I still recall the first time I heard of the Yelp Elite Squad.
I was 16, sitting in the back seat of my best friend’s sister’s Prius as we drove down the highway from San Francisco to Palo Alto.
In the front, my friend’s 21-year-old sister and her law school friend spoke in hushed tones about the exclusive party they attended where they loaded up on free swag and free booze. They spoke excitedly about their secret club, sharing that they’d officially been inducted into the cool crowd: they were the Yelp Elite.
This is what happens when you merge branding with community and bring people value, exclusivity, and access to connect with one another in new ways: they talk about your brand, excitedly, and they spread the word. Others want to be a part of it too.
Nish Nadaraja, the creator of the Yelp Elite program in 2004, sat down with me to talk about how he applied branding psychology to community building and created a movement that is still going strong… 10 years later.
He shares with us how to leverage branding to build community, what makes a strong startup brand, and how Yelp Elite became the contagious super user community that spread Yelp across the globe.
“To build a community is to think about humans and how they interact,” Nish explains. The strongest and most enduring communities are always built on top of a strong foundation. For Yelp, this foundation was a strong brand and mission: real people, real reviews.
“Even before you have a community, you need a brand. You can’t have a community unless you know what you’re building – both what it is and what it is not.”
It’s absolutely necessary to draw these parameters on memberships, especially in the early stages. Without a clear idea of who they wanted to reach, Yelp never would have been able to attract the “cool kids” who ended up becoming their major mouthpieces.
“People join something because it speaks to them. They want to feel a part of something, to identify with others like them geographically or with similar interests, but they also want to feel special. If you create a great brand around those ideals, people will want to support it.”
And that’s exactly what the Yelp team did from the get-go: define membership and identity to the group.
“Generally, startups live in the world of A/B testing… But you’ve got to stand for something.”
“The problem with most startups is that they are branded by their investors.” Yelp itself worked with Max Levchin, co-founder of PayPal, in his incubator back in 2004. They could have easily leaned upon his network to give them a voice. “That can give you a lot of legitimacy, but it does not create a brand. We had some big names behind us, but we still had to create a brand from scratch.”
Before you even begin building a community or community-powered product, you need to ask yourself three basic questions. Nish outlines the following:
“At Yelp, this went back to our tagline: real people, real reviews. That came from a lot of iteration and thinking through what we were and what we were not. We thought about putting the user first.”
“Again, we knew that, on Yelp, the consumer comes first. Part of that is also giving respect to who is affected by our work. It’s not just about real people, real reviews. It’s also about real businesses and how we can affect them positively.”
“The Community Manager really sets the tone in these situations by leading by example. He/she also has to have a team or a product to let them do these things. We needed a way to support the managing of conflict. There has to be a support team. Having a clear and open policy around your terms of service is key.”
“You have to think about these things first.”
“Community is not a tech idea; it’s a social idea,” says Nish. So he didn’t begin by A/B testing or looking at data. Instead, he started with much larger ideas around relationships, human psychology, and competitive analysis, and then he took that to the creative director on the team.
“As soon as I started, I talked to Zagat and Citysearch.” He pulled back the frame and talked to competitors to figure out what they were missing. In general, it was certainly this “cool factor.” No one thinks of Zagat as the bastion of 20-somethings looking for great bars to meet one another. They had the beginnings of a Yelp-like setup, but they were missing this key element, which Nish never would have known without doing competitive analysis.
Yelp certainly put their money where their mouth was: they designed the logo and printed their Yelp Elite shirts before the program even launched. “These were not just baggy startup T-shirts. We got the fitted kind when it was still unheard of and we always sourced from brands like American Apparel. We wanted these to be a symbol,” he says.
When Nish joined the team in 2004, Yelp consisted of four technical people trying to solve a rather simple social problem in theory: getting users to review restaurants, bars, and other hot spots in San Francisco.
“Jeremy [Stoppelman, Yelp’s CEO] was excited about me joining the team because I had a lot of existing relationships, and he knew how important that was. My background is in influencer and experiential marketing. I had worked with Method, Miller High Life, and Volvo. We had a network to tap into.”
