Why Free Wi-Fi Marketing Is Smart

4091331439_32bfd22abe.jpgMaybe we should chalk it up to the upcoming season of jolly, but lately it seems like everyone wants to give away free Wi-Fi access to travelers. Well, free as long as you watch an ad or a promo for whichever company is sponsoring it, such as Yahoo, Microsoft and now Google. But while we might roll our eyes at what looks like just another way to serve up ads, the idea of free WiFi-based marketing is actually pretty smart. Among the current offers:

  • Starting today, visitors to Times Square in New York City will be able to get free Wi-Fi on their computers and mobile phones, courtesy of Yahoo (s YHOO). If you log in from your mobile phone, it is going to take you to http://m.yahoo.com. On a computer, you end up at a Yahoo page filled with ads.
  • Google is offering free Wi-Fi access on Virgin America through Jan 15, 2010.
  • eBay (s EBAY) is sponsoring free Wi-Fi on 250 flights on Delta Airlines (s dal) during the week of Thanksgiving. Wi-Fi users will get access to the eBay home page and an invitation to shop there.
  • Microsoft (s MSFT) is working with JiWire to give away free Wi-Fi in premium hotspots in hotels and airports as long as they use Bing for search via their connection.
  • Google (s GOOG) is giving away free Wi-Fi in 47 airports across the U.S., including hubs such as Miami, Seattle, Houston and San Jose, Calif. The promotions will last through Jan. 15, 2010.

Google, from the looks of it, is using Boingo Wireless’ network. The Los Angeles-based hotspot operator today announced a new sponsored access program that will allow brand advertisers to engage with Wi-Fi users.

Wi-Fi usage has been on the upswing recently, thanks to the rise of smartphones, especially the iPhone. Whether it is airports or cafes, people are increasingly logging onto Wi-Fi networks. “People are creatures of habit and one of the goals of this campaign is to open people up to new ways of finding what they are looking for on the Internet,” said Jeff Bernstein, senior vice president at UM (the agency formerly known as Universal McCann). “JiWire’s media channel serves our goal because it gives people an incentive to try Bing and let the engine speak for itself.”

Given that many of the estimated 100 million travelers who will spend time in airports with Google-sponsored Wi-Fi will at some point in time encounter Google ads, the decision is more than a nice gesture. Google providing access to free Wi-Fi is kind of like publishing those free magazines littering coffeehouses. It’s all about the ad revenue.

A typical free Wi-Fi campaign from Boingo offers travelers 15-20 minutes of complimentary Internet access in exchange for watching a 30-second video, by which the user is engaged directly with the brand. Other opportunities to engage consumers include lead generation, product and service trials, social media applications, location-based searches, customer surveys and downloadable content, Boingo noted in a press release.

Giving users something in return for their attention is a smart way to engage with an audience, which increasingly glosses over display advertising. It’s a welcome development, one that strikes a better balance between the needs of a marketeer and the end user (and potential customer).

It’s also a recognition of how important Wi-Fi is in the quest for constant connectivity, especially as more and more folks tote around WiFi-enabled smartphones. With 70 minutes spent behind the security gates at airports on average, everyone from business travelers to harried parents looking for a kid-friendly diversion can now find something online. That’s all good, but one can imagine it’s going to get a lot harder to find an empty power outlet this season.

Photo courtesy of Yahoo