Fifth generation (5G) wireless technology just might make some of those long-awaited promises about the future of market research a reality. But it won’t happen tomorrow, next month, or even next year. There is a lot of physical infrastructure to be installed and challenges to be overcome. In the meantime, we can start taking advantage of 5G in our research through the initially isolated pockets of availability that will begin to pop up. Before I can explain why, we need to understand some basic physics of 5G and how it will be rolled out.
Think back to your high school physics class and you’ll remember learning about the electromagnetic spectrum. The spectrum is the range of frequencies and wavelengths through which electromagnetic radiation extends. Things like x-rays are on the far end of small wavelengths and high frequencies. On the other end, we have radio waves with long wavelengths and low frequencies. In between, we have things like visible light. Wireless technology sits in the invisible part of the spectrum as part of radio waves and millimeter length waves. Keep that little physics refresher in mind as you continue to read. Now let’s look at how 5G will be rolled out.
When people and the media talk about 5G they tend to focus on the high speeds that will enable experiences like personalized marketing or virtual reality. That super-fast speed is just one part of 5G. There are three parts to the evolution of 5G.
- Internet access for machines (sensors, meters, etc.) to communicate using the wireless internet. This requires providing more available spectrum for Internet of Things (IoT) use and applications. Technically, this is referred to as massive Machine Type Communication (mMTC).
- Enhanced mobile broadband. Basically, doing everything that you do today with 4G LTE, only faster and better, such as web browsing, video streaming, and virtual reality.
- Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC). This is the aspect of the evolution to 5G that people often talk about. Latency being the time it takes to send data into a wireless network, process it, and return it. Think of a self-driving car communicating with a wireless network. That car needs incredibly fast feedback to make timely, correct driving decisions.
Let’s talk about enhanced mobile broadband for a moment. This is what most of us are familiar with when it comes to 4G LTE and 5G. Think back to that physics refresher for a moment. The part of the electromagnetic spectrum where 4G LTE operates is in the longer wavelengths of a centimeter up to a meter in length. These longer wavelength signals propagate through solid barriers like buildings and cars quite well. As you talk on the phone and go from your house, to your car, to the grocery store, your signal generally stays strong, clear, and doesn’t drop.
Fifth generation wireless signals operate in the millimeter wavelength range at a higher frequency. The higher frequency enables the signals to carry more information, but the shorter wavelength means it doesn’t propagate through objects very well. Anything from a pine needle to a building will disperse the signal, or in technical terms, attenuate the signal. This creates a problem. You can no longer go from your house, to your car, and into the grocery store without losing 5G signal, so carriers will have to seamlessly transition you from 5G to 4G LTE as needed. That is similar to how carriers transfer you from 4G LTE to 3G when you are in rural areas with little 4G LTE coverage.
To compensate for that attenuation, carriers will need to install more antennas. A lot more. Right now, the 4G LTE networks across the US have around 30,000 antennas installed. To achieve similar performance from a 5G network we might need about 300,000 antennas. It is going to take a while to install all those antennas. In the meantime, as 5G rolls out your 5G enabled phone will have to switch between 5G and 4G LTE networks.
That was a lot of physics and technical mumbo jumbo. What does that have to do with market research?
Polka Dots of Access
There will be a staged rollout of 5G because it will take a while to implement all three of the components we listed earlier. Most likely, IoT applications in industrial and manufacturing environments will happen first because that is where the initial ROI will be strongest. These environments have strong needs that 5G can address, even with its initial higher cost. These kinds of applications happen to be indoors, so indoor environments are where some of the first 5G implementations will occur. Antennas may be placed inside a factory, for example, or outside and signals piped in and out via cable. Either way, the first 5G networks will most likely be expensive, private, and B2B.
As 5G rolls out further it will create isolated polka dots of access across the country guided by where the ROI is strongest. As 5G expands beyond industrial and manufacturing we’ll see implementations into enterprise and government for applications like smart buildings. In-home, wireless 5G access will most likely drive down the cost of in-home highspeed internet access but not all carriers will roll out 5G in a similar manner. Every city has different opportunities and larger cities will tend to have stronger ROI applications, so we should see stronger implementation there first. Smaller cities will have limited 5G access for quite some time because of limited ROI opportunities. Private networks created by businesses, like a shopping mall, for example, will create access for some consumers if they live nearby. 5G mobile phones will be high-end and expensive, relegating their initial purchase and use to more affluent customers. The 5G networks used by mobile phones won’t have complete 5G coverage and will be constantly switching consumers over to 4G LTE networks to fill in the initial numerous gaps in 5G coverage.
Early Applications in Market Research
These various situations will have to be accounted for in research if the researcher wants to leverage the rich experiences of 5G for the respondents and for data collection. This means that some of the first applications for market research using 5G will probably be for cutting edge, early adopter and lead user studies.
