Davis isn't a Madison Avenue executive. She's a member of e-Miles, which pays her five air miles for every ad she watches and answers questions about. The company has maintained a low profile in its five years, despite doling out more than 1 billion miles among its 2.5 million members, by its own count. E-Miles, like Vindale, Pine Cone Research and other reward sites, baits visitors into becoming virtual focus groups. Its air currency provides a quick fix for what travel strategist Steven Frischling of Flying with Fish calls "mileage junkies." Some redeem the points to offset baggage fees and other add-ons.
"To go after frequent flyer miles five miles at a time takes a special breed of junkie," Frischling says.
The average e-Miles customer earns between 500 and 1,000 miles a year, CEO and President Mark Drusch estimates. A round-trip domestic flight generally requires 25,000 miles -- that would be 5,000 five-point e-Miles surveys. To make the climb even steeper, carriers are getting stingier about when travelers can redeem the rewards and are also charging twice the miles on occasion, according to one report.
Davis, a 64-year-old retired teacher from Dallas, remains undaunted. She figures she has racked up about 20,000 miles since joining e-Miles in 2007. She has never paid for an entire flight with e-Miles, but as a supplement, she says, it'll fly. She travels annually to New York City and she's saving points for a Thanksgiving time-share in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, plus repeat trips to Chicago, where her daughter, son-in-law and grandson are moving.
"I used to be addicted to Facebook," she tells DailyFinance. "Now I'm more addicted to this."
Davis goes to the site as soon as her morning coffee is ready, spending at least 45 minutes there. Then she pulls another shift at the end of the day. "It gives me the benefit of earning extra miles while I'm not traveling," she says. Her husband benefits from the points as well, but isn't about to break out the popcorn to stare at hours of commercials with her. In fact, she says, he complains that she devotes too much time to the ads. "I pretty much watch them for the both of us."
The site tends to attract those with time, expendable income or jobs where they can furtively watch commercials in their cubicles, says Frischling, the industry blogger. He signed up for e-Miles a year ago at the suggestion of a friend. After examining the site, he calculated the hours he would need to log the 1,000 miles required for a promotion on his airline miles program. He took a connecting flight instead on his next trip to get the job done. "I've got three kids," he says. "I don't have time."
To join e-Miles, you visit the site and check off your interests on a questionnaire. The site then funnels targeted content to your personal page. You click to watch the still ad or TV commercial of your choice and click further to the survey. The company buys miles in bulk from carriers, and makes its money by providing advertisers and marketing wonks the demographic goods. (Critics like Frischling wonder how useful the research can be if users randomly answer so they can move on to the next ad more quickly.)
I signed up and received five Delta miles for answering four multiple-choice questions about the impact of a Zales (ZLC) jewelry commercial in which a man zip-lines an engagement ring to his girlfriend. The survey took about two minutes. Then I did another. And another. The process can be a bit like eating potato chips, one after the other without thinking. I stopped though, after my total reached 215 miles (you get 200 for registering).
The site's alliance with airlines and hotels translates into a greater demand for travel and destination ads, says Drusch, the e-Miles honcho. Companies such as Continental (CAL), Delta (DAL), US Airways (LCC), Frontier (RJET) and Hilton Hotel (BX) points are available for rewards, along with Disney (DIS) and Nordstrom (JWN).
Members can also gain points by making charitable pledges or buying the products they see promoted. But e-Miles' stock in trade is compensation to watch on the computer what you might be watching on TV anyway if you didn't have the energy to click to another channel.
Drusch says he would like to expand the gift possibilities and build the site to where content is always available for hungry users with specific tastes.
"At five miles, you're not going to jump through hoops to watch ads you don't care about," he says. "Five miles is really a thank-you."