Unmasking the Mystery: A Marketer’s Inside Look At Yelp Events

By Max Thomas

Last month, we helped a client organize a Yelp Event at their high-end residential community. Since we had a hard time finding out more hosting a Yelp Event, we decided to share some of our experiences with you. Let’s get to the unmasking!

First, have you heard of Yelp Events?

If so, then you might already be aware how impactful these Yelp-only gatherings and events can be to help cut through the marketing noise and get real live people to visit a business or establishment. If not, then I encourage you to read on. A Yelp Event might be just the promotion you need to get people in the door or, better yet, to kick-start social love of your business and that precious of all assets – online reviews.

Second, have you heard of Elite Yelpers?

These are the active Yelp reviewers and community members who live in an upper-stratosphere within the Yelp community. Their official name is “Yelp Elite Squad”. Not only do their reviews seem to NOT get filtered, they actually get invited to special events with unique promotions geared toward Yelp Elites. How sweet is that? What’s more, Yelp works hard to make this group of Yelpers feel special. So special in fact that Yelp has regional marketing directors charged with creating events specifically for them (more on this below).

Third, do you want to be a member of the Yelp Elite Squad?

If yes, then I recommend you check out these sites and Quora threads, along with Yelp and it’s blog. You’re not going to find the answer to that query here. This post is written for marketers to understand the benefits of a Yelp Event and how to create one for a business, establishment or client.

On To The Meat…Steps To Creating A Yelp Event

Step 1: Does your city have a Yelp Community Manager?

Sure, you can always promote an event or promotion via Yelp advertising, but working with Yelp to create a co-promoted event typically requires working with a Regional Community Manager. This person is the magical gatekeeper to Yelp’s highly engaged community and potential co-promoters of your event (e.g., food, music, pet adoption, etc). The best way to find a local Community Manager is to visit the Yelp Elite page, click the “Not in [your city name]?” in upper right corner, select your city, and then scroll down to “Meet your Community Manager”. In San Diego, our Community Manager is Brad B; I’d say Brad looks like a pretty cool and in-the-know guy.

Screen Shot: Brad B.

The pop-up screen of cities shows which ones have Community Managers. Alternatively (or if your city isn’t listed), visit Contact Us and select Partnerships from the dropdown to send a request.

Step 2: Is your venue Yelp-Event-worthy?

This seems obvious but it’s worth asking if the venue you want to promote is special enough to attract people for a Yelp Event. Keep in mind, Yelp has made tremendous investment to create one of the most loyal and engaged review-driven communities online. It’s not going to promote just any ‘ol venue to its precious community, particularly if they are Yelp Elites. Being a good marketer, you can probably gauge yourself whether a particular venue would make sense. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself: “Would I miss the season finale of Breaking Bad the night it airs to go to such and such an event?” If the answer is “no” or even “hmm”, then keep brainstorming. Also, while a new business or establishment usually has a better chance of grabbing Yelp’s attention, that doesn’t mean newer is always better. Even a venue that’s been around for a while can still attract people with a fresh theme or promotion, which leads to an upcoming point.

Step 3: What are your event goals?

Positive reviews on Yelp and new people visiting your venue are huge pluses. Even so, consider what other goals you can setup to quantify event success. These might include on-site sales, kick-off for an ongoing promotion (see below), event attendance (actual people who visit venue), giveaways of special promotion packets, etc.

You’ll notice that emails is not on the list. This is because Yelp owns the list (hence their involvement). Depending on the Community Manager, you might be able to promote an additional email-capture at the event (such as a newsletter or sweepstakes) but in general that’s not what Yelp Events are about. 

Step 4: What is the theme of your event?

I LOVE this question. When I asked Damien Smith, Boston’s Yelp Community Manager, what he would suggest for creating a successful Yelp Event, he responded with questions himself (which I paraphrase here): “What do you want the theme of your event to be?” and “What do you want people to associate with the [enter venue name here]?” In response I tried asking my question again, thinking Damien knew the secret ingredients to great event success but, once again, he responded with the same questions.

I’m now so very thankful for his questions because they required me to really think about what made our venue special. So special in fact that people would change their plans and attend an event at a place they’d never been before, just because they were invited via Yelp. Naturally, this also gave us the opportunity to tie the event theme in with the branding for the venue overall; a double win!