In fact, those relationships built the entire idea of Yelp Elite’s incentive program, where locals could experience special nights at bars and restaurants: “Our first ever Yelp Elite event came about as a result of my connections in New York City and San Francisco. I persuaded restaurants and bars to open up on an off night and let people in.”
“Once we launched, I was basically the community manager in NYC and San Francisco. I was the fifth hire and the first non-technical person on the team.” Nish also happened to be the ideal Yelp user to get things off the ground, a love of all things food and a true people person who others came to for restaurant and bar recommendations long before Yelp existed.
At this point, the extent of community within the product was private messaging (so you could message others that ate at your favorite restaurants or loved your neighborhood bar and meet them in-person, of course!), compliments, voting, and talk boards. They knew that social features would propel the community to grow itself, but even still the work they did at this stage was really manual.
Nish helped push each city forward until they had 12-15 cities alive and happening, and he created a playbook as they went along for launching in each city.
“We created the Community Manager position in each city and decided that they should be a role model. They should exude what the product, the brand we established, is all about. For us, that meant that our community managers needed to be social, caring, and understand the pulse of their city. They had to be the kind of person who could float between cliques and feel empathy for others.”
At this stage, then, knowing your ideal user is vital to pushing the community forward. Yelp had a clear vision in mind of what their community leaders should look like.
“Ligaya Tichy had the DNA for this. But she wasn’t a Community Manager before this. It was such a nascent time for community managers, so people like her shaped what community management would be.”
“Each Weekly Yelp was written with original content. We took local to a very serious level. It would be a lot easier to do one national newsletter. but we quickly learned that would never work for Yelp because we were all about local. The Community Manager was called on to find great reviewers who had reviewed great places.”
“We’d get everyone together, the best reviewers up to that point.” Here, the community is still considered early-stage, but this event allowed the reviewers to come together in person, further solidifying their bond to one another.
“Sometimes small events would happen every 2 weeks, but we’d have a Yelp Elite event every month or so.”
From there, community managers would become responsible for engaging the growing communities as they reach various stages of maturity. For instance, San Francisco is considered a “mature” community — almost every neighborhood is fully covered, there is healthy attrition, and there is a core group of superusers.
As the community began to increase in size and enough community managers were hired to take on each city, Nish knew it was time to return to bolstering the psychology around the Yelp brand. With that idea in mind, they rolled out the Weekly Yelp newsletters, highlighting and spotlighting key reviewers and sharing the best of the best in each city around a certain theme like tacos, delis, or French cuisine.
“These were based on glossy magazines and social pages. It really plays up the idea that, on Yelp, everyone is a celebrity.” This was also an easily scalable idea, which now happens in each and every city.
Nish focused on growing this team next, to six dedicated editorial hires. Then he moved forward again.
After building up the first cities and launching the process for Yelp weekly newsletters, he returned to his bread and butter for the duration of his tenure at Yelp. “At this point, I got to focus on the bigger picture like brand continuity and partnerships.
This is also around the time that Yelp opened up its platform for businesses to begin messaging reviewers and taking ownership of their profiles. Nish helped to smooth these efforts and maintain the brand’s voice from a higher level.
He had some lofty goals: “I wanted Yelp to be a verb, an adjective, and a noun. I was inspired by the Smurfs,” he jokes.
In retrospect, Nish looks back with gratitude for his years of experience at Yelp: “None of this was supposed to happen overnight. Community is the antithesis of growth hacking. I was lucky.” He also insists that this was a group effort by everyone at Yelp, led by founders who cared and truly pushed their vision into reality.
But it was about much more than luck for this community builder. It was about faith and long-term investment: “The team let us have free reign to explore. They gave me time to fail.”
In 2010, Nish left Yelp to advise and consult with early-stage startups. Recently, Nish returned to full-time work at Marine Layer, where he is “approaching clothing as community.” They recently purchased a vintage Volkswagen bus and are rumored to have some awesome experiential events and parties at their headquarters and stores. But we would expect nothing less from the original Yelp Elite.