The recent announcement that Swindon will be the first UK town to offer free wifi to all its citizens has piqued my curiosity on a number of levels. MA Online Journalism student Andrew Brightwell first got me thinking when he pointed out that the ability for the local council (which owns a 35% stake) to sell advertising represented a new threat to the local paper.
But think beyond the immediate threat and you have an enormous opportunity here. Because offering universal wifi could present a real opportunity for publishers to recapture some of the qualities that made their print products so successful.
Owning the platform
One of the biggest problems for publishers wanting to make money online is that they do not own the platform. People and advertisers pay for a newspaper as much as news; online the platform and the content are decoupled, and users have already shelled out enough thank you very much for internet access.
Offering free wifi, then, would allow publishers to re-establish a stronger negotiating position when it comes to selling local advertising (for example, on a landing page, or along a promotional strip, or simply beside their own content which is given priority placing on the platform). But it’s not just about dominating the market…
The best of both worlds
The mobile qualities of wifi make it particularly easy to sell geo-targeted advertising. If you have a built-in search engine you could also do a Google and serve up relevant ads based on a combination of their search and location.
Of course, you could also explore the freemium options that form the basis of Swindon’s business model: pay for higher speeds or longer time, or applications (or an ad-free version).
They key as with so many online business models may be to rely on a range of revenue streams.
Encouraging conversation, working in networks
This sort of venture could have some interesting implications compared to print publishing. If you are providing a package like this, do you become more interested in stimulating conversation rather than simply publishing content?
And might you be interested in selling your advertising to other local platforms, in the same way Google AdSense does?
If you don’t do it, someone else will
Expect more councils to be looking in this direction (35 are already), as well as operators like The Cloud. If the internet has taught publishers one thing it should be this: your profitability relied on your ability to sell a platform based on reliable quality content. You didn’t do that online. Try again.