Why We Created the Yelp Elite Squad

Oh joy, it’s that time of year again. No, not time to feel angrily ambivalent about Starbucks’ pumpkin lattes… but time to get Yelp Re-Elited! Nish (one of the co-authors of this post) is hoping for another shiny badge, his record 12th to date!

Um, what’s that you say? Don’t know what the Yelp Elite Squad is? Oh, for shame.

It’s funny how one of the Internet’s most influential content engines can slip under the radar so easily. You’ve probably based a couple decisions on Yelp reviews just this week, maybe even today. There was a time when this wouldn’t have been possible. Harken back to 2005…

Yelp was just a website (mobile didn’t even exist as a going concern until 2008). The company is part of Max Levchin’s incubator. People were still using the Yellow Pages, and not just as door stoppers. The idea of user-generated content was still in its nascent stages, but looming large on the horizon was the ever-elusive goal of solving “local.”

The tagline we came up with along with the early crew — “Real People, Real Reviews” — was a call to arms against paid critics, shill reviews and the pay-to-play paper directory giants. Like any bootstrapping and scrappy young team, we started by canvassing friends and family for feedback and insights. One question kept coming up: “Why would I ever want to write a review?” This grew into the million dollar question. How could we build Yelp’s foundation of real and authentic reviews and opinions — from actual everyday people — without paying them? To do it, we made a bet: we’d have to make this little-known website more than just a local tool.

Something Like A Phenomenon

Ladies do love a phenomenon.

We’ll share a secret that doesn’t seem like it should come as a surprise. For people to get behind something, they have to believe in it as if it was their own creation. While that might seem obvious, it’s absolutely flabbergasting how many companies and apps these days forget — or just plain don’t get — that.

Before there was any talk of community building, at least with any true structure, we first had to go about creating and imprinting the brand of Yelp. Yelp had to stand for something, and just as importantly, it had to stand against something. Like we said: real people, real reviews.

The idea was simply word-of-mouth, amplified. For Yelp, the community was the product, and the product was the community. We realized it had to morph from a tech idea into a social one. We had to think more in terms of relationships, psychology and sociology than 0's and 1's. Not only did we have to understand what Yelp was, but we also had to understand what a Yelp-er was.

Early supporters and fans needed to have a shared sense of a Yelp identity in order to participate. The more we made Yelp feel special, the more invested people would feel. The more they would want to invest in that special thing they were helping to create.

Spoiler Alert: The last section of this post has some ideas big, small and odd on how we’d update the Yelp Elite program, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read this whole thing.

My, You’re Looking Yelpy Today

To take you back to the framework of the [social media] landscape of our origin, remember that in 2005 MySpace was the top social network, Facebook was just launching and Twitter did not exist. User-generated content existed, but it wasn’t being done well by anyone, or not in a truly social and non-anonymous sense. Blogs (web logs!) were the height of self-expression at the time. One of our top goals was harnessing the expressive nature of that type of writing.

The challenge of getting regular folks to share their opinions on where they liked to eat, shop, and drink was fairly novel. Especially when we realized that, in order to be truly authentic, money could not sway the incentive. Sure, CitySearch had user ratings, but those were easily and often manipulated into untrustworthiness. Zagat had its own people’s rating system but those votes felt editorialized and strangely homogenized.

First, we started by focusing on making Yelp feel unisex and approachable. We wanted it to be a safe and fun place to talk about all the cool things going on in your city. There had to be an irreverent tone throughout, much like the personalities we wanted to attract. Michael (the other co-author) was the Creative Director of Yelp at the time. He brainstormed creative direction for the site by looking at art books, comic books, and women’s lifestyle magazines for inspiration. There were clear nods to social networks, with a flirty dose of dating sites subtly mixed in.

Next, we layered on features for voting up reviews and lauding prolific writers with compliments. You could connect with other yelpers in a variety of ways — as online friends, through messaging, or on Yelp’s talk boards. But the unique thing about Yelp was its locality and geographical intimacy. Your local Foreign Cinema reviewer (or even the person who wrote a review of Starbucks) could be your next-door neighbor or someone you’d like to — and could — meet in real life.

Bringing humanity to Yelp would become the secret sauce of Yelp’s slow-growth engine. Yelpers interacting IRL would pump up each other’s tastes and insights. Treating their profiles like a “micro-blog” was making their reviews potently visible and turning some of them into local celebrities. Some folks were getting so into the game of review writing that they complained about having to drive out of city limits to find places to get ‘first to review’ status.

