The Small Business Recovery
How Yelp pivoted to helping small businesses during the pandemic
With the pandemic closing businesses across the country, Yelp saw a way to help businesses figure out their own pivots to digital.
With the pandemic closing businesses across the country, Yelp saw a way to help businesses figure out their own pivots to digital.
Have you ever tried to go on an architectural tour of Chicago from your living room? Redesign your home over Zoom? Listen to a podcast from your favorite barbecue restaurant?
What we've gotten used to over the last seven months would've most likely seemed truly bizarre at the start of the year. The pandemic has forced businesses to rethink how they reach their customers just to stay afloat. With lockdown orders shuttering all but the most essential businesses across the country, many turned to the internet to stay connected to their customers.
Before the pandemic shut everything down, one of the easiest ways to find out where to go for dinner or who to call to fix your plumbing was opening up Yelp. Wherever you were, you were likely to find dozens of people who had reviewed businesses in your area, with photos, menus, hours and information about each business with a couple taps on your phone. But what happens when no one is out in the world, looking for new places to try?
"If you think about what Yelp represents, in general, we're trying to inspire folks to go out there and interact with local businesses," Yelp's chief product officer, Vivek Patel, said. "A lot of our messaging was like, 'Hey, here's a great place for brunch,' or, 'Here's a great place to throw a party,' 'Check out this concert,' and so we did have to pull back on things along those lines."
Yelp and the businesses it works with had to pivot to stay relevant to our new, socially distant society. But how does a company that's made its name with physical properties — and tested the trust of small businesses on more than one occasion — move into the virtual world? The site that reinvented the concept of the Yellow Pages would have to reinvent itself.
"It was kind of a blur of thinking back to everything that happened," Patel said. "But I think as soon as it became clear that people weren't going to go to work, at least at Yelp, that was the moment that this is going to have a major impact on all of our customers."
Patel's team had to quickly figure out how to direct its efforts to best support the businesses that list on Yelp, as well as the customers who use them. This was difficult at first, given that what we knew about COVID in early March was still very much in flux. "At the beginning, it wasn't even clear how the virus spread," Patel said.
Businesses had been using the photo-sharing function of Yelp to demonstrate how they were making their stores safe for customers, Alon Shiran, Yelp's director of product management said. But really, they needed a more uniform way to show what was going on. "There were signals that indicated the main thing now is really helping them get through this communication issue, and that every business is going through something very different," Shiran said.
In late March, Yelp unveiled a banner for the top of businesses' profile pages that allowed them to quickly notify customers to COVID-related changes. Soon after, it built a section into the page that allowed businesses to post updates on their COVID-19 safety practices and changes to operations. Those updates are marked with a timestamp, so customers can see whether that information is out of date. Pages now include a nine-part checklist where businesses can indicate safety measures they're following, like whether staff wears gloves and masks, if there's contactless payment or hand sanitizer in the store, and if social distancing is enforced. "When things started to get more clear, we started adding more structure to that data," Patel said.
This wasn't a simple process: Yelp was still figuring out its products as businesses — many of which were new to the web — were needing to pivot online. "A lot of businesses out there are still pen-and-paper based, they're not doing everything online," Patel said. Shiran added that the age of the business will determine what sort of support Yelp offers, especially when it comes to advice like suggesting to add photos to a page listing.
Shiran's team updated the user interface of the Yelp onboarding process on mobile so that it was easier to get onboard on the device more people were likely to be on. "We spent time with different businesses showing them prototypes, trying to make sure that it is easy to get through these flows," Shiran said.
Many small businesses, especially those that relied on being in close proximity to their customers, had no choice but to shut down in mid-March. Jeff Falcon, the CEO of Bay Home & Window in Pleasanton, which builds shades, blinds, cabinetry and other home interior work, said that the company had been on track for a record sales year before the pandemic struck. "Our core business is that we go directly to our customer base, and so we found ourselves absolutely stranded in the middle of the ocean with no engines," Falcon said.
The company had worked with Yelp in the past to certify that it was a licensed contractor in the state, and used Yelp's feature that lets customers request a quote right from the business page. But if Falcon's team couldn't get into a house to actually install anything, what value did that provide now? "What we did was we had a hard hard pivot in our business model to get us through that period of time that was extremely technology oriented," Falcon said.
Falcon's team figured out how to make virtual presentations to prospective clients — first using Canva on their own, and then hiring professionals to make them polished and interactive — that helped them book business and stay afloat. Customers could book one of these tours directly through Bay Home's Yelp page, and by mid-May, the company was back to about 50% of its revenue pre-pandemic. Falcon said they took the marketing budget they'd usually have used in-person at home improvement stores and design trade shows and plowed it into digital: redesigning their website, increasing their Google ad spend and doubling down on virtual tours. Some customers eventually felt comfortable letting businesses that showed they were making the effort to stay safe back into their homes; Bay Home listed all the safety guidelines it follows right on its Yelp page, including that all employees wear gloves, masks, constantly sanitize and maintain social distance. By June, the company was beating old revenue records.
