The linear model of communication is a relatively simplistic model envisaging a process in which a sender encodes and transmits a message that is received and decoded by a recipient. The linear model of communication suggests communication moves in one direction only. The sender transmits a message to the receiver, but the receiver does not transmit a response or provide feedback to the sender.
Understanding linear models of communication
The linear model of communication is a relatively simplistic model envisaging a process in which a sender encodes and transmits a message that is received and decoded by a recipient.
Linear communication models are especially useful in customer-centric business activities such as marketing, sales, public relations, and broadcast advertising.
In fact, linear models may be effective in any scenario where message feedback from the recipient is quite separate from the initial communication itself.
These models also help companies determine how their promotional messages may be altered by their encoding process, choice of the transmission medium, and any potential noise interference.
The Shannon-Weaver model, the basis for all modern communication models, considers the communication process to be linear and one-way.
Developed in 1949 by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, it consists of six elements:
Sender (information source)
The person who starts the communication process by transmitting information.
The person or machine responsible for converting the information into a signal that can be understood by the receiver.
In Shannon and Weaver’s day, one-way communication was the norm and occurred mostly via telegraph and radio.
Or the infrastructure supporting the transmission of the message from sender to receiver.
An individual sending an email is using the internet as their channel.
Or any factor responsible for the information being misinterpreted, categorized according to whether it is internal or external.
Internal noise is the result of the sender making a mistake, such as a misspelled word in a text message.
External noise occurs when something outside the control of the sender or receiver impedes the message.
Two people attempting to have a conversation at a loud rock concert is one example.
In most cases, a device that decodes the encoded message sent by the sender into a format that is understandable for the receiver.
Today, this device is usually a smartphone.
The receiver is the person who receives the information transmitted by the sender.
Linear vs. non-linear communication
Only in the world of machines and computers communication might sound linear.
As in the real world, made of humans, in most cases, the communication is non-linear as there is a high element of subjectivity.
In other words, with computers and machines, it’s possible to specify technical elements of communication, which makes it extremely linear (even if not a hundred percent linear), which in the real world humans is not possible.
Indeed, take the case of a computer made of bits or a set of instructions that are 0 and 1.
This condition, called boolean logic, is a condition where the stage of a transistor in the computer will either be one or zero, which will help the hardware part of the computer to communicate with the software part of the computer.
Of course, the machine doesn’t know the semantic meaning of the zero and ones within the transistors; it only follows the electric patterns within these signals.
So, if the energy flow or voltage within a transistor is between 0 and 0,4, the transistor will read it as zero; between 0,6, and 1, it will be a one.
For instance, if the voltage moves between 0,4 to 0,6, that might create ambiguity in the signal that the machine has to read.
That can be due to either a temporary malfunctioning of the hardware or a bug that needs to be fixed.
Yet from the combination of these billions of tiny patterns, software instructions emerge.
For instance, if you take a modern device like an iPhone, it might well contain billions and billions of transistors which make it into the general-purpose device that we know.
This sort of communication which is highly technical is specific to machines, where there is no subjectivity.
On the contrary, when it comes to humans, even communication between two people might get quite complex, as, beyond the technical elements of the communication (like the waves emitted with the mouth and read by the ears), the rest is quite subjective.
Indeed, once the waves are converted from sound in the ear to meaning in the brain, we enter the realm of consciousness, which is entirely subjective.
Philosophically speaking, two people might be talking about the same thing and yet subjectively experience it in a completely different way!
That is the nature of human communication, which is by nature non-linear.
Thus, take that into account.
Linear models of communications might be great simplifications and they might be useful for technical types of communications, yet much less so when it comes to human interactions!
Nike and the linear model of communication
How has Nike used the linear, one-way communication process to transmit messages to its target audience? Let’s take a look in the sections below.
Nike product launches
Product launches at Nike follow a specific pattern of linear communication that involves traditional media, social media, and in-store displays.
To create a buzz around the launch, Nike uses a combination of print and digital advertisements, social media campaigns, event sponsorships, and celebrity collaborations.
Whatever channel is used, Nike uses stories to immerse the consumer in its products.
The company is a master at encouraging ordinary athletes to start a new exercise regime, but it also positions its products for professional athletes with loftier goals.
In either case, the stories are authentic because the company’s founders and key personnel were athletes themselves.
Key components of Nike’s linear communication
To better understand how Nike uses linear communication during a product launch, let’s use the company’s Flyknit technology as an example.
