With free Wifi now available at chain restaurants across the globe (McDonalds, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, etc.), consumer expectations have been clearly established.

Customers don’t expect to pay for access to your Wifi and are resentful of any small businesses that still charge. They might, however, be willing to commit to a different value exchange…

Wave 1

It used to all be so simple. When public access internet first started to become a widespread phenomenon, it seemed only normal that customers would pay towards the cost of providing the service. After all, installing and maintaining the computers and connection equipment was obviously expensive and time-consuming. And, as a customer, there was an undeniable indication of that expense – you were accessing a physical computer that someone clearly had to pay for.

And this model, in the first wave of small business internet provision, worked well – for years, customers turned up in their droves to internet cafes around the world. Many small business owners were able to turn the provision of an internet connection into a profitable and reliable income stream.

Wave 2

The advent of Wifi and the widespread adoption of internet enabled devices, (first laptops, then smartphones and tablets), changed this world dramatically, ushering in the second wave of small business internet provision. This represented a huge change in the way customers perceived the value of an internet connection. When they walked through the door of their local cafe, consumers were no longer confronted with the overt value of a physical computer – instead they were asked to pay for the decidedly less self-evident value of a wireless connection.

Attempts to charge for the provision of internet during this second wave have been faltering at best and downright ridiculous at their worst – as anyone who has ever tried to get online at an airport or hotel lounge will testify. (No, I don’t want to type in my sixteen digit credit card number to access my emails quickly while I wait for my coffee/flight.)

Wave 3

In June 2010, Starbucks really kicked off the third wave of small business internet provision by announcing that they would be offering free Wifi in conjunction with AT&T. They made the calculation that their business would be better off in the long run if Wifi was viewed not as a revenue generating service, but as a important component of a stand-out in-store experience – along with cleanliness, good lighting, clear signage, etc. Free Wifi became a key differentiator in their success and, happily many small business owners have followed suit. Free Wifi is now widely seen as a useful tool in helping to drive customer loyalty.

The thing is, fast forward a few years to today and all of sudden free Wifi is a fairly ubiquitous commodity – and therefore of less and less value as a differentiator.

So where does that leave us? According to Mike Perrone, founder of SocialSign.In, it leaves us on the verge of a fundamental change in the value exchange associated with in-store Wifi. The value small business owners can reap from internet provision isn’t monetary or even differentiation, it’s data.

In a nutshell, SocialSign.in makes it possible for small business owners to ask their customers to ‘sign in’ to for access to their wi-fi networks. Customer complete this ‘sign in’ by providing a Facebook account or email address, data points which the small business owner can then utlilize to improve their marketing initiatives (Facebook releases things like favorite music allowing the SMB owner to potentially optimize playlists, etc).

We caught up with Mike to briefly quiz him on his new startup, you can read the full interview here –

Interview with Mike Perrone, Founder of SocialSign.In.

About the Author

Paul Nugent is a small business advocate, and Head of Marketing at ShopKeep point of sale’s UK headquarters. Paul uses his background in the startup space, along with his POS system expertise, to allow small business owners to make informed decisions within their specific budgets.