Interesting Social Feature: The Yelp Elite Squad

What’s the most interesting way you’re promoting your web site or application? Have you considered throwing a real-life party for it?

That’s what Yelp.com is doing. A San Francisco-based review site, Yelp has been throwing parties for users of the site they call the “Yelp Elite” in various cities across the country in order to build up buzz.

Yelp

At first, these parties seem a bit silly (see the Yelp Blog for post-party details). Hosting a party around a site on which you read reviews? Doesn’t sound too exciting. It’s certainly not as compelling as the eBay Live! event, which is put on for people who use the auction site. Those people are definitely motivated to attend, eBay is how they make a living.

But looking more closely at Yelp’s parties we can see a tactical reason why they might be doing this: they need to as a result of the nature of their site.

What’s the most interesting way you’re promoting your web site or application? Have you considered throwing a real-life party for it?

That’s what Yelp.com is doing. A San Francisco-based review site, Yelp has been throwing parties for users of the site they call the “Yelp Elite” in various cities across the country in order to build up buzz.

Yelp

At first, these parties seem a bit silly (see the Yelp Blog for post-party details). Hosting a party around a site on which you read reviews? Doesn’t sound too exciting. It’s certainly not as compelling as the eBay Live! event, which is put on for people who use the auction site. Those people are definitely motivated to attend, eBay is how they make a living.

But looking more closely at Yelp’s parties we can see a tactical reason why they might be doing this: they need to as a result of the nature of their site.

The best way to build word-of-mouth is to make something personally valuable, so valuable that it is remarkable. But Yelp is not a personal tool that you can use by yourself. In order for it to work, you need thousands and thousands of people contributing, not just writing reviews and submitting ratings but visiting the site and viewing the advertising. Yelp is a big-time attention play. Without tons of people, the site just won’t work. The site can provide value, but only when it reaches a critical mass. So Yelp has to grow fast because their model depends on a huge audience.

Yelp Elite Badge

Another interesting part of their approach is that the parties are only for members of the “Yelp Elite Squad”. What is an “elite” member? Well, this is how they describe it:

“The Yelp Elite Squad is a crack team of the coolest yelpers. The kind of people who love to write colorful, witty reviews about the places they dig or detest and everything in between. They are the people that tip you off to the little hole in the wall eatery you never knew existed or a doctor you can trust. They are trendsetters and influencers, both on and off the site. We created the Yelp Elite Squad as a way of recognizing these star members.”

Also read the entire Elite Squad page. The copy-writing is interesting, motivating people who see themselves as the central hub of all things cool among their friends. Note that they’re focusing on a certain type of person here…a self-identified yelper.

It doesn’t cost anything to join the Elite Squad, but you must apply to do so. The qualifications are that you have written a lot of helpful reviews, solid profiles, and good pictures of yourself.

When you achieve “elite” status, your profile shows a little icon signifying your membership. This is a nice touch, a simple designation that doesn’t really mean anything other than you have been recognized as a member.

The Elite Squad is leveraging one of the Peter Kollock’s four motivations for contributing: reputation. (see more in my Psychology of Social Design talk) By publicly acknowledging those people who write good reviews, Yelp is creating a win-win situation. Their service gets better while the person has a little higher status in their community. All I have to do to be “elite” is to write a few good reviews? Easy!

Yelp is doing this amazingly cheaply. It’s a super-simple feature, a badge on a profile. The parties they host probably cost some cash, but they’re parties for the people who want to be seen as elite members, so they’re the very audience that Yelp should care most about. In addition, they have sponsors for some events and their parties are probably a good promotion for the venue they’re in. I’m sure any cost for food and drink is outweighed by the benefit of buzz they receive in return.

This feature has a potential downside, however. If the bar to entry is too low, then the “elite” won’t be so elite. I’ve talked to several folks who aren’t all that impressed with the quality of the reviews on the site, and you might ask if some of those are written in order to be an elite member. I’ve noticed that some reviews aren’t particularly helpful, but my guess is that is common on most review sites. (they do have a “is this review useful” feature…but I can’t tell if it works)

The Yelp Elite Squad is an interesting feature. Not only does it add mystery and motivation to being a Yelp member, but its built in such a way as to add value to the site. Those are the best kind of features: the ones in which the motivation is aligned with the site goals.

Published: September 17th, 2007

Currently working on:

The What to Wear Daily Report: The most informative 30 seconds of your day. An email that delivers clothing recommendations and other helpful info based on the weather. Remarkably useful. It's free to sign up.