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If Facebook Gives Your Business Free Wi-Fi, What's in It for You?

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How does free wireless internet in your favorite cafes, shops and hotels sound? How about if the requires a check-in?

That scenario is already a reality at some businesses in the United States. Last week, Facebook and Systems announced a joint initiative to bring to businesses, so that customers can enjoy the internet and businesses can profit from greater social-media visibility and more data on their customers.

It works like this: A customer who wants to use a venue's Wi-Fi connects to the network and then checks in through Facebook. The user gains free access to the internet and is redirected to the business's Facebook page. Users who do not have a Facebook account will not be granted Wi-Fi access.

Erick Tseng, Facebook's head of mobile, told CNET that in a small-scale trial last fall, all 25 participating businesses at least tripled their average daily check-ins. More check-ins equals more activity for a brand on Facebook, and that in turn makes the brand more visible in Graph Search, an advanced search engine that Facebook introduced on its platform earlier this year.

For Facebook, the new nationwide initiative appears to be a big step forward in the social network's long-term goal of becoming a gatekeeper to the activities and services that people want to access online.

Related: Tech Giants Form Another Group to Bring the Internet to the Global Masses

While Facebook is reportedly earning no direct revenue from the program, the hope is that participating merchants will want to buy ads on the social network. One reason businesses might be coaxed into buying ads is that Facebook provides participating businesses with demographic information about the people who have interacted with the business's page, including age, gender and location. Although this data is presented in aggregate, it can be used in targeted Facebook ad campaigns.

In addition, because users are directed to a venue's Facebook page after checking in, businesses have the opportunity to offer promotions, discounts and retail advice to customers while they shop.

The program is "being piloted by some of the world's most popular retailers, hotels, restaurants and other public gathering spots," Cisco said in a press release. But only a few names of participating brands have been made public so far. One is Bonefish Grill, a seafood restaurant chain, which is testing Facebook Wi-Fi in two of its locations. Another is MGM Grand Casinos, according to AdAge.

The idea for the Wi-Fi initiative came out of a Facebook hackathon. Cisco, for its part, is providing the routers for the Wi-Fi networks. Customers have gotten used to free Wi-Fi in public places and in many hotels and other businesses. But now, with Facebook Wi-Fi, the shops will get customer analytics in return. Only time will tell how many small and medium-sized businesses see this trade-off as a win-win.

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