Frank Rose is the author of The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories and a contributing editor to Wired.

Last week, he gave one of the keynotes at Ad:tech Sydney, based upon digital storytelling and why marketers need to surrender the idea that brands control their messaging. I was able to catch up with him afterwards, where he generously expanded his thoughts on this complex topic.

How is digital – and the digital generation – changing the way we tell stories? What’s the difference between this at an individual level and a commercial level? 

Its transforming stories from a product we consume to an experience we share. Twentieth-century mass media were a natural outgrowth of the technology and economics of their day.

A mechanistic, industrial society yielded mass-produced products – newspapers, movies, cars, refrigerators, TV shows – that could be efficiently pushed out to a more or less undifferented public. There’s a reason they used to call Hollywood “the dream factory.” 

Digital turns that on its ear, because suddenly the need to stamp out products mechanically gives way to the ability to customize them in response to customer feedback. This is as true of stories as it is of T-shirts. Movies are still a powerful storytelling mechanism, but now they can be augmented by shared storytelling experiences that can play out both online and in the real world.

In the 14 months leading up to the release of The Dark Knight, 42 Entertainment engaged some 10 million people worldwide in an alternate reality game that introduced them to Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the Joker and enabled them to enter the story, share it with one another, and make it their own. It was one of the most successful movie-marketing campaigns ever. 

It’s important to remember that the Internet is not a single medium. It’s a distribution channel that carries all media, and connects all the people who are using them. So it blurs the lines between media types – can anyone seriously argue that there’s a difference between newspapers and television online? And it demands a way of storytelling that’s fluid enough to adapt to whatever medium best serves the user.

To take advantage of this a new grammar of storytelling has to emerge, just as a grammar of cinema had to be invented 100 years ago. That grammar has not yet been fully defined, any more than the grammar of cinema was clearly defined in 1912 – but clearly it’s going to be nonlinear, it’s going to be participatory, and it’s going to be immersive. 

And this is just on the professional side. Another byproduct of the industrial age was a rigid separation between “creators” and “consumers.” Before phonograph machines, people entertained themselves by getting together and singing. Afterwards, they entertained themselves by listening. The amateur all but disappeared, except for the would-be novelist or rock star with hopes of one day quitting their day job and breaking into the ranks of the professionals.

But with digital, the cost of production has become so negligible that people who once would have never been heard beyond their dorm rooms or the office water cooler can now make themselves heard on blogs or Facebook. Again, the lines that the industrial age imposed are now blurred. 

When you refer to “media immersion”, can you define this and the implications for marketers? 

People have always wanted to involve themselves in great stories. With industrial-age media you could only involve yourself in a limited way – you could read Charles Dickens or Scott Fitzgerald and imagine yourself in the worlds they described. But each new medium has seemed more immersive than the one before – movies seemed far more immersive than print, and in many ways it’s easier to get lost in video games or online than it is in the movies. That doesn’t mean Gears of War is better than A Tale of Two Cities. It does mean that some people might find it more seductive. 

But it’s not just a question of being immersed in stories – it’s about being immersed in media, period. People today, young people in particular, are so media-saturated and media-savvy that they’re very hard to reach with a marketing message.They’re particularly resistant to any kind of interruptive advertising, whether it’s a 30-second spot on TV or one of those giant blobs that takes over your computer screen when you accidentally mouse over the little car in the corner.

The good news for marketers is that people don’t hate brands, they just hate advertising. They’re actually less likely than earlier generations to be resentful of product placements and the like, at least if they’re done with a nod and a wink.

As Alex Bogusky, formerly of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, said to when I asked him about their Subservient Chicken campaign for Burger King, their attitude is like; I know you’re trying to market something, something to me, and you know I know, so if you want me to try a new chicken sandwich, that’s cool – just give me a crazy chicken to boss around. 

Where do you think the place of commercial media will sit in the next few years? Can it be controlled? 

If you mean do I think there is a place for commercial media, meaning media that people will pay for, then yes.People show an extraordinarily willingness to pay for media, or at least for access to media – just look at your mobile phone bill. But we’re more likely to pay for media services than for media products.

