Yelp began in San Francisco in 2004 as an online community where members could share experiences of businesses in their area. Consumers write reviews of all kinds of local providers, from dentists to mechanics.
About 53 million people a month visit Yelp’s sites, according to the company’s June 2011 figures. These sites now serve seven European countries, the US and Canada and more than 20 million reviews have been published.
But Yelp’s communities of users meet up and interact in the real world as well as online. According to UK and Ireland marketing director Kevin Lee, the concept was first proposed in 2005 when the company had not yet expanded beyond its Californian origins.
“We had users who were very active and engaged on the site and our first community manager said to our chief executive: ’We should get together and meet some of these people who are using the site.’ It seemed a crazy idea and our CEO was not thrilled about it. He said: ’Really? They’re weird, why do I want to meet them?’”
A software engineer by trade, CEO Jeremy Stoppelman’s reaction was perhaps typical of many online businesses whose customers might remain at arm’s length. But Yelp moved past this initial scepticism, finding that these active users – who not only frequent their local hotspots regularly but are also vocal in reviewing them – also tend to be very sociable in person.
Yelp now assembles groups of “elite” members for monthly events in each of the major cities in which it operates. What started as an informal gathering of strangers with wine and nibbles in a San Francisco boutique has since become a regular fixture in each of Yelp’s markets, engendering personal relationships that are then taken back to the online forum.
Lee adds: “All of our community managers, who organise these events all around the world, partner with independent local businesses. There are opportunities almost every month for these businesses to promote themselves to this core group of our consumer base per year.”
Elite members are further encouraged to interact with less regular users and generate greater participation on the site. Yelp also organises open events requiring only that those attending sign up for a free online account. This, argues Lee, is a means of bringing in new users to the brand, as well as providing a showcase for businesses.
A recent example took place at the British Music Experience, an interactive museum within The O2 music venue in London. About 300 Yelp members attended the event, where local food and drink brands such as the Meantime Brewery, Otto Pizza and ice cream shop Gelupo served visitors, receiving reviews on the Yelp site as a result.