level of involvement within the site. By analyzing the type of causes they were supporting and their location, American Express was able to learn about the degree of support for different categories of causes and the types of local causes being pushed by their target market members.

American Express was able to match their Members Project members with their card database to determine who did and did not own a card. Like all great Social IMC strategies, American Express did not directly try to market to these individuals. To do so would have greatly weakened the trust between American Express and their Members Project members. They saw American Express as a company trying to help them achieve their social mission. To have offered them cards would have destroyed this positioning between the company and its members. While they wanted them to get and use American Express cards, there was a better way.


In their engagement strategy, American Express used two tactics that are very useful in a Social IMC strategy. The first is using OPN, or Other People’s Networks. Because the goal was to use vote totals to get funding for specific causes, this empowering concept made it logical for the causes to become involved. To get more of each year’s available funding, causes created advertisements, videos, and direct appeals to their donor and member bases urging the individuals to join and participate in the Members Project. They essentially used their contacts to clone the exact market American Express wanted to develop. Put another way, the Members Project went viral within the target markets the company desired.

It is worth the time to watch a couple of these appeals: VoteIMC project (, Vote for a Better Chance (

and Oceana ( You can see the causes attempting to rally both their members and others to help them win. Having the causes create free advertising for the American Express Members Project is a great example of OPN.

A second important tactic is the company’s use of gamification. Gamification is the use of our internal competitiveness to keep an individual involved. American Express updated the award leader board daily to let participants see if their cause was in the money. They also gave you votes every week to encourage you to come back and cast it for your cause. Both the individuals and their causes could see every week where they stood, and if they were too far down the list, it would spur them to greater viral action.

What Were the Results?

Was it effective? The Members Project has attracted over 1.7 million members and huge number of causes. Did it work? While numbers are not forthcoming on the program, the company’s actions speak volumes. The project has been around since 2007 and continues to be vigorously supported by the company. Prior to the Members Project, American Express used a similar strategy to support the rejuvenation of the Statue of Liberty. Like the Members Project, American Express encouraged donors to obtain and use a card. Each new card issued and each use contributed to the cause. In that effort, transaction activity went up 28 percent in the first month, and there was a 45 percent jump in the number of new card applicants[vi] It’s likely American Express has seen similar numbers from the Members Project.

American Express Members Project Summary

The American Express Members project is a great example of Social IMC. To impact their target market and encourage them to get and use American Express cards, they did not attempt to market directly to them. Instead, they became a part of an important mission being undertaken by their target market and truly helped them achieve their goals. They create a site designed to achieve the social and environmental goals of the members and allowed them to improve their local communities and the world as a whole.

What’s impressive is the way the company used gamification to drive the community and retain the involvement of their members over years. While you may or may not have been aware of the Members Project, it has run since 2007. The causes and their dedicated members keep the community active, and each year American Express is able to give money to causes that are truly making a difference. While their Members Project activities are good corporate positioning, the community is also structured to encourage members to get and use their cards for the good of the community. It’s a great example of a company creating a private virtual community site that is providing strong benefits today, just as it did in 2007. It’s a great heritage and a fantastic example of the Social IMC strategy at work.








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