Kent Whipple discusses his overall strategy of using Yelp to grow Unexpected Productions Improv. He talks about how to create an account, how to get 5 star reviews, how to respond to reviews, and how he tracks which customers are coming from Yelp.
Kent is the marketing and development director at Unexpected Productions Improv which is located in downtown Seattle. He has served as a gallery director in some of the major art centers in the country, including Santa Fe and Scottsdale. He is also freelance writer, creating and developing articles that are published nationwide.
Kent is an active member of the Seattle’ Market the Arts Task Force and part of Yelp’s Coast-to-Coast Community which is a group of business owners and managers who work together to find ways to use Yelp. He has been chosen to return to San Francisco in November to Yelp’s annual gathering where he will be sharing his advice on how to most effectively use Yelp.
WILLIAM: I’m excited to introduce you to Kent Whipple, who is the Marketing and Development Director at Unexpected Productions Improv located in downtown Seattle. Kent has served as a gallery director at some of the major art centers in the country, including Santa Fe and Scottsdale. He is also a freelance writer, creating and developing articles that are published nationwide.
Kent is an active member of the Seattle Market the Arts Task Force and part of Yelp’s coast to coast community, a group of business owners and managers who work together to find ways to use Yelp. He has been chosen to return to San Francisco in November to Yelp’s annual gathering where he will be sharing his advice on how to most effectively use Yelp.
In this episode, Kent discusses his overall strategy of using Yelp to grow his theatre. He talks about how to create an account, how to get five star reviews, how to respond to reviews, and how he tracks which purchasers are coming from Yelp.
Let’s get into it.
Hey Kent! Thanks for joining us.
KENT: It is completely my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
WILLIAM: Of course! To start off, can you give us a back story about yourself and Unexpected Productions?
KENT: Sure. I have been with Unexpected Productions for about five years. I studied Arts Administration at the College of Santa Fe and about five years ago, I wanted to start a new career and a new life and I wanted to go back to theatre. So, I joined Unexpected Productions.
We’re an improv company in downtown Seattle at Pike Place Market. We do corporate training with all sorts of clients, including Starbucks and Amazon. We also have an improv school where we train about 1,200 students in the art of improv a year. But, one of the things I’m most proud of is we do 10 shows a week, Wednesday through Sunday, with three shows on Friday and Saturday night. All completely improvised, never has been seen before and never will be seen again.
WILLIAM: Let’s chat a bit about marketing. How has Yelp helped your business?
KENT: It was kind of funny because when I first started working at Unexpected Productions, I would see the Yelp reviews and we had 37 reviews at the time and not all of them stunning. I would see other businesses with what they did with Yelp and how they worked with Yelp.
So, one day, in my Twitter feed, something came up quite surreptitiously that was Yelp Seattle, the handle Yelp Seattle. So I contacted this person and said, “I want to talk to you about Yelp,” and that was about five years ago, four or five years ago.
And so, it was the Yelp community director for the city of Seattle and I met with her and said, “Teach me. Help me understand.” How do I use this platform? Because, I could see that it was really community-oriented. You have community people that are Yelp elite members and these are Yelp community of people that review pretty much everything.
I wanted to reach out to them and see what I can do with them. So, I started reading everything I could about online reputation management, started modeling businesses that I admired and at that time, there weren’t a lot of theatres being reviewed. Then, I thought, “Well, we’re an improv theatre.” Being interactive is completely and totally the nature of our business. I’m going to get really interactive and join this community. So, I started using it.
I created my Yelp business page–or not created, I took it over–and started adding pictures. I started using Yelp to tell our story. I think that’s probably the most important thing and any of your listeners should really realize, you can use Yelp to tell your story. And, I started telling our story.
I started adding to the free calendar. I started adding more photos. I started responding to our reviews and saying, “Hey, thank you. I’m sorry that you didn’t have a great time.” You know, people are always so afraid that it’s all the one star reviews and they think that Yelp’s just all negative. And it’s really quite ironic because I think 44% of all the Yelp reviews are 5 star and higher, and about 15% are 1 stars.
So, I think we get in our heads that we get a little nervous about this and the best thing, I just started jumping into it. Well, luckily for me, they saw how we were using it and last November, they picked a hundred business managers or owners around the country and brought us out to what is called the Yelp Coast-to-Coast and had a Q&A with us and said, “How do you do what you do? Why do you do this? Look at this. Do you know Yelp can do this?” and we created our own little community within that.