Industrial-age media companies are still in the mindset of pushing products, but books and magazines and shiny plastic disks are rapidly on the way out. The music industry is going under not only because it was greedy but because it could never get past the idea that it was churning out impossible-to-open shrink-wrapped disks, even after the retailers that sold them went belly-up. 

That’s what’s wrong with the whole piracy debate. When you’re selling stuff, it’s a zero-sum game – if somebody takes it, it’s gone. When you’re selling a work that’s intangible, whether it’s music or journalism or drama, it actually gains value from being shared. It’s long been known that the biggest users of file-sharing services were also the people who bought the most music. That didn’t stop the music industry from hitting them with draconian lawsuits. Surprise: Sue your best customers and they turn against you. The music companies have so poisoned the well that it could be decades before most people are willing to pay for music again. 

I’m sympathetic on the pay-wall issue because people need to get paid for their work, myself included. But I think The Guardian is right when it says that a news organization – don’t call it a “paper” any more – that cuts itself off from open discourse on the Internet is at risk of irrelevance. I’ll say it again: The era of the industrial-age monolith is past.

I’m also aware that online CPMs are negligible, and that advertising can’t support media enterprises the way it did in the past. The solution I think is to charge for special access and services where possible rather than for the product. The trick is to package and deliver them in a way that’s compelling enough that people will want to pay. Yet another reason for innovative thinking. 

You’re also quite well known for referring to “deep media.” Can you summarise what this is? 

It’s media that’s immersive, that allows you to go deeper. I took it as the name for my blog about three years ago, but I’m not sure who came up with the term. It was already being used by people like Nigel Hollis of Millward Brown, for example.

Transmedia has become a real buzzword lately, but the problem with that term is that it puts the emphasis on the means – telling stories across various media platforms – rather than on the goal. The goal is immersiveness. Using different media becomes natural when you have a distribution platform – the Internet – that subsumes all media. But that’s not the only way to reach the goal. 

What other media trends do think we need to be aware of in the near future? What will digital look like and how will marketers have to adapt? 

We’re living in an incredibly transitional phase, and the transition is far from over. Partly that’s because communications technology is still rocketing ahead, and partly it’s because we have powerful institutions – cable and telephone companies, for instance, not to mention media conglomerates – that are trying to hold it back in order to protect their increasingly obsolete business models.

That’s understandable, of course, but it doesn’t benefit anyone, including themselves. Think of General Sarnoff, who headed the most powerful US broadcasting company in the 1940s – RCA – and made the incredibly bold decision to focus on television at a time when TV ad rates were negligible and radio was paying all the bills. We could do with a few General Sarnoffs today. 

What we do know about digital is that it offers an infinitude of choice and that it puts the user in control. For marketers, everything else has to flow from that. No more interruptive advertising. Respect for the user is paramount. You need to engage people, not shout at them. You need to get them to carry your message for you. And you need to forget about all those things that worked in the industrial age. Seth Godin once said in a TED talk, a propos of marketing, that the riskiest thing you can do now is to be safe. That was in 2003. 

What are the challenges facing organisations with the onslaught of digital transformation? How can they successfully deal with these issues? 

The most important thing is to remove the penalties for failure. I was just at South by Southwest and on the way back to the airport I shared a cab with two guys from a digital agency. They told me about a client whose CMO picked apart every initiative his people tried to develop – with the result that they stopped giving him any ideas they couldn’t back up with numbers. The numbers were often wrong or misleading, so that meant that most of what they tried didn’t work – but hey, it wasn’t their fault, because the numbers backed them up. This is a sure route to oblivion for any organization. 

Back in the ’90s the West Coast digitarati were lampooned for saying “The Internet changes everything.” But you know what? They were right. Most of them didn’t know how it would change everything or what that would actually mean, but they were onto an essential truth.

Digital is rewriting all the rules – the rules for storytelling, the rules for marketing, the rules for how we live. When something that fundamental is happening, the worst thing you can do is cling to what worked in the past. Let’s put it this way: Silicon Valley thrives on risk. Hollywood is fuelled by fear. You guess which will win. 

Frank can be found on Twitter (@frankrose