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Why Free Wi-Fi Marketing Is Smart

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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 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

26 Responses to “Why Free Wi-Fi Marketing Is Smart”

  1. To the Austrian WISP —

    It makes sense for a lot of businesses to pay to have a provider come in and deliver Wi-Fi for their establishment. It is increasingly an expected amenity. In this scenario, ad revenue would be strictly supplemental. As Wi-Fi ads have been historically clumsy and intrusive, i.e. from large corporations a la JiWire, why implement them?

    The ads need to be hyperlocal to add value for the end user in this scenario — I am at the hotel, now what’s around me? Implementing that cost effectively is the challenge. How does one sign up local merchants for that, place the ads and still make money?

    Parenthetically, WISPs must contend now with ads that work well not on laptops. but on handhelds i.e. iPhones, blackberries, Androids. Not much real estate to work with, slow load times. Google bought Ad Mobs for a reason though. How does a local WISP dip into the same revenue stream?

  2. We provide free WiFi access in Austria without any kind of ads. Instead the locations where we operate our hotspots pay us to do so.

    Why would a coffeeshop owner/hotel pay for such a service?
    – We keep an eye on the internet connection plus hotspot hardware and take action in case it fails
    – We are a marketing channel for our customers to reach guests who insist on free (and ad-free) WiFi
    – Many of those locations do not want WiFi advertising on their site
    – We are the network operator (=no legal hassle for the location owners)

    People looking for free WiFi need reliable data where to find it. Since we are an operator and know the status each hotspot our directory is always up to date (contrary to JiWire and others – those directories contain lots of false and old information – at least for Austria)

    While ad-based free WiFi is a great marketing-tool for large corporations we found that making enough money this way to pay for the Internet connection and the maintenance service is a difficult task.

    If you travel to Austria, give it a try and check out for hotels and cafes or use the free freewave iPhone app.

  3. Its really great to hear that Google, Microsoft, eBay is provide free service of WIFI. I think that Wireless access is increasing in popularity and presence, despite some risks. But whether it is airports or cafes, people are increasingly logging onto Wi-Fi networks. I am sure that WIFI technology is rocking among the young generation.

  4. Seems like a smart idea to get more ad inventory, but an even smarter and cost-effective way to do some comprehensive customer research, coupled with some public goodwill from more free stuff. Were I Microsoft or Google, I would be really interested in any customer insights that would inform me about what users search for, what sites they visit, and what sorts of transactions they conduct while travelling, with the underlying assumption that the behavior would be different than if the user were at their home or office. That data, combined with knowing the flight, the flight status, the destination, the arrival time, etc seems very useful and could end up being a very nice CPM segment for paid search ads; potentially much more lucrative than pre-rolls or other types of static display ads that just want to take adavantage of the extra inventory resulting from a new connection/session.

  5. Speaking as a traveler who just made use of Google-sponsored WiFi in BWI airport on the first day of the promotion today, I can attest to the fact that Zgoogke is getting plenty out of the deal. Clicking through the screens to sign in did involve a brief pre-roll Boingo ad, but the big surprise was the landing page once you agreed to the Google free offer. The click series for the free offer involved clicking a big blue button to agree. On the next page, in the same place, was another big blue button with a phrase like “Agree and begin download,” or something. Turns out that Google is presenting folks on OS X with the option of downloading and installing the Mac search window application… My neighbor on a Windows laptop? Presented with the same sequence, but ending in an easily clickable route to install Google Chrome. Tricky, indeed, as both he and I almost stumbled into these downloads blindly. I’m sure Google will get a nice Christmas gift of many thousands of users for these applications as a result. Nonetheless, still liked the WiFi, and still appreciate Google.

  6. Can anyone talk about success in click throughs/engagement? Also are ‘banners across the top/bottom’ worth doing or are you doing video/ad views every ‘X’ number of minutes?

    Curious at how successful these are?

    • Dean – Great question! I’ll give you one more: How are these ads effecting the user experience?

      As we all know, if the user ain’t happy… we are all miserable! and, of course, you don’t want an otherwise happy / potential consumer to not buy a widget / sandwich / museum ticket and not because they are frustrated by WiFi.

      I patented a technology that injects ads in to an internet session based on the source of the session( where the user logs in) not the destination (the site a user visits) – and stays with them through out the entire session.

      My clients have found that by keeping the ad size a respectable size (usually 728 x 90 or smaller), and at the bottom of the screen (not the top) – even users who have the ability turn off the banner posting, they don’t. They would MUCH rather have compelling content that continues to refresh unobtrusively then redirecting them repeatedly as they try to log on…

      Content is indeed king. Like Marshall has found offing a solid transport is a great way to really succeed… by being the King maker!

    • Agreed. But I think it is more than just an ad: driving people to use search or other services is an indirect way of getting the same value as the “hope of value” from a banner ad for example. I am for one, in favor of these new marketing idea.

    • Could you elaborate here? Seems to me that ad supported sessions could work anywhere, depending on how the ads are done.

      Some places are better than others — where there’s a captive audience, a walled garden.
      But “only’ is a strong word.

      Ads too vary considerably. A ten second video to start the session? For free Wi-Fi? People will make that trade, I’d say. They already do that — on Salon,com for example.

      TV was sponsored, then ad supported. Why not wireless if it is becoming just another channel for content and ad distribution.

  7. Well since it was Wired Towns that built the network that Yahoo is running in Times Square, and that also built two networks for NBC’s Syfy Channel, one in Rockefeller Plaza and Concourse and the other in Union Square ( via a sponsorship, I’d agree whole- heartedly.

    There’s a lot you can do with free public Wi-Fi and marketing, especially here in NYC, the media capital of the world.

    As Madison Avenue goes wireless and digital, as content providers seek new promotional channels and distribution models, with the flood of smartphones hitting the market, WiFi marketing has become very popular all of a sudden.

    Wired Towns has been the only one to successfully deploy in these challenging urban locations. We look forward to building out large networks in other parts of New York and in other cities and countries soon, and it will be in part sponsor driven.