What will 5G mean for marketers?

The UK roll-out of 5G has begun, promising faster connection speeds and myriad connected devices. For marketers, the exciting part is not what the technology can do, but what else it will enable.

June 14, 2019

What will 5G mean for marketers?

If you're a tech watcher you probably noticed that the UK's first 5G mobile network launch this month. If you’re an EE customer, you might well be using it. And if you’re a marketer, you’re probably wondering what this technology means for you. Is 5G just a faster version of 4G? Or is it a game-changer for digital? Here’s a quick guide to what 5G could mean for marketing.

5G technology promises connection speeds up to 400 times quicker than 4G, a reduction in latency (the time it takes a message to go from one device to another) and the ability to connect far more devices to the network. But while marketers should be excited about the possibilities 5G will open up, they should also be wary of being caught up in some of the wilder predictions around it.

5G will certainly deliver a dramatic change in what mobile is capable of, to the point of eliminating the need for fixed-line connections. When you can get 80-100Mbps connections via mobile, why bother with copper wires, fibre or WiFi? Every device will be a mobile device, and because of the improved connectivity offered by 5G, there’ll be a lot more of them. There will also be a lot more people connected, as 5G removes the need to install fixed broadband in remote areas.

Increased speed should encourage greater consumption of content, as streaming becomes seamless and all downloading happens in seconds rather than minutes. And the massive amount of bandwidth available may also see the business model around mobile changing, so that users aren’t charged for the data they use, but in other ways that encourage them to use their devices more, without worrying about cost.

And these are just what futurists and technologists call “first order effects”; those that can be directly linked to 5G’s properties. Beyond these, 5G will help realise the potential of many other emerging technologies, and usher in new approaches, ideas and business models that no-one has yet thought of.

This is just as true of marketing as any other sphere of activity. Retailers such as IKEA are already experimenting with augmented reality via mobile to enable customers to see what products will look like in situ. One 5G version of this idea will be to allow customers to create an avatar using their measurements, and then use it to try on virtual clothes, giving ecommerce another huge boost. Consumers in South Korea are already able to visit the supermarket in virtual reality to do their shopping.

5G will also make smart speakers smarter still. Rather than having our interaction with them limited to simple voice commands, the combination of cloud-based AI and 5G will allow us to conduct proper conversations. This opens up the possibility of people using the next generation of smart speakers as a kind of electronic butler-cum-concierge, and in turn raises the idea of brands advertising to them. If you ask your intelligent agent to buy butter, for example, how will it make the decision about which brand to buy?

But while 5G will undoubtedly create huge and unexpected opportunities, it shouldn’t be seen in isolation. It will be limited by surrounding technologies and, ultimately, by what consumers are prepared to accept.

For starters, the roll-out will take several years, which means we’ll be living in a hybrid 4G/5G environment for some time.

5G won’t deliver faster programmatic ads automatically. It depends on ad serving technology keeping pace with those speeds. And although it removes one source of irritation (ads making pages load more slowly, particularly on mobile) it won’t make a bad ad less annoying when it does arrive.

Similarly, 5G raises the possibility of a Minority Report-style world where personalised ads appear to individuals as they walk past outdoor screens. However, this would require a serious investment in OOH infrastructure - only 5% of the UK’s poster sites have so far been converted to screens. What’s more, while outdoor advertising can be  personalised if there’s only one person near the screen in question, it breaks down entirely when there’s a crowd waiting for their morning train. And there’s also the question of whether people really want the equivalent of a digital sandwich-board man yelling at them every few paces as they walk down the street.

Behind all this is the question of data. 5G’s proponents point out that the technology will allow much more data to be captured about individuals, their activities and especially their location. This should mean even better targeting of advertising messages. But attitudes to privacy are changing, and 5G could also spark a backlash if consumers feel brands are spying on them, or if the value they get from such targeting isn’t clear.

Connection speed has tended to be under-rated as a force for innovation, but each jump – whether in fixed line or in mobile – has had a profound impact, enabling new technologies, ushering in new business models and creating new opportunities. 5G has the potential to transform the digital experiences that marketers can create, potentially even the task of marketing itself, but none of these things will happen automatically. They will require investment, careful planning, and above all, awareness of what audiences actually want.

Thanks to Dr Alex Connock, MD, Missile Digital Studios, for his help with this article.