What Motivates Yelp’s Power Users?

Social networking and consumer reviews site Yelp says that its purpose is “To connect people with great local businesses.” The most important way that the service does this is through the activity of “power users” — Yelp members who post frequent, detailed and well-written reviews. Other Yelp visitors quickly glom onto power users because they feel they can trust the opinion of a person who’s written literally hundreds of commentaries on local businesses and activities.

This system seems to work. Yelp has 54 million unique visitors each month, with 83% of reviews trending positive (i.e. 3+ stars). Highly aware of the role they play, Yelp takes good care of its power users by offering them membership in its “Elite Squad.” This set of power Yelpers who have shown themselves to be passionate, articulate and knowledgeable reviewers enjoy tickets to local events, previews, restaurant openings, and Yelp-only parties and pub crawls. Yelp and merchants also benefit from this arrangement, since new reviews are often posted immediately afterward.

In an effort to dig a little deeper into what motivates Elite Squad-ers and other active Yelp users — beyond the free beer and crudités — Street Fight spoke with three power users who approach the service with differing goals in mind, but all of whom view Yelp as an integral part of their decision-making process.

Business professional Katrina Weires, an Elite Squad member active with Yelp for over four years, has posted 274 reviews, has 12 Yelp “fans” and nearly 100 Yelp friends. Her other stats are clearly depicted on her profile: 62 “firsts” (the first review posted about a merchant or location), the type of locations she tends to review, a distribution graph of her star ratings… even a listing of the types of compliments she most frequently receives.

Weires says, “I was no stranger to rating and reviewing things/purchases/other websites on sites such as Amazon, StumbleUpon and Netflix, so a site that lent itself to reviewing local businesses made perfect sense. There were other local business review sites (like Citysearch), but Yelp had a pretty simple format, and allowed me to aggregate and share my experiences easily, so I went for it.”

While she admits that Yelp’s gamelike atmosphere is appealing (“My Elite badge will turn gold next year, because I will have been Elite for five years”), what Weires really is drawn to is the fact that Yelp “makes users a priority.” Free entry to restaurant openings, bars, and clubs is part of what she views as the rich offline environment that Yelp nurtures. Well-attended, well-run and well-stocked Yelp-specific events even spark real-life romances and deep friendships among people who might never otherwise have met. And what Weires refers to as “dedicated community management” means that a Yelp employee is reaching out to power users to shepherd the Yelp-contributor relationship.

Another frequent Yelp user (albeit not Elite) Reece Dano puts it concisely: “Yelpers seek out other Yelpers.”

Elite Squad member Mikhail Hamilton bemoans the irony of being an event planner, which makes her too busy to attend many Yelp-sponsored events: “I’m probably not ever going to meet any of [her Yelp friends and fans]. Slim to none.”

Hamilton was surfing the Web looking for event marketing channels in 2008 when she first encountered Yelp. She returned in 2010 after learning that a friend’s boyfriend, an Elite member, was receiving invites to exclusive events. Yelp was speaking her language. “I started adding people massively as friends on Yelp.” Right now she has well over a thousand Yelp friends and has posted nearly 200 reviews (only 12% of them carry a 1- and 2-star merchant rating).

Self-promotion can also be a component of Yelp power users’ interaction with the site. For Hamilton, being a frequent Yelp contributor means access to user profiles that speak volumes about those members’ dining preferences, shopping behaviors, and types of social groups.  If she is promoting a rockabilly event, reading reviews about rockabilly-oriented businesses opens up those reviewers’ profiles, as well as their friends’ profiles. Yelp’s all-access nature is a definite boon.

Referencing her brand-building efforts through Yelp, Hamilton continues, “I’m doing this for obviously self-centered reasons … but it has turned into a much more positive experience than I ever anticipated. It’s neat to have people appreciate your opinion on something. As an elite member, people people more attention to what you say.”

“There is a certain draw to being able to be the first person to write a quality review…to help a business grow and be recognized. [It means] having some responsibility toward the success of a place you really like.”

That includes merchants. Business owners read Hamilton’s negative reviews, sometimes contacting her for apologies, explanations, and gift certificates. She views it as a chance for businesses to make right and clarifies that in several instances she’s made another visit and adjusted her earlier review if warranted. Hamilton made special mention of Gilt Club, a Portland, OR-based restaurant whose owner she says was “…amazing. He sent an email explaining the problem, not excusing it. They gave me a hundred-dollar gift certificate to visit again.” She did, and wrote a new review for what had now become a five-star dining experience.

Dano comments that, for some Elite Yelpers, “there is a certain draw to being able to be the first person to write a quality review…to help a business grow and be recognized. [It means] having some responsibility toward the success of a place you really like.”

For Weires and Hamilton, review-writing also provides a creative outlet. Quips, witty writing and full-on poetry have garnered serious praise from friends and fans on Yelp. “A couple of reviews have made me proud, just because I liked the way the story unraveled,” comments Weires.

Social status is bumped up within the Yelp community by their inclusion of Review of the Day (ROTD) in periodic email newsletters. Both Weires and Hamilton have had their work selected as ROTD, and both were showered with positive feedback by other users.