We started a Facebook page and all of the Coast to Coast members started sharing more and more information. And we were really creating and learning best practices and taking what Yelp provided as best practices and then adding to it.
Since then, as a member of our Market the Arts Task Force, I was able to present to a bunch of performing arts groups and museums about how to use Yelp. And I was amazed like how many non-profit theatres didn’t own their page, didn’t really pay attention to this because as critics become less and less and we’re seeing less in newspapers and magazines, as far as critical reviews, the online reviews have really taken over. All of us need to pay attention to that.
So, I started using Yelp more and more and then I kind of become a fan. I don’t work for Yelp. I’m not employed by it, but I am a huge aficionado and I’m pretty excited because I just found out yesterday that they asked me to come back.
They picked 10 people from last year’s Coast to Coast to come to this year’s conference and help present and help a hundred new people really see how Yelp works.
WILLIAM: Now, you said a lot of theatres don’t own their listing. What does that mean? Can you be on Yelp even if you don’t create an account with them?
KENT: Anybody can review your business and create it. They can go to XY Theatre and XY Theatre may not have their page and they can create it. Quite often, you have to go into and say, “Hey, I’m the owner of this business” and take over that page.
But if you have a performing arts company right now, you need to go in there and either find the page and own it or create one because, again, you’re missing an opportunity to reach out because anybody can create it. Ironically, if you let someone else create your page, they can misspell things or put wrong information in there. So, if you go in and create your page or you go in today and take over your page, you are controlling your story a little more.
WILLIAM: Now, is this free to do?
KENT: Completely and totally free, I mean, Yelp has a bunch of types of accounts, but, really, the free ones, anybody can start a free account. You can start your own free account.
Now, the neat thing, Yelp also offers a business owner app where you can go in after you’ve taken over your page and really got and going on it, but, really, you get in there. Go and become the Yelp business owner. Find your page, it’s completely free. You can put in your hours. You can put in when your box office is open. You can list on the calendar which shows are going on and then, you can add photos.
Now, we had a free account for a long time, but we have what is called an upgraded profile and we pay $75 a month for that, which is $900 a year. That sounds a little pricey, but when you look at it and we’re just going into September with four months left in the year, and I’ve already made $1,200 that I know of for sure that I can say, this is our ROI. We spent $900 and we made $1,200 that I can measure and that’s with four months to go.
I don’t even know if they came to other shows. That ROI I can really measure specifically on our theatre sport show, but people could be coming to other shows. So, we’re starting to ask online where people ordered tickets. Where did you find us? And I’m going to start measuring more and more to see how many people find us from Yelp.
WILLIAM: Now, how do you know that you’ve made that much money from Yelp?
KENT: Well, one of the things that they offer, and this would be great for any performing arts group, is you can do what is called the “Yelp deal.” It costs you no money. It costs no money to create these deals. So, I was noticing at the end of last year that our Friday night theatre sport show wasn’t selling as much as well as our Saturday night show. So, I thought, “What could I do?”
So, I did two for one tickets and I created this Yelp deal for Friday nights only and that’s where we’re finding it. That’s where I’m seeing the ROI, people who are buying those tickets. That’s how I’m measuring it.
Again, it’s hard because on some things, like I said, the Yelp for business owner’s page that I was talking about, the cool thing about it, every week, they send you an Activities Report and you can see how many people went to your Yelp page. And not only that, it will tell you what they did on your Yelp page.
Forgive me for babbling, but last week, from August 22 to 27, we had 292 people look at our page. Seventy five those people clicked on to our website to see our shows. Sixteen used that call to action button that I told you about–the 2 for 1 Friday night theatre sports. Five bookmarked us. Four checked into the business. Twelve people used the page to get directions to where we are. One called us and then two sent us messages and I remember that because she was asking if it was appropriate for her 13-year-old daughter to come to our show. So, they’re reaching out to me. I didn’t do anything but have my page up and there was that much action.
WILLIAM: And I’ve looked at your page and I’ve known that you guys have a ton of 5 star reviews. Can you chat a bit about how you were able to get so many of those and what happens if you get a 1 star review? What do you do?
