Multichannel vs. Omnichannel Marketing: Is There a Difference, and What Does It Mean to You?

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Perhaps the only thing that changes more rapidly than technology in today's amped-up digital environment is the terminology used to describe that technology and its impact on consumers--and marketers. One recent example is the advent of the term "omnichannel" marketing, which many struggle to differentiate from another relatively recent term--"multichannel" marketing.

Still, those who are most enmeshed in the field say there is a key distinction between the two, and it's one that will have an impact on marketers as they continue to seek ways of having a meaningful impact on the consumers they hope to engage. And, importantly, it's less about technology than it may seem.

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?

Years ago, if a consumer wished to purchase a television, he would go to a local department store, view the various options, and buy a television. As the world evolved, that same person's purchase decision became informed not just by others (word-of-mouth), but through channels such as Consumer Reports, a print publication that offers reviews of various products. Then came the internet, and suddenly, a whole new world of possibilities emerged. Consumers were no longer reliant on local businesses to meet their needs. The internet allowed them to browse, research, and purchase online.

But the evolution didn't end there. Enter laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Consumers had multiple options to satisfy their shopping needs. They might choose to shop in-store, or they might shop via a desktop, laptop, smartphone, or smart TV. They might learn of a new product in an email or through a social media post, visit the website on their laptop to learn more, talk with some friends about their experiences with that product, and ultimately use their smartphone to make the purchase-or any number of possible combinations of these.

More options mean more opportunities for marketers to connect with and engage their markets. But it also means a great deal more complexity. Keeping interactions consistent across multiple channels and ensuring a seamless experience for consumers is the new challenge.

It's the challenge of omnichannel marketing, and it looks more similar to a spiderweb than a racetrack. "The difference between multichannel and omnichannel really comes down to a company's approach to digital channels," says Stacy Schwartz, a digital marketing expert, consultant, and adjunct professor at Rutgers Business School. "Companies that focus on maximizing the performance of each channel-physical, phone, web, mobile-have a multichannel strategy. They likely structure their organization into ‘swim lanes' focused on each channel, each with their own reporting structure and revenue goals." The result, she says, is competition-which sometimes "serves the greater good and other times generates friction and misaligned incentives."

That's where an omnichannel approach comes in. "An omnichannel approach puts the customer, not corporate silos, at the center of its strategy," Schwartz says. "It acknowledges that mobile and social have enabled customers to not only quickly switch between channels, but actually use channels simultaneously. For example, checking out product reviews on their mobile phone while evaluating a product on a physical retail store shelf."

In essence, omnichannel marketing recognizes that customers engage with companies or brands in many different ways-across multiple platforms-and grasps the inherent challenge this creates in terms of ensuring consistent experiences. Darr Gerscovich is VP of marketing at Ensighten, a digital marketing agency headquartered in San Jose, Calif. He was recently named a winner of Direct Marketing News 2014 40 Under 40 Awards. "Interpersonal relationships are ingrained so deeply into our social fabric that a customer will view your entire brand as a singular relationship," says Gerscovich. Omnichannel marketing, he says, "ensures that customers receive a personalized conversation with your brand."

NEW TWIST ON AN OLD STANDARD

Brenna Holmes believes that the distinction between multichannel and omnichannel marketing is based on a tactical versus a strategic approach, with multichannel reflecting a more tactical effort. Holmes is VP of digital at Chapman Cubine Adams + Hussey (CCAH), a direct marketing agency with offices in Arlington (Va.) and San Francisco. Most marketers-particularly those CCAH serves in the nonprofit world-tend to still be primarily focused on tactical, multichannel initiatives, she says.

Many of her clients, says Holmes, "have a legacy direct mail program that's integrating marketing communication elements, but they're not quite at omnichannel yet. They're just kind of baby stepping toward it." The concept, she notes, is really not that far afield from the now common focus on "integrated marketing communications"-an attempt to ensure the messages that consum­­ers receive are consistent across all channels. "It's just another way to get at the same core idea," she says, noting that "integration is essen­tial for effective, results-based marketing no matter what it is and so some phrases just become more ‘hip' than others."

Gerscovich notes that most marketers currently tend to use "multichannel" and "omnichannel" interchangeably. But, he says, "I suspect that, in the coming year, people will be more deliberate" in their use of the terms. In his opinion, the distinctions between the two are significant.

"Multichannel is very much a kind of corporate, or brand, view of the world based on the various channels or touchpoints they're focused on in engaging their customers," he says. These might include social media, email, a website, and other traditional means of marketing. The difference, he says, is that while multichannel tends to be based on an inside-out approach, omnichannel is more outside in, a consideration of the customer experience from his perspective. "It's how a customer would see the world," he says, "including what they would do, potentially, in the brick-and-mortar space if there is a physical store, how they would engage with a call center, etc.-it brings all of these together; it's really about connecting the dots."

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