The sender in this example is Nike or more specifically, a specific team within the company’s marketing department. Nike’s in-house advertising team was also involved with launching the new technology at various points.
The team encodes the message before it is sent to make it understandable across different channels to the target audience.
Nike’s strategy for the launch of Flyknit incorporated numerous channels. It created a series of videos showing the technology in action which were used for television ad spots, print publications, and digital platforms such as Twitter and Instagram.
The company also made use of celebrity endorsements to create buzz around Flyknit sneakers with images and videos distributed online. As we will see later, the shoes were also promoted in professional football matches.
The Nike Flyknit Racer was unveiled in 2012 and touted as a product that possessed the form-fitting qualities of a sock with the support and structure of a sneaker. Nike was quick to point out that this would be achieved by utilizing proprietary technology.
The story Nike told about the Racer – in other words, the message – was that it had developed a shoe that delivers peak performance for athletes whilst also reducing manufacturing waste.
In fact, the launch of a subsequent model known as the Flyknit Lunar1+ shoes were touted as producing 80% less waste than a pair made via traditional means.
Crafted from 40 years of research into the human foot, it was noted that shoes with Flyknit were made from strands of polyester yarn woven by a computer.
In areas of the foot requiring more support, there was a tighter weave. In areas where breathability and flexibility were more important, the weave was looser.
In one example of a collaboration, Nike partnered with football star Ronaldo to celebrate and showcase the technical design features of Flyknit trainers. The collaboration was dubbed the Nike Flyknit Mercurial Launch Campaign.
The campaign featured several stylized images and animations of Ronaldo in a match simulation with his opponents and the ball itself shattered into many pieces to emphasize the speed of the shoes.
One video uploaded to YouTube rapidly amassed 5.5 million views and the launch itself became Nike’s most successful at the time.
Ronaldo wore the boots in several television ad appearances and to add yet another channel to this case study, he even communicated Nike’s message by wearing the boots in matches at the 2014 World Cup.
There are many potential sources of noise in Nike’s campaign because of the various channels that were employed.
A user with a substandard internet connection may have been impeded from watching one of Nike’s promotional videos. Another potential customer may have experienced semantic noise because of Nike’s use of technical language or jargon to describe the Flyknit technology.
Linear communication for the Flyknit Racer was aimed at performance athletes who expected to compete at world-class marathon events.
The Lunar1+ shoes mentioned earlier were released soon after to target everyday runners without professional aspirations. Nike also expected that the model would appeal to a wide gamut of runners looking for a well-cushioned and responsive shoe.
Other linear communication models
In this section, let’s take a look at some other linear communication models.
Although the Shannon-Weaver model was one of the first modern communication frameworks, Greek philosopher Aristotle proposed a similar model around 300 B.C.
Aristotle focused on public speaking as opposed to interpersonal communication.
As a result, the Aristotle model of communication can be broken down into five broad elements:
- Speaker – the individual delivering the message.
- Speech – the information that is communicated.
- Occasion – the context of the communication. For example, the occasion of a politician delivering an address to votes may be an imminent election.
- Audience – a collection of individuals who passively receive the information that is transmitted.
- Effect – the intention of the speaker. In the case of a politician, their communication intends to persuade voters to vote for them.
Since Aristotle’s model is speaker-centric, it also details three elements that are essential to effective public speaking.
These relate to credibility, authority, and an ability to connect with the audience on an emotional level. The speaker must also be able to support their statements with relevant facts and data.
Berlo’s SMCR model
Berlo’s SMCR model was developed by American communication theorist David Berlo in 1960. Berlo took the Shannon-Weaver model and expanded it into several clear and distinct components.
He saw communication as a linear process that was only successful when the skills of the person receiving the message complemented (or were equal to) those of the sender.
There are four elements to the model which comprise the SMCR acronym:
- Source/sender (S) – where the message originates. The source is impacted by factors such as communication skills, knowledge, culture, social system, and attitude.
- Message (M) – the information that is sent from the sender to the receiver. Message factors include content, elements (language, gesturing), treatment (how the message is conveyed), and structure. Code, or the means through which the message is sent and in what form, is also important. For the message to be clear, the code must be clear.
- Channel (C) – in Berlo’s model, a channel refers to the five senses: hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching. Most messages are heard or seen, but the other senses are also important.
- Receiver (R) – the individual who receives the message. For the message to be understood correctly, the receiver must possess comparable traits in terms of culture, social system, attitude, knowledge, or skill.