KENT: Well, this is probably the scariest part of online reputation management is quite often, you can have 10 reviews and 9 of them are 5 star, right? And then, you get the one 1 star, and I think, out of human nature, we automatically obsess about that one instead of seeing that nine people think you’re fabulous, one person wasn’t so crazy.
So, we went from 37 reviews to, I think, we have 240 now, with an average of 4.5 star rating. I need to give number one to that to our performers because they do a great job, but the other part, I think, is really just responding. I respond to every single review that we get, whether it’s a 5 star or whether it’s a 1 star. I always like to tell people and Yelp as well, when you get a 1 star, you do a stop, drop, and roll.
And don’t respond to it at the moment because especially in the performing arts, if we get a 1 star, you know, we’ve been working on a show forever. We’ve rehearsed it. It’s our baby. And then, this person comes in and says something snarky about it. Of course, it hurts. It’s their opinion and that’s really the important thing to remember. It is their opinion.
But, I don’t respond to it right then. If I get a 1 star, I wait. I wait 24 hours to think about what did they say and that way, I’m not going to be– because I’m really proud of my improvisers and I become kind of like a mama tiger and I don’t want to attack, so I wait and then say, “Hey, did this person have a valid point?” And quite often, we need some object activity.
People think that they’re probably reviewing the shows, more so, they’re reviewing their experience. Probably, like one of the reviews we had that was a 1 star talked about the line at the bar and they were right. That night, we had a very bad line at the bar. We had bartenders out and I just have to respond and own it and say, “Thank you. I’m sorry you experienced that, but we normally have two bartenders, but we didn’t, and your experience was wrong and I hope you give us another chance.”
So, I think you nurture your reviews. We always think people will read the review, but quite often, people are reading how you respond to it. They want to know what kind of business you are. And so, if you respond and say, “Well, you’re a stupid dunderhead, you obviously missed the whole plot of the show,” or whatever. You know, people are going to look at that and think, “What kind of guy is this?” “What kind of person is this?” But, if you respond, even if it’s a negative review, you respond and say, “Thank you for your input. Sorry you didn’t have an experience. Normally, we try to provide you the best entertainment we can. I hope you give us another chance.”
If it’s a 5 star review, I’ll do the same thing. People are taking time out of their life, out of their very busy day to write something about your business and I try to honor that. I try to honor it authentically. So, every response, every review, I say thank you. “Thank you for taking the time,” and talk about their experience because, really, I often kind of think of this. I remember, there was a movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” When I went to go see that, I had just had a fight with my ex. I was in a foul mood and I sat there during that movie and I’m like, “This is the dumbest movie I’ve ever seen ever.”
A few years later, I watched it again and I’m like, “This is hilarious. This is a great movie.” And it taught me how, sometimes, we lose our objectivity. And you think, sometimes, people are doing that in their reviews. You keep that in mind that if it’s a negative review, it’s not the end of the world. Just respond to it. If it’s a positive review, thank them and nurture that because, really, aren’t we all trying to build a community?
We were trying to build the community at whatever venue we have or whatever show we have. As a magician, you have your community that you’ve built. We all need to nurture that. And so, I just really think it’s important to honor people and being in an improv company makes it really easy because we ask for suggestions and we rise together.
WILLIAM: How do you get people to go to Yelp to write that review?
KENT: Well, due to a couple of things. First, we have a check in offer on our page which anybody can do. If someone checks in on Yelp, they get a free popcorn. It costs me just a few cents of popcorn. And then, later on, Yelp’s algorithm will remind them, “Hey, you were at Unexpected Productions a couple of weeks ago. Maybe you might want to write a review about it.” Secondly, we have little notes that say, “Hey, please find us on Yelp.”
But, more so, again, I think it’s following Yelp’s community building and the philosophy of improv after every show, we send out an email to those who provided us with their email and we say, “Hey, thank you for joining us. We hope you had a great time at theatre sports and thanks for taking time out of your weekend. If you have less than a 5 star experience, please contact me immediately. Here’s my email address and here’s my phone number and I’ll do everything I can to rectify it. If you had a 5 star experience, you can help our small non-profit theatre by sharing it with the world. Would you please take a moment and write a Yelp review?” And, I provide a hyperlink for that. And then, I say, “Thanks a lot for joining us. I hope we see you again at Unexpected Productions.”
WILLIAM: And I think our listeners would really like a copy of that. Would you be cool with us including that in the show notes so they can read that and use that as a template for when they’re writing their own emails?
