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.

  • http://ptfpatricktfurey.com Patrick Furey

    I believe the power of social media is in the collective voice and NOT in some “ranking” awarded to someone based on predetermined moderator criteria. It seems very contrived and artificial to me from a true social perspective.

  • http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/ jeremiah_owyang

    See the last link in my post Patrick. We’ve done research to find out where real trust arrives.

  • http://www.rateitall.com lawrence

    Patrick, recognition is a big deal in online (and offline) communities. The big three reasons for participation in UGC are 1) recognition; 2) selfish interest; 3) good sumaritanism. In my experience, it’s the recognition of contributors (both top down and peer to peer) that trumps everything else.

  • http://volunteer-boston.blogspot.com Casey @ OYFP

    As someone who both works in the online world as an SEM professional and is a Yelp “elite” member in her personal life, I suppose I’m in a unique position to comment… and basically, I tend to agree with Lawrence.

    I first started writing reviews on Yelp because I have strong opinions and love the internet.

    However, the reason I continue to participate in Yelp is because I have received recognition as an “Elite” (you have to ‘apply,’ no minimum review requirement), because I know people on the website, and because it’s a useful tool. I appreciate that others share their information, so I share my information and experiences to help others. It’s not just the stars (or ranking) that the establishment receives – it’s in the details of what each review contains.

    And finally, Other Yelpers certainly influence me, whether from their reviews, talking with them on the chat boards, interacting with them at my non-profit events, or seeing them at the Elite events.

    PS. Some of the Elite events are super sweet – such as the scrumptious wine and food tasting we had in Boston a few weeks ago. It certainly motivates me to continue posting reviews!

  • http://www.creationinteractive.com Paul Grant

    Ooh yeah, great topic J.

    Interesting particularly in the context of ‘competitive community’ vs ‘collaborative community’.

    It seems that Yelp is ‘competitive’ dressed up as ‘collaborative’.

  • http://mint.com Damon Billian

    Yelp does the best job re: community of any company currently around. The key factor is that they employ an offline and online strategy, something that most companies do not do these days.

    Note: While I worked with some of the folks there at PayPal, I am not a heavy Yelper. I do, however, understand their approach & appreciate what they’re trying to do.

    I recently chided one of my restaurant friends for not being more engaged with Yelpers (she thought they were mean; I look at is an opportunity for the restaurant to fix common things that customers report on). Whether it is right or not, the reviews do have an impact on their business.

  • http://www.lvrealty.net/news Jacqulyn

    These sites are brilliant. They get their content generated for free. Give out “elite” or VIP status to users who hang around a lot to keep them there, creating content.

  • http://compassioninpolitics.wordpress.com Nathan Ketsdever

    From personal experience, the Yelp elite program is great. It was fun in DC to meet up with Yelpers at events and chat about life, food, and wine. The businesses who hosted the events were also creating better connections with these online influentials. (So both Jacqulyn and Damon in paragraphy 3 above are on point)

    Yelp is also a great way to get to know a town (restaurants, night life, culture, and stores) for visiting or moving. You can read reviews or start conversations in the local Talk section.
    The Talk section of Yelp is very similar to Linked In Answers for local cities or just general chatter.

    Alternatively, although in smaller cities, like Nashville, the non-existence of a Yelp elite program is a bit of a bummer. From the chatter, it seems that as the online Yelp community grows in Nashville, the likelihood of a Yelp elite here is likewise pretty high.

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  • http://www.instantjobinterviewtools.com James Malervy

    This post hit the nail on Social Media.. It’s so important in today’s society to intergate Social Media with all forms of business.

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  • http://clevelandgaragedoors.net JamesFlick

    Not to jump in here late, but as a small business owner dependent on transparent reviews I agree with Patrick. I ask my customers to review me on Google, Yahoo, and other sites. I do not ask them to review me on Yelp because, from what I hear, if you do not stay an active member of the community your review disappears. I'd rather the people reviewing me put it somewhere that is going to last forever.

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