With more than 20 years of experience in digital media, Tom Foran, senior vice president and head of national sales at Yelp, continues to identify changes in business across the U.S. based on company-aggregated data.
And he has been pretty accurate. The data, among other things, tells Foran what Yelp needs to support its users.
On Monday the company announced an LGBTQ-owned attribute that will allow business owners to self-identify themselves as owners. The company on June 1, also will launch a rainbow-colored map pins for the month that highlight both LGBTQ-owned and Open to All restaurant, food and nightlife businesses.
Yelp numbers suggest that consumers look for LGBTQ+ community businesses. The rate of searches on Yelp for LGBTQ+-owned businesses in the U.S. rose more than 150% in April vs. the same period the year prior.
Inside Performance caught up with Foran to ask about the changing business environment and what marketers can do to prepare.
Inside Performance: How are brands thinking about their advertising and search strategies as companies re-open and masks come off? What are they prioritizing and how are they continuing to communicate with their customers about precautions they take?
Tom Foran: Brands have been adjusting and rethinking their advertising and search strategies for over a year now.
By the end of Q1, we were finally at a point where we were beginning to see advertising and search come back, but we haven’t seen the strategies revert to their pre-pandemic state.
Though the country is full-steam ahead with regard to re-opening and there is a giant push for vaccinations leading up to July 4th, things are happening at different speeds and companies are creating their own guidelines in certain instances.
When it comes to search strategies, brands are focusing on localizing their national messages. For instance, we’ve seen many brands want to roll out a new product at a national level, but when it comes to highlighting that in local markets, the message changes market to market, city to city and even town to town. It can be something as simple as 'come in and try it at XX location today' to 'order online and pick it up in-store today.'
We anticipate these slight changes across markets will continue for many months to come as consumers continue to adapt.
Communicating regulations, safety precautions and updates with regard to the pandemic remains critical. Since the pandemic hit our country last year, we know that communication with consumers has been the most important strategy for businesses of all sizes.
It has been essential to communicate directly and consistently with existing and potential customers so they know what you’re doing to address safety concerns as well as how you’re implementing regulations and guidelines.
Since the CDC issued new mask guidelines, we know that some private businesses, like Stop and Shop and CVS, have decided to keep their mask mandate in place, regardless of vaccination status. Others, like Starbucks, have decided to follow state guidelines, allowing for mask mandates to be lifted for those vaccinated in certain states.
We’ve seen many brands leverage Yelp’s COVID-19 Health & Safety Banner on their business pages to communicate things like 'Staff Wears Masks,' 'Sanitizing Between Customers' and 'Social Distancing Enforced.'
Driving in-store visits is still paramount to brands and remains a big priority -- a priority that never changed, just one that brands are now more able to act on as the re-opening progresses.
As we all know, consumers on average spend more in-store than they do online, making them more valuable to brands. However, we think the brands that are going to see real success are those that can figure out how to drive those in-store visits, while also maintaining and improving their online ordering experience.
IP: Any brands using Yelp to find new hires? With hundreds of thousands of job openings and not enough workers, I got an interesting email from World Market last week, recruiting customers to work for them.
Foran: While we haven’t seen brands using Yelp to find new hires, we have seen businesses leverage Yelp technology to deal with the labor shortage crisis -- specifically the one currently plaguing the restaurant industry. Our Kiosk product, for instance, can help ease some of the stress on restaurants that are unable to find employees to fill their open roles.
Yelp Kiosk was built in 2018 to help restaurants that didn’t have it in their budget to hire a dedicated host. Now we’re seeing restaurants around the country are using Yelp Kiosk to automate check-in, waitlist management, and contacting diners when their table is ready.
The restaurants that are lucky enough to have front-of-house staff are using Kiosk to keep them focused on helping guests. Those that aren’t use Kiosk as a de-facto host until hiring someone makes sense.
IP: How important are local strategies? And what’s the most important message as the country continues to recover in different areas at different times?
