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Fusion Alliance Posted by Fusion Alliance May 21, 2015

Omni-Channel 101: What It Means and What It Means for You

Omni-channel is a broad and varied topic, so we thought we'd start with the basics. This post is an intro to omni-channel.

Let's begin with a definition.

What is omni-channel?

Born in the retail space, omni-channel isn't just the next buzzword to add to your marketing " buzzword bingo" card. Omni-channel 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 – omni-channel 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 omni-channel 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 I like about Newman's definition is that it focuses on consumer choice, placing the customer journey squarely at the center of strategy. Omni-channel, 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 retail and services.

How is omni-channel 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 TechTarget provides, perhaps, the simplest explanation of the difference between multi-channel and omni-channel marketing:

"What distinguishes the omnichannel customer experience from the multi-channel 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 I.T., because integration implies Big Data. The reality is that we are building systems and processes that use data from line of business systems, customer interactions on web, mobile, social, with brand ambassadors like customer service and sales, and (where consumer products are the focus) behaviors in brick-and-mortar stores. Integrating the systems used to manage your marketing content puts customer data at the center of the brand interaction, which is what makes a seamless customer experience possible.

What omni-channel is not

Now that we have a basic understanding of what omni-channel marketing is, let's talk about what it is NOT – because that has major implications for your organization.

Omni-channel 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, omni-channel 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, that the consumer seeks out) is brand-controlled. User reviews, social networks and other consumer-driven content 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.

Omni-channel is not conducted in silos

Omni-channel is a marriage of technology and marketing. A true omni-channel user experience requires not only collaboration but cooperation between Marketing and I.T. 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 I.T. need to be sensitive to each other's schedules, initiatives and resource constraints.

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

Omni-channel is not a switch you flip on – "Tah-dah!"

The crucial integration of systems that differentiates omni-channel marketing from multi-channel marketing often requires updating back-end systems. And that's neither quick nor easy. Omni-channel marketing requires careful planning, along with the cooperation and collaboration between Marketing and I.T. described above.

An omni-channel 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. 

The following questions form the "four pillars" of an omni-channel organizational strategy:

  1. What is your user experience in relationship to omni-channel?
  2. How do you measure the overall value of omni-channel for your business?
  3. How do you connect, manage and use omni-channel data from your lines of business?
  4. What is the ROI on your omni-channel technology investment?

When these questions are answered and the insights applied, an omni-channel strategy can completely transform the way you do business.

Fusion Alliance is a unique hybrid of digital agency, data and mobile solutions provider, and technology consulting firm.