KENT: Not even a worry, not even a worry. I think that would be my pleasure and my honor.
KENT: I kind of want to go back to about the Yelp business owner page.
WILLIAM: Yeah, sure.
KENT: I’ll talk to you about how we provide education. You know, when they send me that activity report, I was kind of interested to see that they announced some webinars, so they were like doing webinars on Yelp tools, understanding Yelp’s review recommendation software, and there’s like one webinar a week. If you want to watch, you can watch.
See here, coming up in September, they have a webinar in building a 5 star brand on Yelp. So, Yelp is really trying to help the business owners really create those 5 star reviews. I thought that was pretty cool. So, I just wanted to point that out.
WILLIAM: Now, this sounds like a lot of work. You have to build your page, add photos, reply to everyone, and get people to rate. Can you chat a bit about how much time you actually spend managing your Yelp page?
KENT: When I first started, I was spending more time on it because it required a little more nurturing at that time. So, when I first took over our business page, I was adding a lot of photos. I was really making sure that I was telling our story properly because Yelp gives you all sorts of areas where you can tell your story in there. So, I spent time making sure that the copy was good and it was really talking about what Unexpected Productions does.
But, nowadays, I spend 20 minutes or less a week on Yelp and that’s really just seeing and following my activities report, looking and seeing what may or may not need any updating or not, also, just to respond to the reviews. So, once you get it up and going, it’s just like watering a plant to make it grow. You got to do a little bit of work just to make it big, but it’s not a whole lot of work.
WILLIAM: How many reviews would you say that you’d get a week that you’re having to respond to?
KENT: It’s weird. I wish that there was a predictability factor to it. There will be weeks where we’ll get five reviews. There will be weeks where we get none. So, probably, on average, we get a review every two weeks or so, and so, that’s what I’m spending time on. And again, if it’s a negative review, I try to own it.
I wanted to mention this other review that we got last Christmas or last New Year’s. We have our 10:30 show. Well, I put it at 10 o’clock and I’m the one that did it and it was my own stupidity and this person gave us kind of a harsh review because they said the times were all screwed up and they had other things to do in their night. And I just went in and said, “You’re right. Boy, did I mess that up. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”
I think people respond and respect you if you own a mistake and I think that’s an important thing to do when you consider these Yelp reviews. And then, again, if someone comes in and says, you know, I had one just the other day that said, “We came in here. It was such a blast. It was a surprise. I’ve never been to an improv company before and that was possibly one of the most enjoyable nights we’ve had.” It was so much fun to respond to that because, you know, thank you for sharing that. That’s what I said, “Thank you.”
People are going to read both of those responses. Again, I think we spend too much time worrying about reviews that I had to laugh because I read an article about 1-star reviews of the national parks. It was kind of hilarious because people–talk about objectivity–people were like, “There were a lot of bugs and so this is why I had to give it a 1 star review.” I’m like, “You’re outside at the Grand Canyon. You got to keep that in mind.”
Again, probably, right now, the most of the time I spend a week is really responding to reviews, and updating our calendars, and adding new photos because you can add photos of shows. You can add pictures of the shows, pictures of the costumes that are being worked on, pictures of the set, because people want to see that. And so, it is a great way to outreach and tell our story.
WILLIAM: Now, how does Yelp fit in with your website? Do you put a banner for Yelp or do you put, “Hey, check out our Yelp page!” or is this something that you’re keeping completely separate from one another? If people find you on Yelp, then they can go to your website, but if people land on your website. How much are you telling them about your Yelp page?
KENT: Yelp has provided us and will provide anyone with a widget that you can add into your website. It’s a little block on my cover page that says, “This business has 240 reviews with an average review of 4.5 stars.” That’s what I do on my website.
WILLIAM: And do you think that’s also helping people get that credibility for your shows? “Well, he’s got lots of reviews.” Or, do you think the majority of people are just going to Yelp in finding you?
KENT: A little from column A and a little from column B, I mean, it doesn’t hurt when people see we have a pretty good reputation. But when you think about it, if someone goes in and they Google Unexpected Productions, probably, one of the first three things they check, just by nature of how these things work, will be our Yelp page, and that comes up with my website and then, probably, our Yelp page. So, it’s a little from both sides, but on my website, we don’t do a whole lot of nurturing.
