Nonlinear: Internet

When pondering nonlinear in terms of online and digital media, think of a lava lamp -- that groovy fixture of 1970s crash pads. Colored water and oil, heated from below, circulated in a dance of fluids that continually changed as they moved and never seemed to take the same shape twice. Nonlinear digital media is similarly very fluid. The more it changes, the more the media industry loses, and consumers gain, control over just how nonlinear online media becomes.

Put another way, a nonlinear media campaign "uses predictable parts to create an unpredictable outcome," says Joseph Jaffe, president and founder of marketing consultancy jaffe, LLC. "It's a sequence of interactions, touch points, or exposures that are not necessarily predictable or consistent or chronological."

Perhaps the most fluid and nonlinear segment of the online world today is the blogosphere, where links take readers off in any number of directions. No two readers follow the same path. But all online media, by their very nature, are nonlinear, says permission marketing guru Seth Godin, which is why "every person or organization that has tried to turn the Web into a 'big TV' has failed. Most advertisers see [nonlinear] as a threat, while smart advertisers see a chance to deliver anticipated, personal, and relevant ads to the people who choose to get them."

Consider, for example, that a Sprite campaign on invited consumers to enter a virtual city, choose any one of 25 wall destinations, and add graffiti. "Every time you went to the wall, you could create a piece of art, change others' art, add to their art," or simply watch the event or forward a wall to a friend, says Gayle Troberman, director of brand solutions at MSN.

Nintendo ran a similar experiential campaign with a heavy focus on consumer engagement when it shipped thousands of mannequin hands to people who requested them and then took photos or video clips of the hands in action. Participants then entered their work in Nintendo's "Touching Is Good" contest. The artwork appeared on, and viewers conversed about the pieces and passed the work around on several message boards. Both campaigns put consumers squarely in control of creating, interacting with, and distributing media.

"For us, it's about being the instigator," says Rob Matthews, senior director of consumer marketing at Nintendo. "We're creating the flash point that's going to cause the consumer to run with it."

But even linear media can offer a nonlinear experience, Troberman says. "It's not just about going to an article, reading it and being done. We can provide relevant content in other areas and surface that for you, and you can find other consumers who are passionate about the topic, share your views, and form bonds."

The beauty of nonlinear online media is that no matter what direction it takes or how little control we have over it, it still seems very trackable. "Clickpath, clickstreams, time spent, behavior, reads, subscribes, posts, comments, forwards -- it's all trackable and all measurable," Jaffe says.

"It's about measuring engagement, how much time the consumer spends with your brand," says MSN's Troberman. Nintendo looks at how much it's been able to increase buzz, as well as "how frequently people submitted content of their own and how jazzed they got about the campaign," says Steve Governale, vice president and director at Starcom IP's SMG Search, which works on Nintendo. "Advocacy from those people is more impactful than straight impressions."

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