According to Sir Tim Berners-Lee the first phase of the revolution was about connecting computers into a network - The Internet. The second phase was about connecting documents - the World Wide Web. The next stage will be about connecting people and things in a Giant Global Graph (or social graph). In the second phase you simply read from the web, which is why there was an explosion of brochureware websites. Now we can write to the web which is why there has been an explosion in user generated content. However in both phases the consumer is in charge, which is why brands are feverishly re-assessing how they do things, building more and more things for this cyberspace workshop. The most successful are the ones that become useful - brand utilities, or entertaining, branded content providers.
Most brands now have multiple websites, which is a good thing, but most still think of digital as if it was still in the Read Era, and see it as a channel where you develop assets, such as banners and landing pages and then throw them out into the dark matter that is cyberspace, and then quietly forget about them. These assets would have been traditionally produced two steps after the TV and press advertising, and one step after the direct mail pack - then we'd be asked to make the idea work in the digital channel. In the Read/Write Era this type of thinking is not sustainable. It denies the obvious. This is the time to change this routine.
When you want to buy insurance, a new gadget, go on holiday, or buy some new music, you might first hear of the product in front of your TV but you then go straight onto the web to Moneysupermarket, Engadget, or Tripadvisor, or Amazon respectively to read the reviews, and check stuff out in more detail. When you want to complain about Starbucks you can now make it famous by complaining on YouTube. When you want to sell an old car or bike you go to Ebay. The web stretches across everything now, and needs to be central in not only acquiring new customers, but retaining them, and growing their value to you.
Digital must now be developed first. The Cyberspace workshop is where you tinker, and experiment to turn your brand into a utility, and cement it into the life of your audience. Your TV and DM increasingly become about advertising your online utility. The role of digital is broader than any other communication type.
However let's not forget that digital is not the only tool in the toolbox that you can use. TV still has the ability to make an idea famous quickly, and direct mail still has the ability to have powerful one-on-one communications. However, when you add digital to this mix and create optimised integrated experiences, you create something truly powerful. But the digital must be based around advertising as an experience that aims to solve real life problems, rather than disguise these problems, and it should be designed to talk to your audience across the whole span of the lifecycle.
In traditional media we generally ask what message should we creatively communicate? But in digital we should rather ask what should our communications be DOING? Do, not say, is the mantra of the next stage of digital. Thinking in pictures and words is still central, but we should now stop thinking of cyberspace as a canvas but rather as a workshop where we roll our sleeves up to help our audiences. That's the role of digital: helping audiences make the world wide web useful for them. But don't see this as charity, see this as the price of entry.