"We did so by going to partners like Yelp, and working with their teams to take advantage of some of their newer processes, some of their forward-leaning ideas that they have developed," Falcon said.
For other businesses, it took a complete rethinking of what they offered to stay afloat during the pandemic. Amanda Scotese, owner of Chicago DeTours, a company that offers guided expert tours of the Windy City, said she suspected early on during the pandemic that people stuck staring at their laptops all the time would be looking for fun distractions from … everything … going on.
"My initial reaction was, people are going to be online, we've got to reach new audiences, we've got to be present," Scotese said. "We can share all of our knowledge about Chicago — as people are cooped up — that they can still be able to explore."
So Scotese pivoted the company to offering virtual tours of Chicago. At first, they were free to see if there was going to be interest, but Scotese said that interest was so high, especially from companies and schools looking for group activities, that she decided to start offering a paid product. Using a combination of video calling, Google Street View, archival photography, live chat, games and engaging hosts, the team was able to recreate the feeling of walking around listening to a tour. They're working on custom tours, like the architecture of the campus of the University of Chicago for new students, as well as a Chicago cuisine tour.
Yelp has a tag on its site for virtual tours, and Scotese said changing her company's page from in-person to virtual tours was simple. And given how much time her team has been putting into building out its new product, anything that makes it easier to bring people in the (virtual) door is going to be a welcome addition. "We as a small business have been so busy trying to both perfect our products and accommodate the demand," Scotese said. "So we haven't really had the space to market what we're doing — it's just been all people finding us, through word of mouth, people on our mailing list, or through Yelp."
Not every business was starting from scratch online, though. "To be honest, it's the most excited I've been running the business for the last 13 years," said Shawn Walchef, the owner of Cali Comfort BBQ in San Diego. Walchef's restaurant is located a little off the beaten path from downtown San Diego, so he said he realized early on that he needed to lean into digital to find and retain customers. "Because of the challenge of the location, I think it put us in a unique position," Walchef said. "We knew before coronavirus that a lot of these things were going to happen, to not just the restaurant industry, but small business, big business, media business, you name it."
Walchef does more than the average business owner online: He hosts a weekly podcast on the digital side of the restaurant business, he posts constantly on Instagram and Facebook, and he maintains a pristine Yelp page. He pays Yelp to be able to choose which images show up at the top of his restaurant's page, and argues that the presentation of a business online is just as important as in the restaurant itself.
"You go through every public-facing space of your restaurant, and you make it impeccable; you've put things on the wall, you have music, TVs, you make sure that the chairs are the way that you want them," Walchef said. "The problem I see with business owners is that we don't treat each platform like a room in our restaurant. If someone came into that room, and they said, 'Hello,' and you didn't respond back — the last thing we want to do is ever ignore somebody."
Walchef said he suspects some business owners might be scared off by the technology, but he writes that off as just an excuse not to do it. "We think that it's too difficult, but we didn't know how to drive a car — and we learned how to drive a car," he said.
Walchef relies on Yelp Connect, which he calls "revolutionary." The feature, which the company released last year, allows Walchef to show potential customers things that might be relevant to them, like new menu items, specials and upcoming events, rather like Instagram Stories, but that can lead directly to reservations at the restaurant. Walchef said it's brought him a massive new audience to interact with. "It's essentially another CRM tool for me," he said. "We have 13,000 fans in this that I have just by running a successful Yelp page, updating photos, responding to reviews and updating COVID policies."
In a time when the only way to connect with potential customers is online, Walchef sees digital tools like this as the easiest way to bring aboard new fans, who ultimately spend money and spread the word themselves. Keeping those digital rooms up to date for Yelp reviewers is even more important when there are no physical rooms to patronize.
"They're micro-bloggers specifically for Yelp," Walchef said, "creating user-generated content that actually ultimately helps drive search engine optimization results to us when someone's searching for ribs."
All the businesses Protocol spoke with, along with Yelp itself, said that what they've learned during the pandemic will likely influence the way they do business well after the pandemic has subsided. Scotese wants to figure out how to incorporate virtual tours into DeTours' long-term business, and Walchef has no plans to let up on the social posting. And Falcon plans to continue offering virtual walkthroughs moving forward, seeing as they've led the company to a record summer to date. "By taking them into the field and incorporating them in our normal platforms, it has increased our closing ratios and our effectiveness," Falcon said. "We have literally erased 100% of the revenue deficit that we incurred. We're now in positive ground again."
For Yelp, the pandemic has certainly clarified the company's near-term product decisions. "Luckily, most of our roadmap had already been pretty focused on how we're going to grow in services, so we had lined up a lot of projects in that way," Patel said, but added that things that had seemed less important at the start of the pandemic are starting to require attention again.
Yelp's reservation and waitlist tools, which businesses have started to use more as they open back up for outdoor and indoor seating, are getting some attention now for what Yelp sees as supporting them down the road. "We're using the time to add some functionality that we know customers wanted from before and we're sure they're going to want in the future," Patel said. "I think all of us feel the urge to go out to a nice dinner and have that be part of our lives again — and we believe that will happen — and we're going to be ready to help businesses at that time."
Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.