In these early stages, a great consumer application will be for shopping malls. Malls are already trying to create unique experiences consumers can’t have online. Malls are a likely place for some of the first 5G networks for consumers outside of their homes. Malls will create unique 5G experiences that consumers can’t experience anywhere else in order to attract them to the mall. Consumers with 5G enabled phones will want to go to the mall again. In turn, research companies may want to set up testing facilities in shopping malls to take advantage of the strong 5G networks to do intercept and central location work. A great use would be for concept testing. Let’s explore that.
Let’s say you want to take advantage of the power of 5G and virtual reality to get consumer feedback on different variations of a product concept. Instead of recruiting consumers to a focus group facility to show them mock-ups, prototypes, images or videos, you could create a three-dimensional version of the concepts in virtual reality. Consumers could use VR goggles and haptic gloves/suits connected to their mobile device to see, feel, and interact with the concepts as if they are real physical products. The haptic gloves and suits would even have sensors in them to read the respondents’ bio signals like respiration and heart rate. The goggles might be able to read their facial expressions. All this data together could interpret which concept they favor, which is more intuitive to use, and the emotional responses the consumer is having to the interaction with the different product concepts. All that data and insight and we haven’t even asked them any questions yet! Wow! Mind blown!
That sounds cool, and to a degree, this can be done today. But with 5G the cost of VR equipment will begin to drop as the high speeds and low latencies needed for VR become more commonplace. Creating virtual prototypes will be much less expensive for durable goods manufacturers than creating real prototypes. This makes it cheaper to get the consumer feedback you need in multiple markets, reduces the time it takes to complete the research, and eliminates the hassle of shipping expensive prototypes all over the country or globe. Plus, since it is all virtual, consumers won’t be able to snap pictures or keep any of your top-secret prototypes and leak them over social media.
Let’s look a little further into the future and see how the evolution of 5G will further impact the evolution of market research.
We could conceivably have a research kiosk where people could go and have a virtual reality experience. These kiosks could be anywhere. Even though these kiosks will be made for research data collection, they will be designed to feel like infotainment to the consumer. The consumer will be getting entertained with information about a new product or service in an engrossing, virtual environment. There will be a cool factor to it that consumers will want to experience. The researcher and brand will be seeing and reading the consumers’ responses to the virtual environment created for research purposes. There won’t be a need to ask the respondent as many questions. We will be able to judge the respondent’s body language, biometrics, facial expressions, and emotions at a fraction of the cost that it takes to do something similar today. We will analyze that data with machine vision and artificial intelligence to understand the majority of what we need to know. The industry as a whole (not just pockets of high-end work) will begin to move from purely explicit market research (asking questions) to more implicit market research (reading reactions to stimuli).
Location-based research and geofencing will be taken to new levels. Remember, to make 5G work in a mobile environment it will take lots of antennas. Companies will get really creative with antennas. They might embed antennas in lamp posts, for example. Antennas will get smaller and smaller and hidden in obvious locations you won’t even notice. Intelligent Reflecting Surfaces (IRS) or Smart Surfaces will emerge that transform the physical environment from one that blocks signals to one that propagates signals. With all these antennas and Smart Surfaces around, we will be able to go beyond determining that someone walked into a store to detecting their presence in a specific aisle and measuring how long they dwelled in that specific location.
Taking that concept further, a market research company could create pop up stores in malls or city shopping strips. These stores would be full of new products, products with new packaging, new displays, shelf configurations, etc. Using 5G and IoT sensors, a market research firm could take shopper experience testing to a new level with a whole store designed to collect data on the shopping experience.
We will also have new sources of 3rd party data that we can append to customer data to get an even more complete understanding of customer behavior. The price charged by carriers to consumers for mobile data will go down to the point where carriers will have a hard time monetizing that data at the consumer level. Carriers will be looking to make money from that data in other ways such as providing solutions to businesses in terms of bulk data on consumer behavior. Carriers will get people to opt into data sharing in exchange for rich 5G experiences. The data will be anonymized and made for sale to data wholesalers who will slice and dice it and make it available for data appends to market research firms and brands.
There will be many ways that 5G technology will impact and change market research as we know it today. Savvy researchers will be anticipating these changes and opportunities by developing new capabilities and research techniques to take advantage of what 5G has to offer. Analyzing and acting on these trends takes structure, imagination, and guts. But not doing it is not an option in today’s fast-changing environment. Doing it right will uncover the truths that connect, transform and disrupt your business and lead to new opportunities and success in your research.
Christensen, Gerry. August 8, 2019. Personal Interview. Gerry is an expert in Engine’s panel, ExpertEngine.com.
Fortier, Lisa Marie. August 10. 2019. Personal Interview. Lisa Marie is an SVP with Engine Group.
QUA Nadeem. (July 12, 2019). How Smart Surfaces Will Transform Our Wireless Future. Retrieved from http://marconisociety.org/how-smart-surfaces-will-transform-our-wireless-future/.
Humprey, Mike. (Accessed September 9, 2019). Brave New Research – Looking Ahead to a 5G World. Retrieved from https://www.decisionanalyst.com/blog/5gmobilesurveys/.