Lasswell’s communication model
Lasswell’s communication model was created by Harold Lasswell, a political scientist and communication theorist.
Lasswell’s model describes the communication process by asking the following questions:
- Who? – this may be a person or institution in a position of authority.
- Says what? – the message that is communicated, such as a news story, political story, or some other story with a hero, villain, and important theme.
- In which channel? – such as television, radio, magazines, letters, or photography.
- To whom? – the receiver of the message. Lasswell noted that this encompassed citizens, newspaper readers, or specific segments such as children, adults, or women.
- With what effect? – or the context-dependent feedback the receiver sends to the sender.
The model was initially created to analyze mass communication by the media and the role that media propaganda plays in society.
However, it can also be used for interpersonal communication or in any situation where information is disseminated to groups.
In this way, Lasswell’s model incorporates aspects of non-linear communication.
Criticisms of linear models of communication
Although straightforward and easy to understand, there are obvious limitations to linear models of communication.
Communication theories proposed by Shannon and Weaver assume communication to be a one-way process where each person takes turns sending and receiving information.
Modern scholars, however, tend to agree that communication is a more complicated and dynamic process where both individuals embody the sender and receiver role simultaneously.
This is especially true during face-to-face conversations, where body language and gesturing complements spoken language as a means of transmitting messages.
Theorist Norbert Weiner later added a seventh element to the Shannon-Weaver model to describe feedback, or the receiver’s interpretation of the transmitted message sent back to the sender.
However, some saw this addition as an afterthought since the concept of feedback was foreign to Weaver when he developed the model.
Furthermore, linear models fail to consider how context or an individual’s personal experiences impact communication.
Some people may shout at the television during a sporting match based on their personality and unique life experiences, while others may react calmly to the same footage.
Of course, the television broadcaster transmitting the message is doing so to a large number of receivers and cannot possibly cater to them all.
Laswell’s model of communication, another linear communication model, seeks to address this limitation by deconstructing the elements of mass communication into five distinct components.
These components help the receiver decipher the meaning of the message sent and the intention of the individual or company sending it.
Sending an internal work email linear communication case study
We will now take a look at some common examples of linear communication in real-world situations.
For the sake of consistency, we will use the framework of the Shannon-Weaver model to describe each example.
- Sender – an employee, supervisor, manager, or executive.
- Encoder (transmitter) – in the case of email and some other forms of electronic communication, the most popular form of encoding is the UTF-8 system that defines words, symbols, and other special characters. The email is then encoded by an email client that connects with an outgoing Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) server. This server then validates the details of the sender, processes the email for sending, and places it in the outgoing queue.
- Channel (medium) – in this case, the channel by which an email is sent is the internet. More specifically, the SMTP server looks up the DNS server of the sender’s domain and retrieves the recipient’s server information. Then, the SMTP server connects to the email server of the recipient and sends the email via SMTP protocol.
- Noise – there can be many sources of noise in a workplace. For one, the recipient may have left their reading glasses at home and cannot decipher the words on the screen. There may also be issues with connectivity that prevent the process of sending an email from occurring.
- Decoder – the decoder is the recipient’s email server that connects with the SMTP server, validates the recipient’s account, and ensures the email is sent to the correct address.
- Receiver (destination) – the destination of an email is the inbox of the recipient such as a friend, colleague, superior, or subordinate.
The broadcast of a television advertisement linear communication case study
- Sender – the sender of a television advertisement is the television network itself. However, the sender could also be defined as the sports equipment manufacturer that wants to advertise during a football match, for example.
- Encoder (transmitter) – in most cases, a television signal is sent by wire to an antenna on a building owned by the television network. In this example, however, the transmitter is located at the football stadium which broadcasts the signal as an electromagnetic wave. Television stations are allocated certain frequencies to transmit their broadcasts and avoid interference with other networks.
- Channel (medium) – here, the medium is a television transmitter that emits radio waves that carry a video signal and synchronized audio channel. If the individual viewing the football match is a long distance from the encoder, transmitters act as relay towers to reamplify the message and ensure that it reaches its destination.
- Noise – noise is less prevalent in television communication now that most broadcasts have shifted from analog to digital. However, it still occurs in the form of interference from trees, tall buildings, streaming devices, mobile phone towers, mountains, LED bulbs, inclement weather, and poor antenna condition. Noise may also encompass a receiver that is distracted or otherwise disinterested when the ad for the sports equipment is aired.