Even before Dan Aiely expounded Cost of Social Norms, we knew that, especially in the early stages of each city Yelp launched into, we want to emphasize a sense of belonging and purpose that was qualitative and not necessarily that quantifiable. We knew we had a powerful force behind local content that had to be harnessed…

Yelp Elite Squad: In the Beginning

In the beginning our goal was to identify the heavy lifters on Yelp as the tastemakers in San Francisco. Our theory was that we’d be better off finding and nurturing 100 super reviewers than 1000 average ones. With SEO kicking in behind-the-scenes, these “funny, useful and cool” reviews would gain visibility and reputation, in turn inspiring others to contribute their own opinions.

These Elites had to feel like royalty, or mayors in a more city-centric sense. We wanted to convey that great businesses were built by the people, for the people. And the place for that to happen was Yelp.

The first step was in the name, The Yelp Elite Squad. There was a sense of silliness to it, but it also connoted something fun and different; a little bold and brash. To this day, the site doesn’t feature an obvious advertisement to join the Squad, since it retains its slight insider appeal. At the same time, we always wanted all sorts of characters to be in it. Our ideal was to be inclusive, not exclusive. As long as you agreed to be an ambassador for Yelp (and, by extension, the city you lived in) you were a perfect candidate to be a Yelp Elite.

The brazen quality of this new urban tribe spoke to the power users who contributed weekly, if not daily and hourly, to the site. We even created physical membership cards as a tip of the hat to Amex and Diner’s Club cards to give members a sense of identity.

Nish, the original prototype for the Yelp Community Manager (more on that later), happens to be the sort of guy who knows everyone in town. He’s always had a great talent for always knowing where to go. Like a mad scientist, he experimented and perfected the Elite program as it evolved. It was no surprise that he took lead on the party circuit. He’s been known to throw a party every now and then.

If You Party, They Will Review

Despite what it might seem from the outside, these parties had a method to their madness. Nish would start by reaching out to a handful of new and/or unique spots in San Francisco, pitching them on the idea of hosting a party for a growing number of local influencers who loved to share their opinions. There’d be complimentary tastes and drinks but the payoff, he assured them, was the chance for the business to showcase itself and its staff. They would get to tell their story to an eager and influential crowd who also benefited from meeting each other.

Yelp’s community was an ongoing conversation between small businesses and their customers, and this was a live and interactive version of it. Indeed, these private Elite events were an immediate hit for everyone involved. It was, in some ways, a social infomercial for Yelp. Instead of peddling products, we were selling local in the form of whatever cool venue we were in. More importantly, Yelpers got to meet each other in real life. This had its own profound results. By adding faces to fellow members and the businesses themselves, we were building loyalty and connectivity.

Once the offline component of the Elite Squad was in place, we began to watch things grow, from the number of reviews, to people signing up (remember: pre Facebook Connect). Compliments, friends, & votes became tangible measures of your Eliteness. It was not badging for gaming’s sake, but true reputation and a social report card. We didn’t even know what the formal concept of gamification was, but in retrospect we were utilizing key components of Yu-Kai Chou’s complete gaming framework (We’ll admit it — we weren’t that smart but wow, his understanding of these principles is brilliant).

5-star copy infringement

Stuff We All Get

Once we started thinking of Yelp as a lifestyle brand, we decided to pursue the concept in a literal sense. We decided early on to take a stance against boring and obvious schwag and promotional items. Slapping a logo on a coin purse or paperweight just wasn’t our style. One manifestation of this was the Yelpstick, our cheeky (lippy?) take on Chapstick. The premise was to create a fun item that cost under $1 a piece with some kitsch and staying power. We mimicked the Chapstick logo (sorry Legal!) and added the tagline “soothe lips chapped from all that yelping” and sourced some fruity flavors. The first iteration was gritty and waxy. It improved over time, but the idea stuck. People loved hoarding the little guys.

Not shown: Mint condition Jeremy Stoppelman action figure.

This type of snark set the tone for future pieces of swag*. Today’s idea of a boring startup logo emblazoned on the front of a t-shirt seemed to undermine the mission of a semi-secret, semi-charmed club. Taking cues from Burton and rock band tees, we set out to create a more ‘corporate funk’ version by adding artsy elements and obfuscating the logo, isolating the Burst so the shirt would start conversations, and hopefully not be worn to the gym or bed. Insistence on printing on the higher quality American Apparel also helped, at a time when white Hanes XL one-size-fits-all were the norm.

Most importantly, we created certain items exclusively for the Elite Squad. Each year brought the “release” of a new and limited item, like hoodies, lunch boxes, watches and shades. And while Rick Springfield never collected any of these, they remain coveted items!

