The Lexicon of Omnichannel Marketing

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It's time to clear the air. Here's what separates cross-channel, integrated, multichannel, and omnichannel as marketing concepts.

Cross-channel marketing; integrated marketing; multichannel marketing; omnichannel marketing. Each of these terms rose to prominence as a response to a fundamental shift in consumers' behavior and expectations across an ongoing proliferation of marketing channels.

Understandably, the definitions of these terms have become muddled; the subtle nuances that separate them obfuscated by semantic errors and the industry's tendency to politicize its vocabulary. Today, however, cross-channel, integrated, and multichannel marketing—as terminology and practices—are falling out of favor for data-driven marketers focused on customer experience. Omnichannel marketing is the preferred approach for those marketing pros. Yet all too often marketers today are talking omnichannel, but in actuality are only delivering cross-channel, integrated, or multichannel marketing.

Here, we examine each of these marketing terms, and define them in relation to the coveted Holy Grail of omnichannel.

Omnichannel defined

Omnichannel is a complex but customer-centric approach to marketing. It's all about thinking holistically in terms of customer experience, interactions, and messaging; about connecting and using customer data to be contextually relevant at the customer's moments of truth. “Omnichannel is from the perspective of the customer,” says Marina Kalika, director of product marketing at engagement solutions provider TouchCommerce. “Terms and channels don't matter to customers. All they care about is being served consistently. They want the experience to be appropriate for what channel they're in.”

TouchCommerce CMO George Skaff adds, “The idea [of omnichannel] is that the customer may have different needs or objectives depending on where they are in their journey, but they're still fundamentally the same person.”

With omnichannel marketing there is a connectedness at a deeper level than cross-channel, integrated, or multichannel marketing. The reason is the holistic view of customer data on the back end that provides insight into each customer traversing channels and allows for the cohesive, customer-centric approach that sets omnichannel marketing apart from its predecessors.

Omnichannel versus multichannel

Many marketers who draw a distinction between multichannel and omnichannel marketing define the former as simply the use of multiple channels for a marketing campaign or initiative; there may not, however, be a consistent or integrated approach in using them.

“A lot of this is jargon. To some people all of these [terms] mean the same thing, but it's appropriate to think of omnichannel as an evolution of multichannel,” says John Faris, VP of cross-channel marketing at digital agency Red Door Interactive. “Omnichannel is a more comprehensive approach where you prioritize being omnipresent in the consumers' experience. Multichannel is a more marketer-driven, siloed approach.”

Multichannel may be a more marketer- than customer-centric approach to marketing, but contemporary patterns of consumer behavior mandated multichannel strategies in nearly every industry. “Multichannel became the goal around the time that the Web came into play,” says Jennifer Smith, marketing director at marketing and sales solutions provider Corporate Visions. “It was really just a reaction to all these new digital channels.”

This is one area where multichannel and omnichannel marketing are alike. Both evolved as reactionary in terms of marketers' response to customers' changing buying behaviors and expectations as the number of channels available to them have increased. But, again, omnichannel differs in that it uses data to orchestrate the use of multiple marketing channels from the customers' perspective of what communications or interactions will be most beneficial and when.

Omnichannel versus cross-channel

Many marketing pundits view cross-channel marketing as a way to progress from multichannel to omnichannel practices. “Cross-channel is about following the customer from one channel to another,” TouchCommerce's Skaff explains. In doing so, marketers begin to understand who customers are as they move through their buying journey.

On its own, omnichannel can be a daunting prospect, especially for organizations without the processes and technologies in place to identify and track customers throughout their journey. Cross-channel marketing can be a boon to such businesses in that it can function as a lens through which an organization can bring an omnichannel focus into view. However, like multichannel marketing, cross-channel is a marketer-centric construct.

“When you think about [cross-channel] you're thinking from the perspective of those doing the marketing. Customers don't care about what channel they're using; they see it all as the same,” TouchCommerce's Kalika reiterates. “Omnichannel looks at [marketing] channels as one cohesive message because that's how customers look at it.”

Omnichannel versus integrated marketing

If cross-channel exists as the link between multichannel and omnichannel, then integrated marketing is omnichannel's doppelganger—at least on the surface. “At the core, integrated and omnichannel marketing are the closest to synonyms out of these terms,” Corporate Visions' Smith says.

The key here is “closest.” Integrated marketing and omnichannel marketing are fundamentally not the same. Integrated marketing, simply, “is the integration of traditional and digital media,” Red Door Interactive's Faris says. While integrated marketing seeks to synchronize marketing across channels—to create a campaign or initiative where the whole is greater than the sum of its part because the timing and messaging provide cohesion—omnichannel has the added jolt of back-end data connectedness that makes the communications and interactions not only cohesive, but also targeted and relevant.

“Many marketers view omnichannel as a fully integrated state of consumer engagement that includes shared data across channels to achieve a seamless experience for the consumer,” says Lila Snyder, president at customer information solutions company Pitney Bowes Document Messaging Technologies.

So, as close as integrated marketing may be to omnichannel, like its cross- and multichannel brethren, its orchestration is about benefiting the marketers delivering the campaign. Omnichannel marketing focuses squarely on the customer.

“At its core, marketing has always been about story and experience. It's important to make sure you have that core foundation and not get caught up in all these terms,” Smith notes. “We're still storytellers who want our customers to have a great experience with us.”

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