- Decoder – the decoder is the television in the consumer’s home. Connected to an aerial on the roof of the home, it converts the digital signal sent by the transmitter into moving images and sound that convey the messages in the advertisement itself.
- Receiver (destination) – the receiver is the person sitting in their living room watching the game and periodic advertisements.
A sports apparel company that uses linear communication over TikTok
Despite being superseded by more complex models, the linear model is still used by businesses to aid in marketing, sales, and PR-related communication.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the example of a sports apparel company that uses linear communication on TikTok.
The sports apparel company is the sender of various promotional and educational messages and is thus the initiator of the communication process.
Decades before the internet, the encoder (transmitter) was the person or infrastructure responsible for converting the sender’s information into a signal.
For example, the various infrastructure required to transmit and receive television and radio signals.
The encoder in this example is the company’s marketing team who is responsible for translating the company’s mission, vision, values, and objectives into a communication.
The encoder considers potential sources of noise that could impede the transmitted information.
But most of their time is spent crafting a message that the receiver (target audience) will take positive action on.
The channel that the sports apparel company utilizes is the internet.
The message is the content contained within the social media post.
Suppose that the company is an early adopter of TikTok and wants to spend the first few months posting content to establish a presence and build an email list. In other words, any subsequent increase in sales is a bonus.
Several different message types may form part of the communication. These include:
- Exercise-centric motivational content.
- Live or recorded workout demonstrations.
- Topical or fitness-related memes.
Remember that noise is any factor that impedes or alters the information that the sender is wishing to convey.
The first type of noise is internal noise which stems from the sender.
An example of internal noise is a post where the company misunderstands the meaning behind a fitness-related meme.
With followers unable to decipher the message, it impacts effective transmission of the message and causes the company’s brand identity to become confused.
The second type of noise is external noise. Suppose that a thunderstorm destroys the cell network in a specific country and users are prevented from accessing their TikTok accounts for 36 hours.
The decoder is a device or person that translates the sender’s information into an understandable message.
For the sports apparel company on TikTok, there may be two decoders.
The first is the smartphone, tablet, or PC of a user that translates code and text into an attractive and well-formatted social media post.
The decoder could also be the user itself. Suppose that the company sends out a motivational post in early December encouraging users to set new year resolutions based on exercise goals or getting back into the gym.
The user (decoder) translates the information from the post and, subconsciously or otherwise, understands that the company wants them to buy new fitness apparel or equipment.
The receiver is the company’s target audience who receive marketing, educational, and promotional messages once they have been decoded.
The marketing team chooses TikTok as the primary channel because most of the platform’s users match its core demographic.
These are young millennial females aged between 18-25 who are located in the USA.
This demographic also enjoys TikTok for its body-positive culture and supportive community for newbie fitness fanatics.
- Linear models of communication suggest communication moves in one direction only. The sender transmits a message to the receiver, but the receiver does not transmit a response or provide feedback to the sender.
- The first linear model of communication was the Shannon-Weaver model. The six elements that describe the one-way communication process are sender, encoder, channel, noise, decoder, and receiver.
- There are several limitations to linear communication models. For one, they ignore the fact that communication is a dynamic process where both individuals embody the sender and receiver roles simultaneously. They also ignore non-verbal forms of communication in face-to-face conversation and how messages are interpreted when there is one sender and multiple receivers.
What are the three linear models of communication?
The three linear models of communication comprise:
Each of these models has its specificities.
What is the advantage of linear communication?
A linear model of communication strength lies in its ability to convey a message by trying to clear out the noise from the same, thus enabling the message to get on the other side (from sender to receiver) in as unambiguous a way as possible. Yet, it’s worth highlighting that also the linear model of communication has major drawbacks, as noise can get in the way of making a message unambiguous to the receiver.
What is the best example of linear communication?
Take the case of sending an internal work email. You have the sender, which is an employee; and the encoder, which is the underlying tech stack that enables the email to be received through that channel. Noise can materialize in various forms. It can be technical, like the case of an email not displaying correctly, or personal, like the case of the receiver not able to read because he is not wearing her/his glasses.
Read Next: Lasswell Communication Model, Linear Model Of Communication.
Connected Communication Models
Aristotle’s Model of Communication
Helical Model of Communication
Transactional Model of Communication
Connected Business Concepts
Read Next: Biases, Bounded Rationality, Mandela Effect, Dunning-Kruger
Read Next: Heuristics, Biases.