“You shouldn’t use Yelp,” told a new friend of mine. “Their sales model is extortion that bullies local businesses. And besides, people on there just post when they’re upset.”
I didn’t know what to say in Yelp’s defense.
I’ve had others react to my Yelping like this before. What I appreciate most about this statement is how sincerely believed it is. This new friend has a belief, rooted in what he has read and what he has seen, and he wants me to make the same informed decision as he did. All that belief is true — that is to say, he truly believes it. It is, however, inaccurate.
What I’m left to see is a broader story of startups, sales cycles and the repercussions of a brand’s decision. It teaches us a truth that Yelp — nor any of our brands — can escape: A brand’s actions are not easily forgotten.
Yelp was founded in 2004 as an “online urban guide” that helps find local resources. Somewhere in the that time, they took off. Somewhere in that growth, some memorable phone calls took place. In 2009, Yelp was exposed for poor business practices like this one:
“Hi, this is Mike from Yelp,” the voice would say. “You’ve had three hundred visitors to your site this month. You’ve had a really good response. But you have a few bad ones at the top. I could do something about those.”
This behavior, along with the implied possibility that the sales team had any impact on review priority, left a memorable and well-deserved stigma on the brand.
The realization that Yelp was driven by sales as opposed to empowering the urban small business causes a “what if” moment to loyal users:
What if my post is part of the extortion process?
What if my experiences are erased for money?
What if I’m guilty by association?
Users are left to process the what-ifs to their possible outcomes. Their contributions to the Yelp community are now reframed in this light. The most loyal contributors will feel like they, personally, made those calls. They may feel as those they are extortionists. At that moment, loyal users become distant users. You lost part of your community.
None of this reaction has to be widespread. It just has to be a what-if.
The Long Tail of Sales
The same article that noted Yelps poor practices — the one from 2009 — notes that Yelp, back in 2009, began to self-correct:
There are some signs that perhaps Yelp is changing its practices. Interviews with more than a dozen local business owners suggest that Yelp sales reps may be wording their sales pitches more carefully these days.
The change is significant.
Since then, Yelp business practices have grown in transparency. The FAQ explicitly states that the practice of reordering reviews cannot be bought:
Will Yelp remove or reorder bad reviews if a business pays for advertising?
No. You can’t pay us to remove or reorder your bad reviews — it’s just that simple. It’s worth pointing out some additional checks and balances that we build into the system: among other things, we separate the revenue side of our business from the content side of our business, just as a newspaper might put a firewall between their advertising and reporting functions.
Yet beliefs, like my new friend’s, remain.
The real impact comes from the long tail of the debate. There are websites like this one saying Yelp has ruined their business. There are brand management ‘experts’ who offer their advice. An article in the LA Times scathes the sales practices of today. What I find worst of all, however, is how these beliefs live on in casual conversations.
And one more thing…
Complaints about Yelp focus on the unfair sales tactics, but they don’t stop there. That’s the power of negativity associated with your brand: it mentally primes your audience to associate you with further negative feelings.
That’s the power of our minds. And it leads to just one more reason why I was told not to use Yelp: the reviewers are skewed negatively. It’s another commonly vocalized and strongly help opinion. And it’s another opinion that also turned out to be untrue.
Harvard and Boston University debunked the myth that Yelp skews negative. In their analysis, Yelp users recommended far more positive than negative reviews. It turns out that belief is just a hunch that isn’t true.
Crossing the line
It’s a relevant aside to think through Sales culture. If your company makes money, even as a non-profit, you can rest assured cringeworthy conversations happen there.
If you cringe at the idea of advertising space being offered to the competition, you should avoid Sales. A Sales pitch is a sausage-making process: it’s tough to watch its ugly take place. I recently realized I don’t enjoy watching sales cycles anymore than I enjoy watching pigs get slaughtered. But I do enjoy bacon.
So remember: we all like paychecks. Those are a direct result of Sales. But remember as well: a brand that is spearhead by Sales without balance by Marketing will lead to many years of negativity associated with it. Part of the role a Marketing team takes on is setting the tone of the company. The best companies draw lines in the sand where even they won’t cross to get the sale.
What there is to learn
We see this behavior in the technology field today (not where I work, thankfully). There are startups that focus more on sales than the impression they leave with their words. These companies need more wordsmithing from those who are paid to pay attention to the longer sales cycle (which is exactly how I think of Marketing).
Then there are companies where Marketing tactics are defined by the Sales teams. There is a guarantee of misstep in these situations. Public statements of competitiveness may work well in a Sales den and look terrible in a Marketing push.
The biggest recognition I’m left exploring is that of relationships. That is where good Sales and Marketing align these days. Call it Social Sales. Call it Influence Marketing. Whatever you call it, remember who and what you’re selling.
We all want that sense of success to come in as a sale. We just want people — especially users and customers on a social software platform like Yelp— to feel part of something. And that something has to make them feel good, long after we get their money.
After researching this history and observing Yelp’s self-correction, I now feel good to be on the platform. To my surprise, I also feel more assured in my job role.