Facebook might have found a way to get people to use a long-neglected feature: check-ins, where you announce to your friends where you are.
It is testing a new service that offers local businesses free Wi-Fi through a router. To get online, customers must either check in using Facebook or get a passcode.
Facebook will provide the router for free, but businesses must pay for the Internet connection.
How does this help businesses? The check-in offers two chances for them to get free promotion on Facebook.
When users check in, they post their location with the business's name on their Timeline and on friends' News Feeds.
After they check in and get access, they're directed to the business's Facebook page. If they click Like on that page, that action also gets broadcast.
Facebook, in turn, can try to get the business to buy ads that make these check-ins and Likes more prominent in the News Feeds of customer's friends.
In order to access Facebook Wi-Fi, customers must first check in to the local business. After checking in, the router directs you to the business's Facebook page, which may have deals or discounts.
Facebook tells us this actually started as a hackathon project. That's why they're only testing the service at a few local businesses for now. Back-of-the-envelope math suggests it would take a lot of ad spending to earn back the cost of the router.
In theory, this might be a threat to Foursquare, whose mobile app centers around check-ins. A lot of people worried about Foursquare when Facebook first launched check-ins in 2010.
But the real problem that Facebook and Foursquare seem to face is apathy. Only 10 percent of adults use check-in services, according to a Pew Internet study conducted in May. For smartphone users, the number is a little higher at 18 percent. But so far, the prospect of deals and discounts hasn't proved compelling for most people.
Even Foursquare has started talking about how people use its app without checking in to find local information.
Maybe free Wi-Fi will prove a better incentive.
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