Understanding Community Leadership: An Interview with a Member of Yelp’s “Elite”

Ellen M is one of Yelp’s premiere members called Yelp Elite, they are unpaid members that after meeting some requirements are considered “elite”. It’s often baffling for outsiders to understand how community leadership forms, but it’s often not because of their loyalty to the brand, but often due to the appeal to communicate with one’s peers and to gain ‘social capital’.

If you’re not familiar with Yelp, it’s a location based review community, which influences which restaurants, businesses, and events people patronize. This is a Groundswell example, as people find information from each other, rather than getting it from an institution like newspapers or restaurant reviewers.

Many brands are trying to figure out how to get their own members to take leadership, and many are trying to emulate Microsoft’s successful MVP program, with varied results. In the quest to understand community leadership, I interviewed Ellen M. who’s one of Yelp’s elite crowd

A bit about Ellen M: First, view her profile on Yelp, She’s very active in Yelp, is a member of the Chicago Elite (Since 2005) and has 251 Friends, has completed 1048 Reviews, hunts and finds new haunts and has 589 “Firsts”, is respected by her peers and has 78 Fans (an influencer), has over 1500 compliments, use media and has 103 Local Photos, submits a few events (3) and has created 28 Lists.

An Interview with a Member of Yelp’s “Elite”, Chicago’s Ellen M:

What does it take to become a member? What rights does it entitle you to?
I was part of the original Elite group in Chicago, after having written about 700 reviews (a whole other story – I was paid a small amount of money to write reviews when the site was in beta, along with a bunch of other yelpers). For most new users, the criteria for Elite is 1) having a photo of yourself, 2) using your real name, 3) writing a bunch of reviews (not sure how many – 100?) and serving as sort of a role model. It entitles me to invitations to Elite events, but that’s about it.

Do restaurants treat you differently?
Once, a nice restaurant offered to have me back for a complimentary dinner after seeing my negative review. Restaurants don’t know I’m a yelp user while I’m there though, unless by some astronomical chance someone recognizes me from my photo (which hasn’t happened yet). I have never mentioned that I write online reviews with the expectation of special treatment.

How does your ranking influence others?
I’m not sure…I don’t think it does influence others.

I used to have an additional badge, “Mod,” which meant I was able to MODify business listing information – it resulted in a lot of people mistakenly thinking that I worked for the site as a Moderator, so I had yelp remove the badge (I was getting a lot of email from people thinking I could reprimand users, etc.). Since then, they’ve dismantled the Mod program entirely.

How does Yelp reward/recognize you?
I get a new Elite badge at the beginning of each year. I’ve gotten several mentions in yelp weekly newsletters. I’m invited to the yelp Elite events, and I attend a few of them per year.

How much does it cost you? (effort, money, time)?
Since I’m well-established in the yelp community, it only requires that I remain an active user, which isn’t difficult. I would expect that new users who are trying to get Elite status would have to spend a good 20 hours or so writing reviews to obtain it.

Why do you do it?
I love to write reviews, but I think the social networking and interaction with yelp friends is what really compels me to continue. There are certain yelp reviewers who are so entertaining that I could probably spend an entire afternoon reading their stuff – way better than television.


Regarding the question, “does your ranking influence others?” we know from trust research that people trust those like them or peers, far more than anything else.

In a future post, we’ll discuss how restaurants need to do to understand and respond to Yelp, stay tuned.