From an outsider’s perspective, becoming a Yelp Elite is akin to joining a secret society.
Elite members bear special badges on their Yelp profiles, and they’re invited to private events where up-and-coming restaurants and bars provide food and drinks for free.
The idea is that Yelp Elites will get these new local businesses on their radar, then create high-quality, reliable reviews and direct traffic to the site.
Anyone can nominate themselves or their friends on Yelp’s site. Nominations are sent to the San Francisco-based Elite Council, a mysterious group that’s responsible for making sure the applicant is a real person writing real, reasonable reviews of businesses.
But according to Yelp, there isn’t really a specific benchmark a reviewer has to meet to be considered an Elite, and each member has to be reapproved by the Council each year.
“There’s no magic number that unlocks it,” Ruggy Joesten, community director for Manhattan Yelpers, told Business Insider. “Elite status is only reserved for the best of the best, the people who are making quality content.”
We recently attended a Yelp Elite event at Analogue, a cocktail and jazz bar in New York City’s West Village. When we arrived, guests were enjoying small bites and spritzer cocktails made with Casoni 1814 and Prosecco. We were told everything was on the house.
“The application process itself is easy, but you have to be vetted. You have to be very proactive in Yelp, and really candid,” Yelp Elite member Gigi Angelis told Business Insider during the event.
As of this week, Angelis has written 129 reviews, given 306 tips, uploaded 136 photos, and checked in close to 1,500 times.
“I’m a serious Yelper, but it’s my sole form of social media,” she said.
Since there’s no specific guideline as far as the number of reviews you must have written, most Elites agree that when it comes to being chosen for this exclusive group of reviewers, quality always trumps quantity. Some said they had only written dozens of reviews when they applied and were accepted, while other people they knew had written hundreds and were denied.
“It’s the quality of reviews that makes it,” Elite member Amanda Stoneall told us.
She has written about 120 reviews, and her goal is to do a few a month.
“We take it really seriously,” she said. “They should be middle-of-the-bar, fair reviews.”
The event at Analogue filled up fairly quickly. The bar’s owner is said to have some 10,000 vinyl records in his collection, and the bar is decorated to fit a vintage music aesthetic.
The theme of the party, then, was a “record swap,” and some Yelpers brought in vinyls to trade. People seemed to have their hands on a little bit of everything, from Kenny Loggins and Ted Nugent to Sisqo and the Beach Boys.
A jazz band played by the front entrance.
This Elite event seemed pretty low-key, but it was hard to say if it was typical or not.
“Every event is a mixed bag. It’s all about exposing businesses that aren’t on the radar yet,” Stoneall said.
That could mean everything from flea-market parties with free Franzia wine to extravagant bashes in Brooklyn warehouses with liquor sponsors. The Holiday Hangover, for example, is an annual event that brings 500 Yelpers aboard a Hornblower yacht.
“Some are really small and intimate, where it’s nice to see people you hadn’t seen in a while,” Yelp Elite member Mitch Einhorn said. “Some are amazing events where you’re thinking, ‘I have to go back.'”
Regardless of the venue and theme, what really matters to Yelp Elites is the sense of community they get from events. It’s a tight-knit community of people who are passionate about going out, exploring, and sharing their opinions about local businesses.
After a while, they get to know each other pretty well, too. Einhorn said that he recently attended a wedding of two Elite members who had met through the business-review site. The community director for Brooklyn presided over the ceremony.
Still, the Yelp Elite program has admittedly gotten some bad press in recent years.
Some have criticised the program for unfairly bestowing a kind of celebrity status upon certain Yelpers, rewarding prolific reviewers with free food and perks and threatening to take their status away if they can’t keep up the pace.
In 2012, the owners of New York City’s Big Gay Ice Cream Shop claimed they were contacted by a group of Elites who asked that the shop be opened early just for them.
Though it’s ultimately up to the San Francisco-based Elite Council to decide who gets to be designated as Elite, the community director for each particular region is responsible for welcoming new members, reaching out to local businesses, and planning events like this one. There are dozens of communities across the U.S. and the world, including four in the New York metropolitan area alone.
Joesten, who’s in charge of Manhattan, says that he intentionally plans events at times that wouldn’t interfere with a business’s usual customers — weeknights, for example, or before brunch on Sundays.
“I’m always out educating local businesses on how to make Yelp work for them,” Joesten said. “News in the business-owner community spreads fast, and having an event like this makes sense for them. We’re taking advantage of a night that would be slow for them anyway.”
Joesten compares Elites’ review contributions to the most popular creators on huge social media platforms like YouTube.
“It’s a small group of people making a large impact that a lot of people can enjoy,” he said. “Lots of people like to explore the city. It’s just a small minority of people who broadcast it. And it’s making people’s lives easier around town.”
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