I do on our Facebook page and on Twitter, when we get a really good review, I will share that from my business page and Yelp offers you this. You can share reviews to your social media or you can email it to people. So, I share those on our Facebook and Twitter pages and all of these are free. Everything I’ve talked about today, with the exception of my elevated profile which is $75 a month, everything else is free. And so, I think, we are foolish, especially if you’re a non-profit performing arts group, to not take advantage of any free tools that we can that is going to help us make money.
WILLIAM: So, in your search, are a lot of theatres and a lot of improv troupes using Yelp?
KENT: No. I don’t think arts groups are using Yelp the way they should, no.
WILLIAM: So, in 2016, if you want to stand out a little bit, it might be a good idea to try this.
KENT: Oh, yeah, and it will cost you nothing but a few moments of your time.
WILLIAM: Right, and I think that’s what a lot of artists and theatres are trying to figure out. I only have so much time in a day. Where should I focus my resources? Should I try Yelp? Should I try Facebook ads? Where should I put my time and my money?
KENT: Well, everybody is moving to their phone. I think, what is it? I don’t have the exact stats, but I think 75% of purchases are now being made by mobile. So, they’re finding you on Yelp. They’re doing it and if people are finding you online, you might as well take advantage of it. Of course, press releases are important. We love getting a review from a publication, but it seems to me I get a better bump in sales when we get a really nice review than a mention in a magazine or newspaper. That’s the reality of our changing market.
The market has changed and we have to adapt to it. I think performing arts groups are a little late to the game, but this is an opportunity. If you’re going to spend an hour trying to send out press releases, you can take that same hour and do some Yelp work one time and then nurture it for a couple of minutes a week.
WILLIAM: That’s great advice.
KENT: You know, I think it’s just the easiest thing in the world to do and important. We got to know, I mean, times are changing, especially the demographic. The younger demographic that we all want and I think I’ve read that 79% of Yelp users are 18 to 54 and about 44% of them make over 100K a year. Doesn’t that sound like an ideal demographic to come to your shows? So, this is a way to reach out to them.
WILLIAM: We always like giving our listeners some actionable advice to wrap up the show. Can you talk about one marketing technique that event producers can start doing today to increase their ticket sales?
KENT: Well, I’m going to kind of stick to Yelp here. As I mentioned, Yelp has free calendar listings and if you want to reach out to millions of Yelp users, just list your show. Just list your show on the calendar listings. List your fundraisers. List your big events.
When I go back into my office this afternoon, I’m going to list all of our improv schools start dates because it’s a great way to reach out to the millions of people that are using this. And the Yelp users, they get online and they’re like, “What should we do tonight? Let’s check this.” “Oh, look. XY Theatre is doing this” or “Unexpected Productions has this. Let’s go there.” So, that’s my advice.
WILLIAM: And so, basically, you’re using Yelp’s huge user base to help get people to your show.
KENT: Correct, because quite often, I think, on the risk of sounding a little arrogant, here in Seattle, I think, if someone is interested in improvisational theatre, improvisational comedy, they’re probably already on our mailing list. So, I want to reach out to those who never had the experience and who have never been with us. And we’re always, all of us are trying to grow our audience numbers.
And so, I see the calendar listing as a way to reach out to a really prime demographic of people who can come to our show and become part of the Unexpected Productions community because the Yelp community is already there. And since they have a community, they’re going to look and see how we’re rated and they’ll go, “Our community thinks their community is pretty cool. Let’s come together” and they’re going to start coming to shows. And I think all of us can experience that. I think all of us want that demographic and all of us want to expand our audiences.
WILLIAM: Well, thanks so much for coming on the show today, Kent.
KENT: Completely my pleasure.
WILLIAM: How do we keep up with you?
KENT: We are at unexpectedproductions.org and we’re also on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Yelp.
WILLIAM: And I’ll put a link to all of those in the show notes and especially highlighting that Yelp page so people can get on that and see exactly what it is that you’re doing to really stand out.
KENT: Great and if it would help you, I’ll also screenshot our weekly report and send that so you can have that so people can really see some of the interesting facts that come up.
WILLIAM: Okay. That’s great. We’ll put that in a bundle, then, with that email that you send out so they can see both of those things and see how to best use Yelp.
KENT: Perfect. Well, thanks a lot for your time. This has really been a lot of fun.
WILLIAM: Hey, thank you so much, Kent.