In the hyper-connected world we live in, it’s almost unheard of for a brand to exist in a single marketing channel anymore. At the bare minimum, most brands sell in two channels -- for example, ecommerce and brick-and-mortar or ecommerce and social, making the shopper journey impossible to predict.
A customer today moves across multiple channels and devices, from desktop to smartphones and tablets, ecommerce sites to mobile apps and even brick-and-mortar stores to make a purchase. Given this, most modern brands have become Multichannel. But what is the difference between being multichannel and being omnichannel? Is one better than the other? Are they both realistic strategies for all brands? Below we dig into these questions, shedding light on how brands can navigate decisions around going omni vs. multi.
The differences between omnichannel and multichannel marketing
Before we flesh out the differences between omnichannel and multichannel marketing, one must be cautious to not use these terms interchangeably, as they refer to different marketing strategies and result in different customer experiences. Multichannel means – ‘multiple’ channels. It refers to communication and sales that exist in a variety of channels. These channels may include, for example, an ecommerce site, a standalone physical retail location, distribution in a marketplace like Amazon, and social selling among others. The thing to note with multichannel is that these channels are usually distinct. They operate mostly independently and may rarely, if ever, interact with one another. In other words, integration between channels is limited.
Omnichannel means ‘all’ channels. It differs from multichannel marketing in that it encompasses a consumer-focused approach, where all channels are integrated to support and interact with one another. Omnichannel avoids the siloing that usually occurs in a traditional multichannel strategy.
To understand how the omnichannel experience might look, imagine a user goes online to a brand’s ecommerce site to look at a pair of shoes. The consumer likes the shoes, but decides she really needs to try them on to be sure. The site allows the consumer to search and locate the shoes in a store. Later, as the consumer is out and about, she’s served an Instagram ad for the shoes. She remembers how much she likes the shoes and goes into the store to try them on. The store doesn’t have the color the consumer wants, but digital kiosks in the store allow her to order the desired color and have them delivered to her house free of charge. A few days later the shoes arrive with a printed card incentivizing her to post photos on social, or to share a unique offer code with friends, or simply highlighting unique attributes of the brand and its products.
Benefits and challenges of each approach
Though internally within a brand, each marketing channel may be managed separately (by, for example, an ecommerce team and a brick-and-mortar retail team), the consumer rarely experiences brands in this way. To the consumer, the brand is the brand regardless of where they encounter it. They will not differentiate between the experience of interacting with a brand in ecommerce versus in retail, and both experiences reflect back on the brand in the same way. An omnichannel marketing strategy is the one that most closely reflects the shopping behaviors and attitudes of the modern consumer, and that is its greatest advantage.
An approach where all channels are integrated, and consumers are offered a seamless experience across all touchpoints is certainly laudable, but the biggest challenge of an omnichannel strategy is its effective implementation. Scale and complexity make a truly omnichannel strategy difficult, time consuming, and expensive to implement.
A Multichannel strategy, on the other hand, is much simpler to execute but remains channel driven. With thorough integration being less of a consideration, channels can be rolled out individually. The technological burden of an omnichannel rollout, which can be onerous particularly for small brands, isn’t as much of a factor with a more straightforward multichannel strategy.
Choosing the right approach for your brand
Omnichannel is the flashier and more often talked about strategy of the two. After all, it provides a better shopping experience, which is what really matters in the long-run. For large brands with the resources to implement it effectively, it’s usually a smart choice.
However, brands that are starting off, may get better results from delivering a multichannel experience initially and later tying them all together into an omnichannel one to not get burdened by the complexity of implementing it.
Another consideration for brands deciding between a full omnichannel rollout and a smaller multichannel approach is the level of cultural buy-in possible within the company. Big changes in the way sales and marketing operate will inevitably meet some level of internal resistance, so being realistic about what’s achievable within the existing cultural landscape is incredibly important.
Ultimately, cost and the availability of specific technologies will probably be the guiding factor in deciding between omnichannel and multichannel. While omnichannel may be the goal, the cost required to do it right can be prohibitive for a lot of brands. Multichannel is, in many ways, a stepping stone on the path to omnichannel, and is sometimes a more realistic option.
In today’s marketing landscape, it’s important for a brand to be able to meet their consumers where they are. Multichannel and omnichannel can both work to achieve this goal, but omnichannel offers a connected, and ideally seamless, experience. This type of connected experience is usually the one that best meets the needs and desires of consumers
Brands on a tight budget, or those with a large number of legacy systems already in place, however, may not realistically be able to meet the demands of an omnichannel rollout. A Multichannel approach can be a more achievable intermediate step for brands in those positions.