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A German App for Free Transit Rides Is Too Popular for Its Own Good

In Düsseldorf, swarms of people would rather watch advertisements instead of paying a €2.60 fare.

a streetcar in central Düsseldorf (Kuknauf/Flickr)

What’s worse: Having to fork out cold-hard cash for a transit ticket, or having to watch a whole bunch of annoying advertisements in exchange for a free ride? A German app launched this month bets that many people would rather go with the second choice.

Called WelectGo, the app allows users in the Düsseldorf, Germany, to download a transit token in the form of a QR code that is valid for a single journey worth €2.60 ($2.80). The catch is that users must select and watch four 20-second ads on their smartphone before getting access to the token. The app could prove hugely useful as a one-off service for Düsseldorfers who find themselves caught at a ticket machine without money. But are people really prepared to watch a roll of advertising whenever they want to get on a bus or streetcar?

Of course they are! People are obsessed with freebies, even when what they’re getting isn’t worth all that much. I wouldn’t be surprised to find even comfortably well-off people lining up for hours in the snow just for a free chance to lick half a sugared almond. It’s therefore no surprise that WelectGo has already been phenomenally successful—it’s offering something people actually need on a daily basis. It’s so successful, in fact, that the supply of tickets available is drying up within hours each day. The app’s iTunes page now warns potential downloaders that there are no longer any tickets to be had. One thing is becoming clear: The app’s developers really didn’t think this one through.

That’s because they got their numbers wrong. The app’s creators, a company called Welect, estimated they’d get roughly 1,000 downloads by the end of this year. But after just one month, they’ve exceeded 20,000 users. Expecting a lower take-up rate, Welect only launched with four advertisements: one from a local perfume shop and three from an energy company, according to Der Westen. Without much revenue to buy them with, the supply of transit tickets dried up fast.

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.

Welect could still possibly salvage the app, by getting more advertisers, requiring the user to watch more footage, or charging for each app download. Media reports suggest that they’re also planning to expand the app to other cities. If that happens, it could pose some interesting questions. What, for example, would be the maximum time users would be prepared to watch ads before feeling that they were working, rather than just jumping through hoops to get a freebie? Would creating a longer ad reel still preserve the feeling of a bargain, or would the app just end up feeling like a form of time tax on hard-up transit users? In the meantime, WelectGo’s bar is set so low that it seems like an unequivocal win for users—if those users actually manage to get their hands on a ticket, that is.

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