Would you watch a few ads on your smartphone if it meant you got a free ride on the tram or subway? Of course you would, especially if you discovered you didn't have any change for a ticket. You're no different from commuters in Düsseldorf, Germany, where WelectGo, an app that does just that, has proved so popular that its free tickets are used up in just a few hours each day.
WelectGo gives users free bus and train tickets in exchange for watching four 20-second ad spots. Once you have watched (or ignored) the ads, a €2.60 ($2.80) ticket is delivered direct to your device (many German cities have electronic ticketing already). And these are regular city transit tickets, valid for up to 90 minutes across the entire city.
The problem is, the service has proved way too popular. WelectGo only signed up two sponsors, with four ads between them, and expected around 1,000 downloads of the app doing the trial. Because WelectGo uses the ad revenue to purchase the tickets it gives you at full price, once the day's allocation of tickets is gone, it's gone.
That's an easy fix though, and the success of the plan almost guarantees a steady flow of sponsors. Passengers can, when there are more ad spots available, choose the four required ads from a selection of 20. When you sign up for the service, WelectGo collects personal information—your date of birth, gender, email address, and name—and aggregates them to give anonymized data to the advertisers, and the advertisers can choose how many time a person can view each of their ads, which means you can't just keep watching the same ones all day long for free tickets.
The only mistake from WelectGo seems to be chronically underestimating demand. CityLab's Feargus O'Sullivan sums it up:
It’s a mystery how they didn’t see this coming. The app only demands 80 seconds of your time before rewarding you with a ticket worth $2.80. If you count the ticket as a form of income, that means users are getting an hourly rate of $120. However much they may dislike watching ads, surely no one is rich enough to turn down a sweet deal like that.
WelectGo plans to expand the plan to other German cities, and Germany seems particularly well-suited to this setup thanks to the way people buy tickets for city transit. There are no ticket barriers. The whole thing runs on an enforced honesty system, with inspectors boarding trains at random, checking tickets, and administering instant fines for people who are "traveling black." Thus, it's possible to travel for free, and many folks do just that late on Friday and Saturday nights, when there are few if any inspectors. The system means that you can board a train or bus without a ticket, and "buy" it on board with something like the WelectGo app. Also, ignoring a few ads while you travel is no worse than ignoring that guy who thinks its OK to eat a hamburger on the metro.
One does wonder what might happen if you are "controlled" (the German term for getting you ticket inspected) while watching the ads, because technically you don't have a ticket yet. Still, if anyone can work this out, it's the Germans, who are usually very pragmatic in these situations. Other countries might not be as well suited to ad-supported travel, but the demand, we now know, is certainly there.