By Leena Rao
Over the past year, American Express (NYSE:AXP) has been making several key payments partnerships with technology companies and launched its take on the digital wallet, Serve. Serve integrates a variety of payment options into a single account that can be funded from a bank account, debit, credit or charge card. The company has also landed a number of lucrative carrier partner deals for Serve. Separate from Serve, American Express’ recent partnerships in the payments space include Foursquare, Facebook and even Zynga for personalized deals. We sat down recently with Harshul Sanghi, American Express’ new VP of Enterprise Growth Group to chat about Serve, the digital wallet and how the company plans to dominate the payments space.
Sanghi, who was formerly the Managing Director of North American venture activities for Motorola (NYSE:MMI), joined AmEx in September. His focus is on further developing the Serve brand and forming these partnerships that help expand the card member base into new segments.
Sanghi explains that while every payments company (including even Google) and credit card company is releasing their own version of the digital wallet, it’s whats in the wallet that’s truly important. “The wallet that has the most brand partnerships is what customers are going to gravitate too,” he says. And this wallet needs to tie in seamlessly with loyalty programs, and virtual currencies, which is why AmEx bought virtual currency monetization platform Sometrics a few weeks ago. And the wallet needs to store offers and deals as well so that consumers don’t have to carry around coupons or discounts to a store.
While commercial partnerships are definitely key to the broad appeal of Serve, part of Sanghi’s master plan in furthering Serve’s presence is a connection with developers. “It is difficult for mobile payments startups to scale without partnerships with some of the major financial partners,” he explains. “There are a lot of regulation in terms of moving money, and fraud management and we want to be the partner mobile payments startups think of in this space.” Sanghi says that in first half of next year, American Express will open up the Serve platform to developer community.
Another area where American Express is focusing its efforts when it comes to Serve is on data. “Data is going to be a differentiating factor in the payments space,” Sanghi explains. A personalized experience is going to be key in providing the digital wallet that consumers flock to, he says. And it’s not just purchasing data that American Express is looking to mine.
Intent data, structured data and unstructured data will all play a part of delivering a personalized payments experience. That means analyzing things such as Tweets, Twitter sentiment, your social graph, Facebook updates and more to deliver targeted offers. “The magic is going to be in marrying structured data and unstructured data for results in real-time,” Sanghi says.
With 100 million card members, American Express’ data opportunities are massive. But privacy is a key concern in this data mining, says Sanghi, and the company has to be sure they aren’t abusing these issues, especially as it relates to financial information. For example, the company’s Facebook partnership, in which AmEx cardholders can link their cards to their Facebook accounts to receive deals, is an opt-in experience.
Across the board, American Express is going to be announcing many more commercial partnerships including those with gaming and telecommunications companies. Serve will also soon enter new geographies, says Sanghi, which will also be a key part of the platform’s growth in the next year.
Of course, American Express has competition in the digital wallets space, and companies like PayPal and even Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) are also looking to compete. And fellow credit card companies such as Visa have major ambitions to dominate the digital wallet. Regardless, all of these companies need to fine-tune their offerings so that the benefit to consumers is clear. The battle to become the de facto digital wallet is just starting, and which payments provider that will create the technology that keeps consumers engaged has yet to be determined.