*The authors disagree on the nomenclature of schwag vs swag when describing trinkets and tchotchkes given out on a company’s behalf. Nish identifies schwag as the proper moniker, whereas Michael claims schwag is a term for low-grade marijuana and swag is an acronym for Stuff We All Get.
CMs typically aren’t naked. Most of the time.

The Community Manager as Role Model

The term Community Manager (CM) is now relatively ubiquitous in internet circles, but 10 years ago it had barely been coined. You couldn’t even find a Craigslist job posting for one. But after Nish had successfully launched San Francisco and New York City (flying to the latter almost once a month to pull off an event), it was clear that the Community Management model had legs. The problem was that legs come in pairs, so if we were to continue growing, more CMs were needed. Since cloning Nish wasn’t so viable, Plan B was figuring out how to scale the role so that we could hire CMs in other key cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston.

This might seem a little obvious but basically the right CM was the ultimate Yelp Elite (in fact, some of Yelp’s greatest hires for the role started as Yelpers). There were certain qualities that we search for: a strong writer who could show respect and fairness to all. Someone with a diverse set of friends and connections. But it was also about DNA. In effect, you could teach any youngster to be a social media monkey, but loving local businesses and having a passion for your city was far more instinctual.

Yelp was built on the Pareto Principle, where 80% of its content was being written by 20% of its users. The most successful CMs were natural leaders and influencers who were tasked with finding, nurturing and pruning those amazing 20 percenters to write about their experiences.The CM was (and remains) at the helm, armed with compliments, cool schwag (ha!) and the occasional big stick (oh, trolls), growing Yelp one reviewer and review at a time. You can’t get more #real than that.

Will the future even remember Yelp?

On Updating the Yelp Elite

Michael and Nish don’t work at Yelp anymore, but we still poke around at Elite events from time-to-time. We find ourselves wondering why so little has changed about the structure that originally made the Elite so great. We’d like to believe the adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but technology and, well, the world, have changed so much, you’d think it would be worth a few evolutions of the Squad?

We thought we’d finish this article with an open letter of recommendations to update the Yelp Elite program ten years later.

1) Incorporate Mobile — Navigating the social components of the Yelp app is a bit messy and leaves few clues as to what that little badge on Elite profiles means, exactly. It would be cool to see how Elites could further their Elitehood with check-ins, drool-worthy photos, even quick tips. It’s nice to see the Yelp badges on members, but probably not enough info about what that connotates for most to appreciate it.

2) Category Experts — Everyone’s got opinions, but some people really know certain things or at least consider themselves self-styled experts. Why not let Elites pick up to 3 categories like sushi, dive bars, and Italian to indicate their reviews on these topics are particularly useful. Extra highlighting of their reviews in their specialized category would feel as special as, say Review of the Day. You can almost hear all the compliments rolling in.

3) Trading Cards — The Elite program is international, baby! There are so many personalities and quirky reviewers out there, so why not create Yelp Elite Trading Cards with yelp-centric stats. You’d have to get nominated to be considered for this “all-star” roster, and a new set would come out every year. The only question remaining would be who’d be Pikachu.

4) Hire CMs, not middle managers — Ok, this one might sting, but as any company gets bigger, things get more and more bureaucratic, and more by the numbers. We get it, Wall Street wants to see growth, but sometimes the soul gets lost. Sometimes the reason why you started the whole thing gets forgotten or displaced. Yelp should go back to hiring rock stars who love their cities, not social media managers who fret over metrics. Oh, and don’t ever let Ruggy J or Don B leave.

5) Small Business “Elite” — How has it gone on this long without a Small Business Elite program? Yelp is already in a lot of hot water with the little guys, so we propose giving local biz owners who get it their own voice. Those owners or managers who take the time to respond to all flavors of reviews, answer questions, and high-fives their loyal customers should have their own club. They deserve it.

6) A Jeremy Stoppelman World Tour. We’re just sayin’. We predict Yelpermania would grip the nation. Seriously though, we bet every city with an Elite Squad would go nuts to meet the guy who started it all. Founders, they’re just like us!

With so many people snarking that every business on Yelp has 3.5 stars, we think the timing for something more funny, more useful and more cool is now. Just a couple tweaks (both human and engineered) just might breathe some life back into the brand. Who knows, it might even help with Yelp’s own rating.

SYOY,

Nish and Michael (NishRocks and Michael Ernst)

Extra input and insights from: brelambert, Jane Kwett, and Meredith Arthur

Note: Medium does not allow co-authorship but this post was written by Nish and Michael. They met on their first day working at Yelp in 2005 and continue to work together with various startups and startdowns.

Special thanks to Frank Denbow at Startup Threads, purveyor of startup swag, who encouraged us to write this post.