Reviewers can come to depend on Yelp as a personal history. Weires and Dano both commented that Yelp serves as what the former called an “open diary” – a chance to keep a shorthand log of their many foodie experiences. “I don’t have to remember as much stuff,” laughs Weires. This is on-trend with America’s love affair with the examined life, as evidenced by the popularity of Daytum.com and other resources. Sites like Yelp permit “life tracking” in a way that helps others at the same time that it helps the writer.

Hamilton feels, in a sense, that as a review writer she owes something to her Yelp followers and the online community. Weires echoes this by saying, “I’m kind of a ‘take a penny, leave a penny’ sort of girl,” remarking on the sense of contributing to the community by promoting local businesses.

The community she speaks of, then, extends not only to Yelp reviewers but also to the businesses themselves: a true hyperlocal support system, whether in one’s home town or while traveling.

The interviewees recognize that Yelp is a huge opportunity for businesses. As Hamilton puts it, “It’s a chance to do the right thing.” This is a brand touchpoint like any other, and the way businesses choose to respond to reviews can well determine whether they get another shot with that Elite Squad member — and the Yelp users whose trust they hold.

A recent posting on Quora.com (itself a user-generated content site, or UGC) notes that UGC sites such as Yelp “live or die on power users,” though by some estimates they may comprise as few as 1% of overall visitors. For this reason, it’s not unreasonable to stipulate that UX teams design the site experience specifically for these “extreme” users, whose willingness to contribute high-quality content to the growing online community may well determine the site’s fate.

In the case of Yelp, their recognition of these members’ value has been a prime example of extending the user experience in way that pays dividends both to local businesses and to Yelp itself.

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  1. Jeremy
    September 4, 2011

    The people who write the most on Yelp are people who haven’t accomplished much with their lives. You don’t see the people who are doing something meaningful in real life getting too excited about writing hundreds of restaurant reviews. Anyone who feels happy about getting noticed for this has too much empty time on their hands and a serious lacking of real friends in real life who value and appreciate their opinions. There’s a reason for this and I think you know what it is…they are ineffective human beings with serious lackings in social skills. Crass, insensitive, uneducated people adore Yelp because it is all that they have, nobody cares what they think in real life because their personal failings are so obvious. It’s a way to pretend like you are somebody when you haven’t done the real work of making yourself into a somebody and are still a nobody and always will be. Because you’re looking for the easy way to feel good, by being anonymous and finding fault with businesses that you yourself don’t have the guts/intelligence/drive to start yourself, and never will, because you just don’t have what it takes.  It takes hard work to open a restaurant and it’s so easy to sit on your rear end and spout what’s wrong with it. 

    December 2, 2011

     I agree with Jeremy. I have posted ONE negative review of a Lasik place that pretty much maimed me. I have since learned the inner workings of Yelp. First and foremost, they are in the extortion business. They shake down business for anywhere from $300 to $5000 a month so that the business has complete control over their reviews. If you dont pay then you get bad fake reviews. The best part is you have all these people who review everything and everyplace they go. I was reading this one girl’s reviews and basically in 10 days from 11-20-11 to 11-30-11 she reviewed 23 places. She had been to Germany then Saint Louis then Chicago and reviewed 3 places in different locations on the globe on the same day when she was supposed to be in Germany. I ask you how can you be in Germany and review a dentist in Chicago on the same day? Its all a scam. The people who review everything must be the saddest excuses for people there are. I work 10 hours a day and commute 2. That leaves me with 4-5 hours to get my stuff done. Now if I eat out great. I’m not going to run home and jump on Yelp and review everything I did in those 4-5 hours. Like I said I posted ONE review about a place that harmed me to warn others. I was harassed and my review was removed twice because the business owner payed Yelp a bunch of money. To make it simple I called in a favor and they got a visit from a couple U.S. Marshals in San Fransisco. My review has been up for 2 years since that day. The point of this is if you read some of these peoples reviews it is just plain sad and most likely false. How can you afford to eat out 3 times a day and hold down a job, then run home and review those restaurants? There isn’t enough time in the day. I mean some of these people will have 1500+ reviews a year so they can reach elite status. They review the gas station, breakest place, lunch place, oil change, dinner place, bar they went to after and to sum it up WHO CARES? I have my own life. They are trying to promote it as a social network but in reality these people have no real social lives. Jeremy is right on the money but there is the kickback part also. You can have the best business in the world and if you dont pay Yelp, then you are going to get nothing but bad reviews. If you are maiming people, pay them and you are the best Lasik place in the State. Its not just restaurants anymore. Just to clarify, I did not pick my Lasik place because of Yelp. I hadn’t even heard of Yelp at the time. I was referred by someone I trusted but when the economy went bust, they began to cut corners. I dont trust Yelp to pick a restaurant, let alone a surgeon. So in closing the more reviews that people write, the bigger loser you are in normal peoples eyes. Elite status? Give me a break. Whats so Elite about not having a real life?

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