What is a captive portal?

The term may come across as foreign to a large percentage of marketers, yet they are already probably familiar with using a captive portal. In the world of WiFi, a captive portal is a custom splash screen that the customer of a physical location is obliged to view and interact with in order to access the Internet over WiFi. Captive portals are usually used by restaurants, stores, transportation hubs, hotels, and other locations that offer free WiFi services.

How this technology works

As soon as a customer enters a physical location, the smartphone links up to the SSID of the guest WiFi network and the captive portal gets displayed by the smartphone’s browser automatically. The captive portal requests the customer to provide personal information to access the WiFi service. If the smartphone is already recognized by the network, the captive portal might be bypassed. The captive portal can also be displayed when the customer opens up any page first through the WiFi network, instead of when the WiFi is first connected.

The personal information gathered, in compliance with local regulations, are based on the WiFi login option chosen by the customer and may consist of traditional demographics that include email, name, age, phone number, and gender–but also the customer’s preferences.

In this way, captive portals turn anonymous customers to physical locations into real people that companies know by name and can reach by text messages and emails – when they collect the opt-in permission.

Why captive portals are the marketer’s best friend

Not all marketers know why captive portals should be exciting to them.

All marketers are familiar with “landing pages” on a website. Many believe that all web pages are landing pages and it is true that a website customer can “land” on any page. But, a true landing page is a destination where marketers direct customers to capture their information to be used in marketing programs.

Captive portals give marketers a place to request, even demand, customer information and perhaps offer a discount or promotion in exchange for customer information and consent. That makes captive portals “landing pages” in the sense that a landing page must include a form for gathering customer information.

That’s why captive portals can be considered the landing pages of a company’s physical locations. Captive portals are often called the WiFi landing page, further cementing the relationship between the online and physical worlds.

How to promote the captive portal

For marketers, it’s a landing page best practice to offer customers something of value in exchange for their information and consent. The offer, which might include a 10 percent discount on some item, or even the entire shopping trip, can be brought up in the browser’s screen or sent as a URL via messaging. When the customer goes to a register, clicking on the link could bring up a UPC code–perhaps personalized for the shopper–that triggers the discount as part of the transaction.

A similar approach should be used with captive portals. Companies should reward customers when they access WiFi and provide the requested information. There are many types of offers that can be made, including loyalty programs, free products, refer-a-friend deals, requests for “likes” and references, virtually anything can encourage customer engagement with the company via the WiFi network.

Companies should already have a captive portal

Though the term is new to many, captive portals are not a new concept. Networks have used these landing pages for decades. The social login is one example.

What’s new is how marketers can use captive portals to get to know on-site customers. Regardless of how the captive portal is described, it is a powerful tool to turn anonymous customers into regular and engaged customers, and can offer significant benefits when utilized by savvy marketers.