By Erik Martin, special to The Content Wrangler

From Facebook to MailChimp and AdRoll to Kissmetrics, effective and cost-efficient digital marketing and analytics tools abound online for companies to capitalize on. But when it comes to brick-and-mortar retail locations, it’s not so easy to capture consumer data, convert browsers into paid customers, and target in-store patrons with personalized real-time promotions.

Sure, beacon technology exists that can push on-the-spot marketing offers to visiting shoppers via their smartphones. But beacons aren’t compatible with every mobile device and they typically require the downloading of a compatible app to work properly. That’s why, for a better bang for your location-based services promotional buck, experts recommend social WiFi.

What is social wifi?

Unlike traditional WiFi offered within buildings—which usually requires smartphone users to choose your network and ask for/type in a password—social WiFi makes it simple for customers to quickly and easily connect to your public WiFi network by allowing them to log in via their Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or other social network account. Once logged in, the user can be prompted to “like,” “check in” and “follow” your business, and they can receive a targeted promotion/mobile coupon designed to build a social engagement (such as “take 10% off your purchase today if you like us on Facebook”).

Bennett Fitzgibbon, director of marketing for Toronto-based social WiFi service provider Turnstyle Solutions, says this setup is a win-win for companies and consumers alike.

“The customer gets convenient access to safe and secure WiFi for free, thereby saving their personal data usage, and they also receive real-time digital coupons and other incentives to increase customer loyalty. The business, meanwhile, is able to build valuable contact lists faster and easier than any other method,” says Fitzgibbon, who adds that retail stores, foodservice vendors like restaurants and bars, hotels and other players in the hospitality business, and beauty salons/barber shops are among the types of enterprises that stand to reap the most benefits from social WiFi.

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What are the benefits of social wifi?

Thanks to this technology, “for the first time in history, brick-and-mortar businesses can obtain greater data than their online counterparts,” says Stacy Deprey-Purper, author of the ebook #1 Social WiFi Marketing Tool. “Once you capture your customer’s information, you have an opportunity to immediately message them via email or text and positively impact your bottom line and enhance their customer experience through information or special offers. The best part for the consumer is there are no apps to have to download or cumbersome login experiences.”

In essence, social WiFi acts almost like a physical world cookie, notes Manika Bahuguna, marketing manager for Wavespot, the Walnut Creek-Calif.-headquartered social WiFi service provider. She says the location-based analytics capabilities made possible by social WiFi make it an indispensible tool today, allowing businesses to attract consumers with targeted content and promotions, all in real time. And consumers want this. Per a study by JiWire and published by Forbes, over 53% of customers are open to sharing their location for a targeted offer.

“Location analytics offer insights into customer profiles, demographics, traffic patterns, and dwell times,” says Bahuguna. “Personalized offers can be built using this data.” To underscore the power and promise of social WiFi, consider what Turnstyle’s platform was able to accomplish for Subway Restaurants between February and May 2015. Using the technology at 54 of its locations, Subway achieved:

  • 16,000 users into its new marketing program in only four months
  • 17% coupon redemption on opt-in offers
  • 5.2 times more loyalty from customers after redeeming their opt-in offer
  • 1.8 times more frequent returns from customers who opted into the social WiFi vs. those who didn’t.

Those may be impressive numbers for a large scale enterprise, but what about a small fry business like a standalone craft beer bar? Would social WiFi be a worthwhile pursuit in this context?

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“Absolutely,” says Bahuguna. “A beer bar would attract mainly local customers and visitors passing by. But once the customers leave the bar, there’s no way for the business to communicate with them, share promotions or bring them back to the bar.”

While most bars already provide guest WiFi, they’re not getting any return on this investment. Implementing social WiFi, however, would allow the bar owner to turn this monthly expense into an asset.

“The bar can create specialized messaging and send a different beer advertisement for patrons and incentivize them with an offer to upgrade or try an additional product while in house,” adds Deprey-Purper.

Additionally, with the help of social WiFi, the bar can tweak its music playlist to better cater to customer tastes. Case in point: Deprey-Purper served as a consultant last year for a confidential client that was considering appropriate music to play for customers while in its store. For guidance, the client reviewed the recent case of a London mall that played techno music throughout its facility and measured an average shopper dwell time of 45 minutes.

“Once they installed social WiFi and reviewed their shoppers’ data, the mall discovered that 72 percent of their customers liked country music. They changed their music to country and dwell time went up by 15 minutes,” she says.

How do you get started?

Setting up social WiFi isn’t complicated. The easiest path is to choose a vendor—major players in this space, aside from those already mentioned, include Purple, Cloud4Wi, Jaze Networks, and SOCIFI— that offers a turnkey solution by supplying subscribers with:

  • the hardware—either a small device that plugs into your existing modem or WiFi router or a separate/dedicated social WiFi router
  • the software—usually in the form of an online dashboard that enables login authentication with social media platforms, collects and measures analytics, creates and manages marketing messages via text and email, and more
  • technical support and troubleshooting assistance.

For larger companies and venues, social WiFi suppliers can often integrate with existing enterprise-grade hardware and offer more customized solutions.

While social WiFi costs will vary depending on the supplier and range of services desired, most clients pay a subscription fee that can average $100 to $150 or more monthly per location, which includes the hardware, software and support.

“This cost typically covers itself within the first two months, and then the return on your investment increases incrementally month over month as the database of your social WiFi users grows,” says Fitzgibbon.

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Before choosing a service provider, it’s smart to shop around and compare features and prices carefully. Find out what automation and marketing capabilities are included with your subscription, what kind of longevity/warranty you can expect from the hardware provided, the learning curve involved in using the software, and how responsive technical support is in a pinch.

Other than the aforementioned fees, social WiFi really has no drawbacks. It’s possible some customers may balk at participating due to the tradeoff required—surrendering a bit of privacy, including social media, purchasing and smartphone preferences or requirements you stipulate (such as “tweet us to a friend to get a $5 off coupon”). But chances are the vast majority of your on-premises guests will be thrilled with the prospect of saving cellular data and getting a discount or other digital carrot at the end of the stick. After all, this is a country where consumers chose free WiFi as the most important in-room hotel amenity and 63% of consumers will spend more moolah at a venue that provides WiFi.

“The concept of social WiFi and WiFi marketing is definitely here to stay. Over the next few years, as the increase in mobile devices continues to rise along with data consumption, more data will be offloaded onto WiFi networks instead of cellular networks,” says Fitzgibbon. “Giving away traditional free WiFi is expensive, but tools like social WiFi allow companies to monetize this investment.”