Which companies are at the forefront of social media? One that started in 1850 may not be your first guess, but the truth of the matter is that American Express has proven to be a pioneer.

Not only are they leading the banking industry, but one could also make the argument that there are few companies outside of Silicon Valley who have adapted and embraced social media as heavily as American Express.

But even if you’re not a Fortune 100 company, there are still quite a few things you can learn (and adapt) from AmEx’s social media playbook.

Rule #1: Be useful

Driving down the I-5 freeway in Los Angeles, you will see the city’s largest outlet mall with a massive video billboard that flashes “Follow us on Twitter!”

Considering that this is one of the busiest freeways in the US, it’s downright pathetic that after years, they haven’t even accumulated 2,000 followers. Then again, it’s not the least bit surprising.

Why? Because social media needs to serve a purpose. If you want to be followed, give people a good reason to do so. Simply saying “follow us” isn’t exactly a compelling reason, right?

On the other hand, American Express actually makes their social platforms useful. For example you can Tweet your way to savings:

  • Sync your eligible American Express Card with Twitter
  • Tweet the special offer #hashtags to load exclusive Cardmember offers directly to your Card
  • Save with an automatic statement credit when you make a qualified purchase in store or online with your synced Card

You can read more about it here. Take a look at some of the recent offers:

Are those good enough reasons to engage? I would say so, yeah. In fact, even though AmEx cards have good cashback rewards in and by themselves, I’ve heard from many on the forum who say it was actually their Twitter deals which finally sold them on filling out an application.

Rule #2: Be everywhere

Sure, most companies have Facebook and Twitter, but AmEx goes way beyond that. You will find them actively embracing almost every major social platform.

For example, check out their YouTube channel. Not only are they consistently updating it several times per week, but their content is both entertaining and does a good job cross promoting their credit cards.

When it comes to Foursquare, AmEx has been a smash hit with both consumers and businesses:

  • Consumers: Just like with Twitter, you can sync your credit card with Foursquare to score coupon-less savings on shopping, dining, entertainment and more.
  • Businesses: They are appealing to their small business cardmembers by using Foursquare to promote local companies.

The lesson? Embrace multiple platforms and use them strategically to appeal to as many of your current (and potential) customers as possible.

Rule #3: Be bold

As the old saying goes, there are two types of people in this world – followers and leaders. American Express clearly falls in the latter group. They aren’t afraid to be bold and try new things in the social landscape. We’ve already discussed a few of the ways they are entering unchartered territory.

Why is this important? There are a couple reasons:

  • First-mover advantage – You don’t need an MBA to know how much of an edge this can give your business.
  • Innovation – You can’t do the same thing over and over and expect different results (that’s the definition of insanity). AmEx doesn’t know if every one of their social initiatives will pan out and be a success, but by being innovative and trying different strategies, you can bet they will continue to dominate.

Don’t just sit on the sidelines. Your company can’t win the game if it isn’t playing in the first place.

Michael Dolen writes his second article for us, explaining why he thinks American Express are doing social media so well. Mike is an expert in both credit cards and social media, and he runs a successful social platform all about credit cards.