For this particular event (in Boston), the venue was a top-of-the-market urban high-rise apartment building that also boasted an impressive art collection. The art was displayed throughout the lobby, hallways, entertainment center, and public spaces. Since every piece of art was labeled with a plaque that provided the work’s title, artist name and medium, it all seemed very important. As such, we decided to go with the theme: “High Art At The Kensington”. It was a great play on words (thanks to Damien!) that spotlighted a unique aspect of the venue (the art work) that would be special (new high end building with high-end art) and also extend the brand (The Kensington: Smart Apartment Living).

Notice that we want to decide on a great theme before even thinking about perks like food, drinks and giveaways. Yelp really wants to promote events of unique value to their users; like all of us, Yelpers get special discounts, freebies and more daily. There’s nothing special about that. A successful Yelp Event really does start with a great venue and theme. Once those are in the works, then we can start thinking about tie-ins and perks.

Step 5: How creative can you get?

Grand openings, open bars and complimentary signature cocktails are good starts, but try to push the boundaries as much as possible for a Yelp Event. Chances are the Yelp Community Manager knows many interesting restaurants, businesses and establishments in the area.

Through his/her connections, s/he may potentially brainstorm with you to come up with a completely new and interesting angle. For a recent Yelp Elite Event, the Yelp Community Manager proposed the brilliant idea of having a petting zoo as part of festivities. The idea was to have the venue co-promote with a local animal organization so that Yelpers could take advantage of photo-ops with the animals (think enhanced photo sharing opportunities) and also animal adoption. I was 110% behind this idea given the venue was a pet-friendly apartment building but the venue owners nixed the idea. Even so, it was good to push the envelope as much as possible. If nothing else, the extra push might help you get your runner-up idea through.

Step 6: Is it for a public or Yelp Elite event?

The event can be promoted via Yelp to the general public or it can be an invitation-only private event (to the coveted Yelp Elite Squad).

Public events can handle hundreds of people or as many as your venue can accommodate. It’s nice to tie public events to charitable causes. Below is the calendar event for an apartment building in Jersey City, NJ, that was free and included a “suggested” $10 donation to the charity sponsor, The Historic Paulus Hook Association. With six beverage sponsors, twelve food sponsors, live music, photographer and on-site massages, plus a special Yelp Elite bonus, it was a HUGE event with a BIG impact. Check out the details to be wowed.

In contrast, smaller (but no less impactful) private events tend to be for Yelp Elites. For a recent Boston Yelp Elite Event, the soiree pulled in 150 Elite Yelpers. This particular event was held at one of Boston’s newest and swankiest apartment buildings, complete with complimentary cocktails (including the sponsored vodka mentioned above) and food from a local hip restaurant. There also was a special prize for the event check-ins (the chance to win a free weekend for two at the buildings luxury guest suite) and the launch of a new referral program. Here’s the special Elite invitation:


Both public and private events have their benefits. While Yelpers in general tend to be an active group, Elite Yelpers typically are highly engaged and thus that much more likely to leave reviews and spread the word about your venue (after all, that’s probably how they got to be Elite in the first place). I’d evaluate your event’s goals, venue capacity, drinks and food allowance, and then work with your region’s Community Manager to determine the better approach. 

Step 7: When can the event be scheduled?

Yelp has their own calendar of events that they promote. You’ll need to work with your region’s Community Manager to determine when the event can be a go. Typically, s/he’ll need about two weeks to get the word out and promote an event effectively. This will require having all your co-promotion partners, giveaways and event details ready to go.

Step 8: Who will your co-promoters be?

This is one of the magical aspects of working with Yelp on an event. There are basically two flavors here.

The first is to feature only your own venue and, as such, pick up the bill solo for any food, drinks and special offers. The second is to work with other establishments or organizations to share in the expense of the event in exchange for sharing the limelight with your venue. In addition, there’s the added benefit of collaborating with a partner who has their own following and/or can add that je ne sais quoi twist, such as the pet option mentioned earlier or perhaps the cool, new sushi bar around the block.

There’s also good opportunity here to get sponsored alcohol as part of the event. For example, we worked on a Yelp Elite Event where a regional alcohol distributor provided the vodka in exchange for co-promoting the event using the vodka’s brand name; they also created a signature cocktail that was named after the venue itself (pretty cool). In this example, they provided the drinks and our restaurant co-promotion partner provided the people to pour the drinks.

