As a B2C marketer in the digital era, you’ve probably heard the terms “multi-channel”, “omni-channel”, and “cross-channel” countless times. And you’ve probably used one or all of them yourself, too. However, these terms are often used interchangeably when, in fact, they have completely different definitions. They’re not soda/coke/pop; they’re apples, oranges, and bananas.
It’s time to set the record straight. Multi-channel, omni-channel, cross-channel—let’s define what each of these terms means, and in doing so, understand how they are different. Not only will you sound more informed in conversations (who doesn’t want that), but more importantly, you’ll be able to pinpoint which approach is right to meet your particular business goals.
Multi-channel means many channels—marketers leveraging more than one marketing channel to reach consumers. This is a stark contrast to the days when marketers would focus all outreach on one channel, e.g. email. But not everyone prefers to be communicated with via email, so multi-channel opens the door to many other avenues of getting in front of a consumer.
With the advent of social media and mobile phones, multi-channel, in a digital sense, was born. Mobile apps equipped marketers with the ability to reach consumers through in-app messaging and push notifications. Since then, mobile has expanded even further to encompass different devices—not just phones, but tablets and watches, too. And with social media, brands can also get in front of consumers on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, and LinkedIn. The list goes on and on.
Case in point: consumers are digitally-savvy; they’re everywhere, and marketers must be right there along with them. The more channels a brand is on, the higher the chance it’ll be seen. That said, reach is a primary benefit of a multi-channel approach. Being “everywhere” leads to stronger brand recall, and in an endless sea of both online and brick & mortar competition today, brands must ensure they’re noticed.
But, multi-channel, with reach being the goal, leaves a lot to be desired. Marketers are going about reach in a haphazard way, blasting consumers with endless generic messages on all these channels. There’s a cost to this, with 60% of consumers opting out of mobile notifications and another 91% unsubscribing from emails (Salesforce). Clearly, engagement is suffering.
Omni-channel is trying to solve the engagement problem. The way it approaches it is to add more channels—in particular, non-marketing channels like customer support, shipping, billing, etc.—into the mix. Here, marketing touch points become bridged with non-marketing touch points. This is an attempt at creating a more holistic view of consumers and further, giving them a consistent experience from touch point to touch point.
Omni-channel is commonly used in a retail or e-commerce context. For instance, a consumer scrolls through Instagram and sees an offer for a winter jacket from their favorite brand; a day later they speak with a customer service rep asking questions about the durability of the jacket; next they’re sent an email that offers a discount on the jacket; and from there, they buy and opt to pick it up in the brand’s physical store location rather than having it shipped. In this scenario, the aim is to glide the consumer from one step to the next.
But omni-channel doesn’t necessarily address a lack of engagement—the strategy is to just add and unify more types of channels. But that’s not enough in the current competitive landscape where consumers are expecting (if not demanding) brands to know them and market to them in a super personalized way. What’s missing from omni-channel is a true, honest focus on the individual consumer and engaging them in a way that makes them feel compelled to engage back. One could say that with omni-channel, it’s up to the consumer to initiate and engage, but with cross-channel, brands are proactive in engaging with consumers—meeting their needs and expectations that they might not even have known they had. As a result, cross-channel has been introduced as the answer to really fixing the engagement problem.
Like omni-channel, cross-channel also means having a presence on many channels and making the consumer experience consistent from one channel to the next. But, cross-channel approaches the concept of “providing a consistent consumer experience” differently. In cross-channel, marketers create a consistent consumer experience by communicating with each consumer in only a way that makes sense to that consumer, based on their behaviors and what those behaviors say about their preferences of what and how to communicate with them. Here, artificial intelligence (AI) is used to automatically sync and make sense of this consumer data retrieved on various channels in real time, empowering brands to consistently engage with the consumer in a super relevant, timely, and personalized way.
For example, if someone clicks on a certain promotion in an email from a brand, which reveals their interest in denim jeans, the brand will then know that the next mobile push notification it should send the person should link to the brand’s denim jeans selection in the mobile app. With this real-time back & forth transfer of consumer data, a brand is equipped with the right knowledge about each consumer so that it can more accurately communicate and connect with them.
Ultimately, cross-channel enables brands to “get” their consumers, and consumers feel this and positively react to it, leading to higher engagement and conversion.
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