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Friday, March 19, 2010

SXSWi 2010 Core Conversation: The Yelp Effect

Yelp is the new four-letter word.  Slapped with three class-action lawsuits, there is no doubt that Yelp brings out the fury in business owners.  I'm a Yelp user, and I have been since 2008.  Addie Broyles and I hosted a core conversation at SXSW 2010 entitled "The Yelp Effect: When Everyone's a Restaurant Critic."  The original focus was to discuss how user-generated reviews had changed the challenges that restaurants faced, but it quickly turned into a conversation about Yelp.  She_Eats from the Houston Press wrote up a very thorough review of the conversation, and the hashtag for the conversation was #theyelpeffect.  Here's some of my personal thoughts that we may not have discussed at SXSW.  I am NOT employeed by Yelp, nor do I have any comments on their legal situation.  I'm a user that sees both the good and bad of Yelp.  A big thank you to the always thoughtful Addie Broyles for inviting me to share my thoughts.  

1. Yelp is a social community, and reviews are the commonality among the users.  Many people see Yelp as a review site, which it is, but it also a community of people who happen to write reviews.  Yelp uses have also been called anonymous.  This may be true for the lurkers or the mostly inactive users on Yelp, but most users are NOT anonymous.  In the age of social media, most of the users are identifiable.  Users are pretty easily identified by the places they review, their photos, or other profile information.  Even users with the most generic profiles have been identified by the community.  This business was sniffed out by the community, and well, it didn't go over so well.  To say that users are completely anonymous is a misunderstanding.  Additionally, Yelp Elite members are required to use their real names and real photos. 

2. "I don't trust Yelp."  This was a common phrase muttered at the core conversation, and I would totally agree if I didn't know many of the Austin Yelp users in person.  While I do read reviews and view star ratings with a grain of salt, there are some users that I do trust.  I know their likes and dislikes.  I know that they have experience dining out.  And I know that there are not the type to give a restaurant a low rating without considerable thought. 

3. "People on Yelp must be *insert derogatory adjective here.*"  The demographics of Yelp users might actually surprise you.  Most users are over 21, well-educated, and typically interested in food beyond just stuffing their faces.  You might think that Yelp users must be lazy-do nothings because they "waste" their time on Yelp.  Here's a video on cognitive surplus that might help you understand why people use online tools including Twitter, Blogging, and Facebook.  Spending time socializing with people (even if online) is not a waste of time in my opinion.  They are contributing to a community, and using that cognitive surplus. 

4. "10% of the dining experience comes from the food." There are so many factors that influence one's mood, perception, and memory of a dining experience that ultimately feeds into review.  Stay with me for a moment as I dive into some academia.  People in happy moods tend to ignore negative information, and people in grumpy moods tend to think more logically about situations.  There's an vast amount of research in the field of social psychology that investigates that impact of mood on perception and memory.  For example: Let's say that I receive terrible service along with some fairly satisfying and tasty food.  I would hazard to guess that the service might put a damper on my experience and therefore I might rate the restaurant worse the food actually was.  On the other hand, there are some restaurants I frequent because no matter how terrible my day was, they always put me in a good mood.  Thank you @FSAustin and @MilanoAustin.

Perspective also influences memory.  Research has shown that in relationships, people who are anxiously attached (about 10% of the population) tend to remember things much worse than they actually were. People who are securely attached (about 60-70% of the population) tend not to remember past events as bad as they were, or they may not remember them at all.  At the Business of Software Conference 2009, Dr. Jennifer Aaker gave a presentation about Disneyland.  Disneyland is actually a miserable place. The lines are long.  The food is expensive.  But our memories of Disney are fantastic.  Disney is so skilled at branding and framing, that we have great memories of the miserable time we had.  That's just some food for thought. 

5. Yelp can be likened to a focus group for your business.  People come, pay, and give you feedback.  What's more?  They are your actual consumers.  What better focus group can you get than to get actual consumers?  However, the catch with this focus group is that they put it online for the world to see.  My advice for a business would be to use their free business owner's account to reply (politely).  That reply is also up for the world to see.  For further details on how to use Yelp, check out their business owners section or contact me.

You might say, "But that review is blatantly wrong!" or "I don't agree!"  This isn't easy for people (myself included) to get negative feedback about ourselves.  Humans are designed to have high self-esteem.  We are also susceptible to group think (groups that don't think or listen to feedback).  We tend to ignore things that are inconsistent with our own beliefs, and we tend to look for opinions that are consistent with our own opinions.  We are angry when someone disagrees with our self-perception.  There's no way around this sticky issue except to accept it.  We all get negative reviews.  

As a professor, when those course evaluations come in, I'm sure to get at least one negative evaluation.  I typically get 90-95% "We LOVE Ms. Chen!" evaluations, and 5-10% "I hated this class!" evaluations.  Sometimes those were correlated to the students' grades, and sometimes not.  I had one student who knew she was going to fail my course, but she gave me a hug on the last day of class and wrote me a thank you note.  I also had one semester where I had such good evaluations that students protested to the department head when I told them I was no longer teaching, but that's pretty out of the ordinary.  I did teach at that institution for the next three years.  There's no pleasing every single customer as there is no pleasing every single student.  I take my feedback, improve, and I move on.

At this point, I'm fairly certain that this post will turn into somewhat of a novel.  I'll end this post by saying that Yelp is not a perfect website.  There are things I would like to change and policies I'd like to implement if I could.  However, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Yelp is a useful website for both consumers and restaurant owners.  I've also found that once most businesses have learned how to navigate and use Yelp effectively, much of the anxiety surrounding Yelp disappears. 

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