With this event, we had three sponsors: (1) a local restaurant that provided food and labor for serving food and drinks, (2) a distributor that provided brand-name vodka and signature drinks and (3) our client that provided the event space, giveaway, promotion and theme (this particular theme centered around their art collection).

I think this review from the event highlights how the vodka and food were a draw, and a hit:


Step 9: What’s your special event-only offer?

It’s great to offer a special promotion that is available only for attendees of the Yelp event. This is another feature that makes the event a perk for belonging to Yelp.

Try not to default to a giveaway like an iPad or Kindle (unless it’s related to your business) and go for something that’s unique to your business. Perhaps a tasting dinner for 12 if you’re a restaurant (sounds pricey but remember, these are Yelpers – they love to leave reviews and spread the word), weekend getaway for two if you’re a hotel, set of new tires if you’re an auto repair shop, 4 sessions with a personal trainer if you’re a gym, and so on.

I can’t emphasize enough to make it something really meaty, and not just another giveaway. How often does your business, at relatively low cost, get access to new prospects who are engaged consumers and love to leave reviews? Sounds like a goldmine to me. Also, chances are you’ll only get one chance at a Yelp event, so don’t blow it with something too tepid or average.

To enter, Yelp will create a special check-in for the event that automatically enters the attendee to whatever sweepstakes you provide. Here’s a screen capture from a recent Elite event:

Sweepstakes Entry

Step 10: Can you use the Yelp event to launch a new promotion?

A Yelp event is a great time to launch new promotions. Whether or not they are exclusive to Yelpers, it provides a level of specialness if Yelpers know about it first.

Again, these are promotions that should be new and unique, and really feature your business. Free appetizer with two entrees probably isn’t enough to get folks excited. For a Yelp Elite event at an apartment complex, the promotion was refer-a-friend program wherein if you tour an apartment and don’t rent, but you tell your friend and s/he ends up renting, then both of you get $150 gift cards. We launched the promotion at the Yelp event and ran it for the next 6 weeks. Again, it’s the perfect time to launch any sweepstakes or promotion.

Step 11: Was the event a success?

There many ways to gauge success, so here I’d like to boil it down to three key factors:

1) Prospects (e.g., warm bodies) Visiting A Venue
For the Elite Event referenced earlier, there were 150+ people who attended. That’s 150+ new people most of whom had not visited the venue yet and, being Yelp Elites, they skew toward a high demographic. I’d say that’s a score! For the public Yelp event, there were many hundreds of people who attended; another score! The multiplier effect of these visitors is also powerful as they share their experiences with their friends, and their friends, and so on.

2) Reviews
The Elite Event generated 38 reviews for the event listing with an average rating of 4.5 stars…all in one night! Here’s a snapshot of the Yelp event page:

Yelp: Elite Event Reviews

Likewise, the event boosted reviews to the venue’s Yelp listing as well from people who referenced attending the party. This is helpful as the venue is an apartment building which just opened its doors so they didn’t have many customers or prospects yet. Here’s a snapshot of a review where the reviewer mentions the party.

Yelp: Event Review Love

This is a key benefit of Yelp events given how important Yelp reviews can be to getting customers AND how hard reviews can be to come by, especially in the beginning.

3) Increased brand awareness
This is a bit of a no-brainer: The mixture of live bodies at a venue who are ready to leave reviews, and on Yelp, can be a powerful marketing elixir. And one that stays around much longer than an event that is not tied to a review community, like Yelp.

So…what are you waiting for? Get those creative juices flowing, contact your local Yelp Community Manager, and start planning your next Yelp event. You’ll be glad you did.

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Max Thomas

By Max Thomas

Max is a nationally recognized digital marketing specialist who is an expert on search engine optimization and data-driven digital marketing who has spoken at SMX and SMX Advanced, LMA Southeast, LMA Tech in San Francisco, WordCamp and other industry recognized conferences. As the founder and CEO of ThunderActive, Max has lead his team (with offices in San Diego and New York City) to success for clients in legal, real estate, life sciences, consumer goods and new tech. A Columbia undergraduate with a Yale MBA, Max is an Impact Circle Member for The Trevor Project and is an advisor to start-up companies and angel investment networks, including Gaingels and Serval Ventures in New York.

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