It’s as if the For Sale sign on Yelp’s front lawn had been strategically placed to hide a cracked window. Suddenly, everyone remembers how ad sales are falling, new competitors are innovating, and Yelp is set to see its traffic drop for the first time ever with Google’s latest search algorithm update. To frustrate matters further, this is the second false alarm Yelp has pulled – the first being its halted sale to Google in 2009. This all begs the question: What is founder Jeremy Stoppelman thinking or, more importantly, planning? If Yelp’s past is any indicator of its future, analysts can expect a flurry of new innovations in the year to come. Looking at Yelp’s 2010 innovations alone, why didn’t they make a difference and where can Stoppelman take the brand from here?
Yelp kicked off 2010 with the launch of its Facebook/Foursquare inspired Check-In feature. If successful, Yelp Check-Ins could increase user engagement while producing a tangible measure of Yelp’s influence and advertising value. However, to make checking-in a habit, Yelp needed strong triggers and rewards. Even Facebook and FourSquare struggle to retain frequent check-ins despite their reward system of likes, comments, and follows from the user’s network of friends, an advantage Yelp doesn’t enjoy. An alternative reward system would come from businesses (discounts, contests, etc.) but such offers are a rarity. So, checking-in loses habit forming power and becomes unreliable as a conversion measure to inspire further B2B sales for Yelp.
To its credit, Yelp immediately took steps to address the trigger and rewards problem by partnering with Facebook the same year and Apple IOS Maps later in 2012. Now, Yelp users hardcore enough to sign into an account and check-in will see their check-in shared with a handful of other hardcore user/Facebook friends; those hardcore users who happen to rely on Apple IOS, as opposed to Google Maps, can check in right from their map. Of course, these new features will only reach a small fraction of the mega-Yelpers the company needs to make the behavior endemic among users.
The check-in is hardly an addictive behavior, as Facebook and Foursquare illustrate, but it’s only the beginning. The addition of turn-by-turn directions via the Yelp app itself could prompt users to check-in upon arrival, triggering check-ins from a wider audience of Yelp enthusiasts. Mapping through a Waze partnership would also add a social reward boost and deliver the community feedback which reinforces all social media behavior. Upgrades and partnerships like this could be on the horizon as Yelp beats back negative investment ratings.
Online Booking and Transactions
Yelp’s OpenTable-powered online restaurant reservation widget also went live in mid-2010. The SeatMe widget also launched with its acquisition 3 years later. Meanwhile, online Booking and Call to Action buttons continue to crop up on select accounts in new Yelp verticals every year. In 2013, Yelp took two leaps forward – enabling transactions on-platform for purchases, such as food delivery, and integrating ReachLocal’s online booking platform ReachCommerce into the Yelp pages of ReachLocal clients.
Just as the OpenTable partnerships left gaps for SeatMe to later fill, new innovations and integrations will be required to reach underserved businesses, even within the most well-developed verticals. Not all businesses have the digital infrastructure to handle online bookings and transactions, or have the budget to purchase advertising packages with click-to-call buttons. As a result, entire communities of Yelp users never or rarely enjoy the types of experiences that could inspire account creation; and the businesses never see the types of conversion analytics that prove value. Yelp’s next move in the buttons arena is to monetize and innovate within the underserved: The low tech, small-budget SMB market.
Here, Redbeacon and even my own TalkLocal offer possible paths forward with lots of small business. Some small businesses are exceedingly engaged on social media marketing – able to respond quickly to a well matched general quote request in their area and industry. Reaching even deeper into the non-technical range of the B2B market, service requests could also be shared with local businesses by phone, prompting even faster and broader response rates. Because my company collects fairly unique call analytics, I can say with confidence that about 60% of the calls Yelp users make to businesses go to voicemail, driving them to call yet another company; automating that process increases and tracks conversions while creating a performance-based revenue model that more businesses trust.
Another 2010 addition with a ton of potential: video for advertisers. Of course, the product itself is bound to have limited impact due to the financial and/or technological barriers to video ads for small businesses. In fact, the average user could go years without ever having seen a video advertisement on Yelp. Yet, the capability could bare a variety of fruit, including the 2014 expansion of video for use by Yelpers. Currently, the 3-12 second video reviews will help capture that certain je ne sais quoi that words and even photos fail to capture about an establishment. However, if they were to take a cue from YouTube, elite Yelpers could launch the age of the hyperlocal celebrity. Current YouTube celebrities might even turn to Yelp as a means of acquiring a new hyper-local fan and sponsorship base. YouTubers already vlog from restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs. Yelp could give those vlogs a home with a real sense of place. And, the role of vloggers in national brand product reviews could help Yelp attract more national advertisers.
Meanwhile, the fusion of Yelp and celebrity could strengthen Yelp’s social media presence. Entertaining vlogs about one’s own community could prompt more follows than ambiance and descriptions alone; once the following habit is entrenched, the check-in habit becomes incentivized. That could very well be the watershed moment for the company.
If, in another 5 years, Jeremy Stoppelman is courting the markets for a winning exit, my bet is it won’t be because of a lack of options. The For Sale sign has come down and the scaffolding is going up. Don’t count Yelp out now.