Yelp is telling hyperlocal stories for national brands
The pandemic put Yelp in the spotlight as a critical information source.
“It was a very simple pitch to advertisers. We’ve got this scaled audience of people who are about to make a decision, and we’re going to get them into your store — whether that’s a restaurant or a retail store — or deliver a lead if you’re a local service business, like somebody is looking for a plumber.”
Tom Foran, SVP, National Sales at Yelp, was talking about the foundation for Yelp’s success since it was founded in 2004. But a business built primarily on delivering foot traffic needed to transform rapidly when in-store shopping, indoor dining and in-person services suddenly shut down. “We were forced to create more touchpoints so that someone could order ahead for pick-up in store, or take-out if it’s a restaurant business. These were things we didn’t really focus on before the pandemic, because we had a good thing going with this idea of driving that user from online to offline — clicks to bricks, as we sometimes call it. We’re emerging stronger as a result, because we have a more robust suite of products which can not only get someone into your store, but make a digital transaction happen.”
Speaking the language of national brands
As in so many cases, the pandemic added urgency to transformations already underway. When Foran joined Yelp four years ago, he found a business model focused on local SMBs. His mission was to take its national sales to the next level. ” Over those four years, we’ve done a lot of listening to agencies and to large national brands, as well as regional brands, and evolved the offering to allow those brands to better tell their stories using Yelp,” he said.
There’s an important distinction to be made between looking for local businesses and looking for businesses which are nearby the user. Yes, there’s interest in finding hidden local gems, or mom’n’pop businesses, but users are also looking for nearby outlets for national brands. But it goes beyond that. “The learning for us as we really dug in was it’s not necessarily that there’s a Starbucks near you, but that the pumpkin spice latte is available. How do we allow brands to tell their limited-time-offer story, or what’s hot and new in a business we know already?”
The answer was a new product called Showcase Ads, designed to allow a brand like Starbucks, or Target or Macy’s to tell users not just that there’s a nearby branch, but what’s new, relevant and timely at that location. “That was step one,” Foran said.
“Step two was standing up more robust suite of attribution offerings. At a local SMB level there may not be that level of sophistication, but when you’re dealing with big agencies and large brands they need proof.” Attribution partners like LiveRamp and Foursquare helped demonstrate the efficacy of the new product. Yelp has an integration with LiveRamp. “By virtue of their connections with a lot of big retailers, they can tie back actual transaction volume to exposure to Yelp ads. As a result, we’ve seen a significant acceleration of this business, even though it had been around for years before I joined,” said Foran. “So far, so good.”
The pandemic spotlight
“We’re actually more relevant than ever,” he continued. “The nice-to-have of a national brand telling their hyper-local story became a necessity over the past 15 months.” Users no longer needed just to know if there was a store nearby. “If it’s a Starbucks, is it open, is it drive-thru only? All of a sudden we were thrust into the center stage of relevance. In a very strange way, it elevated our profile for some of these national brands. Also it forced us to adapt out product suite.”
Previously it had been sufficient for Yelp to deliver something like a Foursquare report to confirm that it delivered foot traffic. “It’s now allowing us to tap into e-commerce budgets or digital transaction budgets that in the past we frankly didn’t focus on because there was plenty for us to do with getting people into physical locations.”
Search is the tip of the spear
One big impact of the pandemic, of course, has been to encourage online product discovery and purchase, thus elevating the importance of search. “Yelp’s model is fairly unique as far as search goes, because we don’t have an open keyword taxonomy, it’s a category-based system,” said Foran. “We have the ability to negatively target keywords, but it’s not your classic search paradigm.”
Users typically come to Yelp with very clear intent. They know what they want to accomplish: in that sense, they’re considered “down-funnel.” “What works in search,” said Foran, “is a really detailed plan of employing the the right categories and continuing to pour investment into search. It’s still the tip of the spear when it comes to effectiveness and that down-funnel consumer. That is the core of why we obtain budgets and continue to perform well, because of that down-funnel user.”
The pandemic, again, has driven changes here. “We definitely evolved our search products to address what is more important to the consumer now – it’s not just about finding a burger or finding a hotel room. The pandemic has forced companies like ours to raise the game, which is why we launched something like our COVID-19 health and safety matters, so when you get a search result you can see, for example, does the staff wear masks? Are there virtual offerings? For a beauty business or a salon, is there an outside service?”
Best practice for search haven’t really changed, Foran told us, but the bar has been raised for the information that needs to be delivered in the search results. “Are they going to get an experience which meets their concerns? Hopefully we’re coming out of that with the end of the pandemic in sight, but that’s been the biggest change for us — the need to show more information and be more hyper-local and relevant in the results we’re showing.”
Yelp became an education vehicle
In addition to making search results richer in information, business pages offer what Foran called “a bigger canvas.” Taking Starbucks as the example again: “I have my East 36th Street Starbucks location page, and the thousands of other Starbucks location pages, which can go into depth, not just about menu items, hours and basic information, but also more COVID-specific features and attributes.”
Foran describes a “real sense of responsibility” at Yelp for disseminating accurate and reliable information during the months of COVID-19. By summer of 2020, Yelp was helping businesses surface health and safety information. “It was a very scrappy effort to allow any brand to say what was going on just in a text box, before we created anything fancy. Then we evolved the health and safety banner to incorporate things like service offerings — curbside pick-ups, DIY meal kits from restaurants, outdoor services for beauty or fitness businesses. It really resonated well, not only with consumers, but with businesses which previously had been happy or unhappy with their ratings, but now saw Yelp as an education vehicle — a critical source of information in an unprecedented time.”
According to Yelp’s statistics, 2.7 million business pages reflect an updated COVID section; 1.1 million reflect health and safety measure implemented by a business.
What this business can become
Yelp’s Q1 2021 Economic Average report confirms the return of something like normalcy, with new business openings spiking and restaurant, food, professional and auto services business openings, among others, above Q1 2020 levels. Going forward, is Yelp nevertheless committed to its new model of driving online as well as offline engagement? “The short answer is absolutely yes,” said Foran.
“That’s been a strange benefit of this horrible situation,” he continued. We were content before to do what we did really well, which was that natural online to offline store traffic lift. But because we have this audience which is both high intent and largely undecided, we were probably selling ourselves short. Now we have the Showcase product, and we’ve evolved our attribution model to measure transactions driven by a campaign rather than just foot traffic, we’re excited about what this business at Yelp can become as we play in different areas of the purchasing funnel.”
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