Yelp is a controversial topic in the small-business community. It is a powerful consumer tool, but the platform’s expensive premium features frustrate some business owners. When you’re running a budget-strapped, family-operated small business, $300 to $1,000 a month in advertising expense is no small cost.
Given Yelp’s community of 66 million monthly visits, you may feel that you are at a competitive disadvantage if you don't pay for advertising. But a robust Yelp presence is still possible, even without spending money.
170+ reviews, 4.5 stars and $0 advertising
The Eagle Rock Brewery in Los Angeles has never spent money on print or online advertising. Instead, the company creates a high-quality product that people enjoy. It's two years old, budget-strapped and rapidly growing.
“We try to let the beer speak for itself,” co-owner Ting Su says. “Advertising, whether online or in print is not something that we’ve been able to put money into. We have been approached by Yelp on a number of occasions, but our budget’s tight because we’re experiencing so much growth. We sink most of our money back into the business.”
Eagle Rock maintains deep ties with its roots in the craft-beer community. It hosts events like monthly Women’s Forums, competes in local homebrew competitions and connects with its thousands of social media followers. Eagle Rock Brewery maintains a blog and sustains a high level of engagement and loyalty among its customer base.
“We try to be as involved with the beer community as possible," Su says. "The focus has really been on making the best-quality product that we can that's what the community is looking for.”
Positive Yelp reviews have been supplementary byproducts of these holistic community-building efforts.
“If people come to the bar singing praises with positive feedback, I never ask them to write a review for us,” Su says. “I leave it to people to do as they wish. I think it’s most useful to consumers and businesses to keep their reviews unbiased.”
Market intelligence with a grain of salt
Yelp, positioned as a free platform for consumers to express their feedback, is a valuable market-intelligence tool for company owners.
“It’s a good tool for businesses. It’s nice to [know] what your customers are saying about your business,” Su says. “In our Yelp reviews, we tend to see [comments] about our location and the taproom rather than our products.
"It’s a valuable way to get a general feel of whether people are happy with our customer service," says Su. "It’s a forum for people to voice their opinions, good and bad, which we embrace to have an understanding of what the public is thinking."
Su reminds businesses to approach reviews with both an open mind and a skeptical mind. She suggests you don't feel bogged down by negativity.
"Sometimes, misunderstandings result in 1-star reviews. Those are unfortunate, but on the flip side, when you see a pattern or consensus, you have a good idea of what’s true in the community.”
"Occasionally, you’ll get somebody who just wants to slander a company," she says. "Keep in mind, however, that you get these much less often than a genuine review. Even as a consumer on Yelp, I take things with a grain of salt—possibly more now that I see both sides.”
Maximize the benefits
The most valuable Yelp strategy is one that is genuine to your business’s bigger picture, as Eagle Rock demonstrates. Before feeling pressured to spend advertising dollars, businesses should step back, assess the platform’s free features and determine where scarce marketing dollars will have the strongest returns.
For some businesses, Yelp advertising is absolutely worth it. To others, it might not be. Su reminds business owners to be practical and think ahead.
“Yelp is a great tool but it’s not an end-all-be-all.... Don’t lose a night’s sleep over a negative review,” Su says. “But if you see a trend, and you find valuable insight, dig a little deeper. Put more weight behind a pattern than an outlier.”
Ritika Puri is on online media professional who specializes in user research, product strategy and data analysis. She enjoys writing about marketing, user experience, new business models and entrepreneurship. She blogs for Contently.
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