What Is Omnichannel?

Born in the retail industry, omnichannel isn’t just the next buzzword to add to your marketing “bingo” card. (You know the one.) Omnichannel strategies provide digital customers with a seamless experience of a company’s brand, no matter where or how those customers engage with it. From brick-and-mortar stores, to social media sites, to websites – and from telephone to laptop to mobile device – omnichannel provides customers with consistent, integrated service. More than that, it better enables your company to meet your customers where they live.

In a July 2014 Forbes article, Daniel Newman defines omnichannel as:

“…a reflection of the choice that consumers have in how they engage a brand, and therefore is best represented as how brands enable their clients and consumers to use these channels to engage with them.”

What is valuable about Newman’s definition is that it focuses on consumer choice, placing the customer journey squarely at the center of the strategy. Omnichannel, at its most faithful execution, is a transition from transactional, forced interactions with brands to a system of continuous, in-context enablement from the brand. (See below.) Newman’s definition also widens the focus of the approach to include both products (retail) and services.

How Is Omnichannel Different?

Offering products and services across multiple channels – and accessible across multiple devices – is nothing new. Multi-channel marketing, or offering brand experiences in many channels for many devices, has been evolving for some time.

Margaret Rouse of WhatIs.com provides, perhaps, the simplest explanation of the difference between multi-channel and omnichannel marketing:

“What distinguishes the omnichannel customer experience from the multichannel customer experience is that there is true integration between channels on the back end.”

The distinction is an important one, both for Marketing and for IT, because integration implies Big Data and the business intelligence that can be gained from it. The reality is that we are building systems and processes that use data from line-of-business (LOB) systems:

  • Customer interactions on web, mobile, and social
  • Brand ambassadors like customer service and sales
  • Behaviors in brick-and-mortar stores where consumer products are the focus

Integrating the systems used to manage marketing content puts customer data at the center of the brand interaction, which is what makes a seamless customer experience possible.

What Omnichannel Is Not

Now that we have a basic understanding of what omnichannel marketing is, let’s talk about what it is not – because that has major implications for your organization.

Omnichannel Is Not a Traditional Marketing Funnel

The traditional marketing funnel moves prospective customers through several well-defined, brand-controlled phases, from brand awareness to purchase and, if you’re really lucky, to brand advocacy and repeat business.

By contrast, omnichannel is a continuous cycle, where purchasing can occur at any point during the customer’s interaction with the brand, as well as across devices. And not all of the content with which the consumer engages (or, for that matter, which the consumer seeks out) is brand-controlled. User reviews, social networks, and other consumer-driven content all influence purchasing decisions at various points in the customer journey.

What this means for you is that you not only have to make the right content available at multiple consumer touch-points, but you also have to be aware of the content you don’t control so that you are ready to respond to it – indirectly or directly.

Analytics also become especially important, not only to track your customers’ journeys but also to help you predict where you can make the most impact on their buying or engagement decisions.

Omnichannel Is Not Conducted in Silos

Omnichannel is a marriage of technology and marketing. A true omnichannel experience requires not only collaboration but cooperation between Marketing and IT. Neither division can dictate to the other what will work – which technologies to use or how to use them – or when to implement. Both Marketing and IT need to be sensitive to each other’s schedules, initiatives, and resource constraints.

What this equates to is organizational change. Omnichannel isn’t a project; it’s a new way of operating your business – intelligently and dynamically. If you are serious about pursuing an omnichannel approach to marketing, you will have to commit to organizational change.

Omnichannel Is Not a Switch You Flip on – Tah-dah!

The crucial integration of systems that differentiates omnichannel marketing from multi-channel marketing often requires updating back-end systems. And that’s neither quick nor easy. Omnichannel marketing requires careful planning, along with cooperation and collaboration between Marketing and IT.

An omnichannel solution doesn’t have to be expensive. But it does need to be well thought out. You have to understand that changes to how data is managed do not happen overnight. Changes to how content is written and published do not happen overnight. Changes to how and where you interact with your customers do not happen overnight.

But when they do happen, there are efficiencies to be gained, money to be made (or saved), and loyalty to be won – both from your external consumers and from your internal producers. In short, an omnichannel strategy can completely transform the way you do business.

Today consumers have their choice of content, devices, and touchpoints. Your digital strategy must place your customers’ journey squarely at the center. Please download: “Customer Engagement Strategy for Vectren Corporation” to find out why.