What Motivates Yelp’s Power Users?

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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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