Beyond the conspiracies: we need to talk about 5G

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Covid-19 has radically changed many things – one of them being the conversation around 5G. 5G conspiracy theories continue to run wild with 5G masts set alight, the flames fanned by wider Covid-19 anxiety. While we know it’s all fundamentally untrue, left unchecked this misinformation could do long-term damage to the industry. So how are we responding? Are we prepared to admit that we might not have got our messaging right? What are we doing apart from rolling our eyes and tutting? As the generation of marketers tasked with establishing this technology we need to act fast and that means acting now.

In the UK we’re bearing the brunt of the conspiracy theories. But the US will not be immune. The recent merger between Sprint and T-Mobile means 5G will now reach rapidly right across the country, into rural areas not just the big cities. 5G messaging is not an isolated issue nor one that can be dealt with incrementally, getting it right is fundamental to building a new economy and delivering growth and it’s happening now, everywhere.

Currently we have a lot of bored people in their homes absorbing social media and looking for someone to blame for the things around that are going wrong. This has created a perfect breeding ground for misinformation around 5G. Some theories claim the Covid-19 outbreak is a direct result of 5G signals. The wildest conspiracy theories claim that Covid-19 is a hoax and that the masses of new hospital beds are there to accommodate the government’s expected deaths from the introduction of 5G. This false information spread globally on conspiracy websites, Twitter and Facebook, and has even led to death threats for telecoms workers. Since March 30, there have been 77 arson attacks on mobile phone masts across the UK.

It’s all utter nonsense, obviously. In fact, 3G and 4G had similar conspiracy issues when they launched. But for those of us who have the job of establishing 5G in the minds of consumers, from chief marketers down, there’s an urgent responsibility in the current lockdown climate to look again at how we’re presenting the technology. As brands hold off communicating practical 5G benefits while we’re in lockdown, the danger is that misinformation will fill the gap. So what should we be doing?

We need to take a step back and ask ourselves if we’re missing a better way to connect this game-changing technology with the mass consumer audience.

Before the launch comms were dialled back, we were just beginning to communicate the benefits of 5G through tangible speed increases or intangible worlds of AR and VR. What we definitely don’t have is a killer user benefit. But have we started from the wrong point to begin with? There are other conversations we could be having that could have a greater emotional resonance with our audience and cement the value of the technology in their minds.

Comms around comms

We’ve yet to explain how 5G will form an important part of our national safety infrastructure, how it will benefit speed of reaction for ambulances or give doctors and surgeons the ability to diagnose disease or perform surgery remotely. 5G isn’t a ‘nice to have’ indulgent technology, it’s something that’s part of saving lives now and will continue to do so in the future.

It’s also a fact that 5G will form a key part of any future pandemic response, whether a future wave of Covid-19 or some other viral outbreak. 5G will make future responses faster and more connected, and will underpin any future ‘test, track and trace’ systems. 5G is part of our solution to the pandemic challenge.

On a very human level, we also need this technology. The cross-country 5G coverage of the kind T-Mobile is providing through the Sprint merger will enable families – and businesses – to connect with each other remotely in a deeper way through ever more immersive technologies. Who knows what restrictions will stay in place in a post-lockdown world, but 5G will undoubtedly be crucial to maintaining healthy relationships and connections in the future.

We should also allow 5G to be a brilliant ordinary thing rather than just a door into a distant new virtual future. There’s nothing wrong with prosaic benefits; there’s great value in the everyday. Walking a route through a new city using Google Maps would have seemed like magic ten years ago but is normal now. What’s the new normal that 5G will create? Video calls will be super-high-res, your broadband will effectively follow you around, you can watch a football match remotely and look around as if you’re there, or even just be able to effortlessly play with your dog at home while you’re on your lunch break in the park. The more we can ground the service in the tone of the real and everyday the more people will embrace the tech. The iPod didn’t launch as a transformation in our relationship with music, it launched as ’1,000 songs in your pocket.’

As well as these new subjects to talk about, we need to make sure we’re having conversations in the right place and in the right way. To fight the conspiracy nonsense there should easy-to-absorb rebuttal comms available, the kind that users can happily share themselves in social media. They need to feel meme-y, something of the community, not top-down corporate speak. Our response needs to be distributed, we need to harness the power of the network to take the pressure off brands to do all the work.

For all chief marketers, even those outside of the telco sector there are universal lessons to be learned from this episode. We can get very excited about ‘the new’ and over-confident in our desire to take things we feel are brilliant and push them at people. In our excitement we can project visions that end up flying over the heads of our audience. Can we take a step back, breathe, and collaborate more rather than just shouting louder?

The 5G conspiracy snafu is a wake-up call that we’re still a way off cracking how we connect the possibilities of 5G in a way the mass market audience finds meaningful. We have an opportunity to change what we’re doing before rampant misinformation leaves any permanent stain on the technology. Like 5G itself, we need to make our connection good and fast.

Guy Wieynk, chief executive officer, AnalogFolk

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