Foran: As always, it’s crucial for brands to think about how they are personalizing their campaigns for their customers. This is the same for re-opening messaging and therefore it’s critical that brands continue to focus on their local strategies. While re-opening and the road to recovery is a national message and priority, the fact remains that not all customers across the country are ready for the same messaging.
Brands must make sure their local messaging is accurate and resonates -- or else they are at risk of it being tone-deaf.
What’s an acceptable message in California may not resonate in Texas and vice versa especially as Texas is further along in their reopening as they loosened restrictions earlier in the year, whereas California has many restrictions still in place. Moreover, we’re seeing major cities and their surrounding areas even experiencing very different consumer sentiment from one another, making the local strategies even more complex.
IP: What’s driving advertising today vs last year?
Foran: Brands have embraced the acceleration of consumers adopting digital channels like ordering ahead, buy-online-pickup-in-store, but we are on the cusp of perhaps the largest re-opening of the economy ever.
Brands with a national footprint still get the vast majority of their sales from consumers dining or shopping in-store. We anticipate a lot more investment in reminding consumers that they are welcoming them back to a physical location in the second half of this year.
Another area that has changed dramatically over the last year is the focus on conscious consumerism. Brands that aren’t factoring this into their strategies will absolutely miss out on dollars.
Consumers have shown us that they are "voting with their dollars," so to speak -- they are making conscious choices and have higher expectations for brands.
Yelp data supports this change as well. Our Diverse Business Owner report shows consumers are increasingly looking to support Black, Latinx, Asian and women business owners.
IP: Any new types of services on the horizon based on feedback from Yelp users?
Foran: Home and local services is an area we’ve been heavily focused on -- giving the businesses and brands in this space the tools they need to get the most relevant leads. This will be a continued area of focus, and you can expect more to come from us in the coming months that will impact both the business owner and consumer experience.
As for brand advertising products, we’ll soon be announcing a few products that aim to give business owners some additional creative freedom and more opportunities to leverage Yelp’s audience in unique ways, similar to Showcase Ads that we announced last year.
Foran: In April 2021, compared with April 2020, the major cities are showing a significant amount of activity [search and page traffic] -- all up more than 95% compared with the year prior. That said, while the major cities have more people and therefore show more search activity, the biggest changes we’re seeing are in some of the smaller cities across the United States.
For example, Jackson, Wyoming and Panama City, Florida have both seen an increase in activity of more than 400% and Flagstaff, Arizona saw more than a 500% increase.
All of these changes together show that consumers are gearing up for the re-opening and we expect these numbers to continue to climb as more people are vaccinated and regulations are lifted.
IP: Can Yelp forecast events based on use of the platform and, if yes, how and what do you see?
Foran: The Yelp platform allows us to understand consumer behavior patterns, and during this past year specifically, what consumers have and have not been interested in compared with years prior.
Now, for instance, we’ve started to see the return to pre-pandemic behaviors, indicating that consumers are indeed ready for the re-opening we’re all experiencing. When looking at markets like Texas and Florida, which both eased up on restrictions a bit earlier than the rest of the country, we saw a clear indication that as restrictions are lifted, traffic goes up.
In our Q1 Yelp Economic Average, we saw signs that consumers were ready for the upcoming season of re-opening. In preparation for a less isolated spring season, personal services such as laser hair removal saw a 787% increase in consumer interest in New York and interest in cosmetic surgery increased by 300% in Hawaii, New York, California, and Florida.
Data also signaled that people are preparing for a move and putting their house on the market. In Q1 2021, every state in the U.S. saw more than a 90% increase in consumer interest for real-estate agents compared to Q1 2020.
In preparation to move or declutter, consumer interest for junk removal services was up by more than 100% in every state. Additional data that reveals insight into the recent home-buying frenzy includes how businesses related to moving preparations opened within the home and local services sectors in Q1, such as truck rentals (378 openings, up 26% QoQ), dumpster rentals (857 openings, up 21%), junk removal (6,181 openings, up 19%).