October 4, 2013

How Yelp is using gamification right — and screwing it up, too

Nicole Lazzaro and Tony Ventrice at yesterday’s Social Media Breakfast Club (Photo by JD Lasica).

Other startups & companies can learn from its successes, missteps

Target audience: UX/user experience experts, gamification specialists, marketing professionals, startups, businesses, nonprofits.

JD LasicaYesterday we hosted our 19th Social Media Breakfast Club gathering in the SF East Bay, with Nicole Lazzaro and Tony Ventrice talking about business use of gamification.

Ventrice, a senior game designer at Badgeville, offered examples of what he considered good and bad uses of gamification by brands such as Yelp, so I thought I’d share his thoughts and offer my own take. This is not meant as a jab at Yelp, which has done brilliant work in the geolocation space. Instead, it’s offered as a bit of guidance to startups and companies trying to make smart use of gamification – a term everyone, it seems, dislikes.

What Yelp is doing right with gamification

Yelp's Elite Squad gets a thumbs up from Ventrice.

Yelp’s Elite Squad gets a thumbs up from Ventrice.

“Gamification is about leveraging fun,” and three things make games fun: fantasy, choice and growth, Ventrice said. Businesses looking to harness gamification should look beneath the surface and tap into the behaviors and emotions that it evokes in users.

He held up Yelp as an example of a site doing a lot of things right. Take a look at Emily D’s review of Jules Thin Crust Pizza:

Emily D. of Oakland has achieved Elite status.

Emily D. of Oakland has achieved Elite status.

(1) Elite status. Yes, we live in an egalitarian society, but everyone likes to feel special. So if you can spur people to try to make it into your elite club – by doing something that takes effort, not merely pushing a button – and they make it, they enjoy having that achievement recognized as part of their identity on your site. Hey, look at me, I’m elite!

Personally, I think Yelp could have chosen a better term than “elite,” but it gets the point across: This reviewer stands apart from the rabble.

Ratings Distribution

This graph shows that Emily has awarded 36 5-star ratings compared with eight 1-star ratings.

(2) Ratings snapshot. I really like this. What this comes down to is a quick visual cue on whether this reviewer is a troll or not. Ventrice called this a “review count and ratings distribution,” showing how many reviews the member has posted on Yelp and how many of those were 1 star vs. 2, 3, 4 or 5 stars.

(3) Follow this reviewer. Yelp has had some difficulty in creating a true community of reviewers, but in a nod to social connections it lets any member follow a particular reviewer, and it displays the number of fans.

What Yelp is doing wrong with gamification

Emily has 202 friends and 25 fans.

Emily has 202 friends and 25 fans.

But Yelp review pages look like they were designed by committee, in my view, and the outcome was that they decided to throw everything into the pot.

(1) Friending. For example, Ventrice said, Yelp already gives you the ability to “Fan” a reviewer, so why the need to “Friend” the reviewer as well? Well, if the reviewer is a babe, chances are she’ll have more friends than fans, as Emily does. “They have a flirting situation going on,” he said. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but flirting on Yelp seems kind of pointless.

(2) Review votes. The little votes icons might serve a purpose if they were limited to a couple of consistent choices. But “Funny”? “Cool”? That just seems limiting and shows a lack of focus, Ventrice said.



(3) Compliments. What’s the point of a Compliments section studded with lame little badges like snowflakes or pencils? “It seems arbitrary and redundant,” Ventrice said. I would add: amateurish.

And one bonus suggestion for Yelp

Food specializations: You know, someone who knows French cuisine deeply may know nothing about Southern Comfort food (and probably doesn’t). So why doesn’t Yelp make use of its ton of review data to structure it in more useful ways, like identifying the top reviewers of Italian or Japanese food – or get even more granular? Foodies would love it, and reviewers might be stoked by a little competition.

You’re welcome, Yelp.JD Lasica, founder of Socialmedia.biz, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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