Nonlinear for Idiots

Consider these strange bed-fellows: and Bill Maher. Earlier this year, they joined forces to produce "Fish-bowl," a series of online chats moderated by the sharp-tongued comic that integrate just about every media tactic in the book.

The endeavor marries the traditional talk show format with the Internet's relentless see-it-buy-it electronic catalog function, sponsorship (United Parcel Service, in this case), marketing gimmicks that rely heavily on a celebrity-obsessed culture, and no commercials.

A communications plan this stuffed with media must be nonlinear, right? In a consumer-controlled world, engagement, not reach or frequency, is the desired outcome. Fragmentation makes that a difficult task indeed. So media plans, once as simple as basic math, now resemble quantum physics equations.

So what is nonlinear media? "Beats the hell out of me," says Steve Grubbs, CEO of PHD North America. "I would tend to call it emerging technologies, with the exception of online, which is now mature." Well, yes, but there's also an oft-heard caveat that a medium is linear if you have to take it the way a provider offers it, and it's nonlinear if you can manipulate it somehow -- there's a give and take between sender and receiver, with control squarely in the consumer's hands.

Perhaps we should begin by defining our terms. A popular nonlinear medium, Wikipedia, tells us that "linear" is derived from the Latin linearis, which means "created by lines." And here is Wikipedia's definition of the term "linear medium": "Any medium which is intended to be written or accessed in a linear fashion." Well, that's helpful.

As for "nonlinear," it's often used as a catchall for any new option spawned by technology. Others believe it makes sense to separate a new but static form like satellite radio, for example, from interactive channels like the Web or text messaging.

For Stacey Lynn Koerner, executive vice president, director of global research integration at Initiative, the definition begins with a process of elimination. "First, I'd have to cycle through all the misconceptions," Koerner says. "One would be that all consumers want to experience media in their own time and place. Another would be that consumer choice and control automatically means a departure from advertising content. Another is that marketers need to be in all these spaces." None of these, she contends, is necessarily true.

Over in the unbundled camp, Liz Morrow, director of media services for Margeotes Fertitta Powell, agrees that "nonlinear" is "used more loosely than it should be. To me, it's any kind of advertising or media served dynamically."

Video-on-demand, digital video recorders, downloads to iPods? Nonlinear. Satellite radio? No, says Morrow, echoing the consensus. "It's still turning a button and getting more radio choices, but not delivered in a dynamic way."

Branded entertainment? Linear, because you have to absorb as its creators offer it. Print? Ironically, it's one of the oldest forms of nonlinear media there is. But the idea of mixing and matching channels is itself a nonlinear idea, and straight-line media can be used in a nonlinear fashion. This even excites creatives.

"We did a branded entertainment piece, a TV show, for our client Lotus cars that became a DVD that became clips people sent around that became the subject of blog content on fan sites," says Nigel Williamson, executive vice president/creative director at the Cimarron Group, a Hollywood-based independent ad agency. "With nonlinear media, you can only light the fuse. You have to walk away and let it take off."

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