Why Facebook's free Wifi play will actually work

Facebook WiFi

It’s a nut that they’ve never been able to crack. Facebook has long wanted to be the hub for everything local and that includes check-ins, but they have not been able to achieve the level of success that they would have expected.

Foursquare still gets a much larger piece of that pie despite having a small fraction of the users because, well, that’s all that you can do with Foursquare. Yelp is accelerating faster than Facebook in check-in adoption and gives a much more useful view of what a business actually does through their review and tips system. Even Google+ has an edge when it comes to check-ins because of the usefulness of reviews, but they are still having even less success than Facebook.

By partnering with Cisco, they now have an opportunity to turn the tide and win this war. After testing the system in the San Francisco area (where everything seems to get tested nowadays), they’re launching the WiFi-for-check-in system across 1000 merchants in 50 countries. Cisco will provide the WiFi, Facebook will get the credentials in the form of a Facebook Check In. It seems to be an ideal situation.

“This is a major step toward getting into the local space,” said Erick Tseng, product manager for special products at Facebook.

Users benefit from the from WiFi. Merchants benefit by getting anonymous data about the people physically visiting their location through Facebook Insights on their page. Facebook gets their fingers and footprint spreading through the small- and midsized-business segment. Cisco and Meraki, the company that Cisco purchased to provide the cloud-based WiFi, get paid. Win, win, win, and win…

…or is it?

There are still major questions that need to be answered.

 

Are they in or are they out?

Facebook suffers from the same problem that Google and Yahoo have faced for years. They tip toe. They try new things and take put a lukewarm effort into making them successful. They shutter as many new things as they bring out which is why they’ve been relatively stuck in the same basic model for years. The advantage that they and Google (but not Yahoo) have is that their core business is strong enough to allow for these start-and-stop projects.

If this is going to be effective, they will have to truly commit. One might think that rolling it out to 1000 locations is a commitment, but on the scale that Facebook operates, it’s a drop in the bucket. They will need to truly sell this concept to tens of thousands of locations over the next 18 months if they really want it to make an impact. The good news is that this is a viral play. It’s the type of service that can have businesses and users begging for it to spread if they can get enough people to know about it and the only way to make that happen is to get it out to as many as possible in order to get the viral buzz going about it.

 

Can they avoid privacy disasters?

These are risky times for personal data providers. At their core, that’s Facebook’s greatest asset – data. This WiFi play is something that will be taking our personal data such as age, gender, city of residence, and interests and giving it over to the venues providing the WiFi. This is a concern.

The reality is that it’s demographic data rather than personal data and one might assume (though that’s not a safe practice in the NSA Era) that people will be okay with that data being passed to businesses as long as the personal identifiers are removed. However, the moment that a glitch occurs that could expose personal information to the businesses or anyone else, this could all come crashing down in the bad publicity of unguarded privacy.

Every possible safeguard must be put into play, especially considering the bulk of locations that are in question. An investigative reporter and a WiFi hacker could easily put together a story about how your personal data is easily retrievable through local hacking at a coffee shop. They cannot allow this to happen.

 

Will competitors try the same thing?

Because it doesn’t cost a lot of money to make something like this happen, it’s possible for an aggressive smaller company to offer something similar. They’ve demonstrated an inability to put down the little guys with a chip on their shoulder and a focus on success with companies like Foursquare, so if someone comes along that really wants to exchange free WiFi for something else of limited value, they could find themselves being a Goliath slain by the rock of a competitive David.

Google, Apple, and the big telecommunications companies all pose similar threats. AT&T is already in the mix in many locations offering free WiFi without any stipulations or exchanges of data. If someone really wanted to make a play, they simply have to do so more aggressively than Facebook.

 

Why it will actually work

If I were forced to make a prediction, I would say that Facebook has a winner on their hands. The threats above and dozens of others that we haven’t thought about have all been considered, reconsidered, and planned for by the Facebook team. The fact that they’re moving forward after their test means that they’re confident this really is going to work, that businesses will be falling all over themselves trying to get the service, and that users are going to willingly participate.

It has already been shown that people are willing to let all of their stalkers know where they are at any given point. Facebook simply hasn’t been able to truly capitalize. A glance at a standard user’s Facebook news feed will show more Foursquare check ins being posted to Facebook than standard Facebook check ins. They need this to shift. They need to get their claws on every potential piece of localized data that they can get if they’re going to continue to expand their small business advertising play.

Unlike past endeavors, the downsides to this one seem much smaller than the upsides. This will be a successful play for Facebook.

Written by JD Rucker

+JD Rucker is Editor at Soshable, a Social Media Marketing Blog. He is a Christian, a husband, a father, and founder of both Judeo Christian Church and Dealer Authority. He drinks a lot of coffee, usually in the form of a 5-shot espresso over ice. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.
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