Omnichannel vs multichannel – you’ve heard the buzzwords, but what do they really mean?

Both these terms are alive and well in this conversation, and while they do mean very different things, it’s not so important that you label your efforts with the correct buzzword.

An Introduction to Omnichannel and Multichannel Marketing

The retail landscape has transformed over the past three years, not only in how people shop but also in the customer retention strategies used by retailers. During the pandemic, it quickly became impossible for retailers to sell their products at every possible touchpoint in a shopper’s life.

The pandemic forced in-person transactions to adopt the digital channel. Brands scrambled to create workarounds, including a wider array of delivery options and curbside pick-up. Customers expanded their shopping habits to a wider array of channels before 2019, but retailers quickly realized that consistent brand messaging was critical amidst the chaos. A move toward centralized messaging emerged well before the pandemic, but those two years of retail uncertainty helped accelerate the trend.

This leaves many wondering, “what counts as a channel?” Mobile phones? Mobile app? Social media platforms? What about pop-up shops?

What counts is that you continue to meet your shoppers where they’re at.

Before we explore the differences between an omnichannel strategy and a multichannel strategy, let’s first have a clear understanding of the meaning of these two retail ‘buzzwords’.

What is Omnichannel Marketing?

The prefix “omni” means “all.” When a brand chooses an omnichannel marketing strategy, they seek to connect buying experiences across multiple channels.

Another meaning of the prefix is “universal.” It’s relevant because brands that do omnichannel marketing effectively provide their customers with a universal shopping experience, one that’s consistent no matter where they shop or interact – the simple secret behind omnichannel success.

How Does Omnichannel Marketing Work?

Throughout the pandemic, shoppers often opted to browse for in-stock products online, then choose to pick up that purchase from the physical store. Curbside pickup (also referred to as BOPIS) and “contactless delivery” were added to the shopper journey for many who have never tried it before. Blending these digital and in-person experiences into a single, seamless customer journey are examples of omnichannel marketing.

An omnichannel approach to marketing helps your brand win customer loyalty because it provides the seamless customer experience they crave. What started as a necessity in the quest to stay healthy is now just a really convenient way to shop and live. Many patrons can’t imagine going back to the days of browsing stores in person before making each purchase. Customer behavior has changed for good.

Given this, it’s clear why omnichannel commerce is the future of retail. But even as clients return to in-person shopping, the importance of omnichannel retailing remains, especially as consumers report the desire to keep some of the shopping options that were first presented to them during the pandemic.

What will that transformation look like for retailers with both an online and physical presence? And how can the retailer develop a marketing strategy for a future that’s arriving faster than predicted?

It helps to know the strengths multichannel offers and the new AI tech that’s grown out of the retail landscape shift.

What is Multichannel Marketing?

Multichannel marketing and retail is just how it sounds: using multiple channels to drive customer engagement and sales. Think physical retail location and website, for example. These are two different channels where your brand markets and sells products.

Traditionally, the multichannel approach meant a different marketing strategy plus a different customer journey for each. This not only seems like a lot of work, but there’s also a risk of being inconsistent in branding and customer experience.

Today, most modern businesses have multiple marketing channels. What counts as an individual channel? It can be almost any platform or communication method that connects the brand to the customer. This may include customer interactions like live chat, email support, or even phone service. (Yes, customer service support has a huge impact on what customers think of your brand.)

Channels are also the things customers think of as “branding” opportunities, such as Twitter, your official shopping app, or website research customers conduct before making a purchase. Finally, it includes all of the things the potential customer may do online, from using Google search to learn about a product to reading Amazon product reviews.

Remember, multichannel retailing uses any of these. What matters is how brands use these multiple channels, and multichannel marketing is slowly losing ground to a better, more personalized approach.

In the war between omnichannel vs multichannel, customers have a clear favourite.

Your Main Event: Omnichannel vs Multichannel

What is the Difference Between Omnichannel and Multichannel?

These two strategies stand out in unique ways. 

Because omnichannel marketing seamlessly carries the customer experience from one channel to another, it requires customer data to deliver the most smooth and personalized journey possible.

What kind of customer data? Unlike personal data, which puts people into demographics with the hope of creating a shopper avatar, behavioral data is more focused on customer interaction. Think of how shoppers click around on a page, interacting with different product landing page elements (behavioral) instead of what state they live in or their age (personal).

Behavioral data is the perfect tool to help lead a shopper from the research to purchase to return purchase steps in a sales life cycle. The data follows them from channel to channel through a user profile stitched together by machine learning from data collection sources. The result is a 360-degree view of a customer whose needs are easier to meet and market to authentically.

It not only builds your business but helps the customer feel valued.

On the other hand, multichannel marketing is focused on creating silos of marketing messages. A Facebook message, email newsletter, and website search are segmented to optimize messages that would work best on each platform, usually based on personal data, not behavioral data.

Consumers moving from one channel to the other may not be recognized as repeat visitors, resulting in a customer hearing offers and opportunities that aren’t relevant to their specific place in the cycle. Worse yet, they may feel put off by completely irrelevant offers or being treated the same as someone new or less loyal to the brand.

Is separating digital and brick-and-mortar operations a good idea?Tune into our podcast, The Ecom Edge!

Which Retail Strategy Do Customers Prefer?

If you asked the customer, it’s likely to be omnichannel, although (from their perspective) they don’t see it as a marketing strategy but a series of consumer solutions that – when well-executed – make their lives easier. They don’t see channels as much as they see a brand. It’s not Apple on Twitter or Instagram – it’s just Apple.

The omnichannel customer service meets them anytime, no matter where they are, with search at the forefront of how they can get there.

Search is even more important on mobile than on desktop. On desktop, an ecommerce store has more room to encourage product discovery through navigation and recommendations. But on the smaller mobile screen, the shopper is more likely to rely on search.

Search doesn’t just help shoppers find the products they want faster. It also helps them buy those products when and where they want to, improving customer satisfaction. Customers want to research and compare products to make better buying decisions and avoid wasting time.

Shoppers want to know what sales channels are available and to choose how they’ll receive their purchase. They also want to filter search results according to availability at the store they choose, since out-of-stock items are a major point of frustration for shoppers.

One holdover from the pandemic is that customers want to check for in-stock inventory at a brand’s local store, and even be able to go and pick it up the same day.

Give customers the insights they expectBlog: Your Guide to Location-Aware Search

Importance of Search Technology to an Omnichannel Experience

What’s Needed for a Seamless Omnichannel Experience?

Now that it’s established that omnichannel marketing is the future of retailing, how can brands meet this change head-on? The answer lies in search.

“Perfect that search box first. Make sure that the experience that’s coming through the search box is as tightly tuned as possible,” Scott Compton, Senior Digital Business Strategy Professional at Forrester said in an interview with Coveo, highlighting search as an essential customer touchpoint. Compton has over 20 years of experience with direct-to-consumer marketing. “It’s a great time to reinvent your search experience on your site.”

As a former search practitioner, Compton said he was “completely blown away” by newer tools’ ability to deliver relevant results to shoppers when compared with legacy tool sets he’d previously used.

Compton especially emphasized the importance of mobile search as a touchpoint.

“Imagine all the different kinds of things that people are using mobile for in your store,” he said. “They’re going to be in that store using that tool, and you’ve got to make that tool as efficient and friction-free as possible.”

How Does Headless Search Underpin Omnichannel Commerce?

One major hurdle for organizations attempting to create a seamless omnichannel experience is being burdened by full-scale applications. Their traditional architectures are poorly equipped to support omnichannel eCommerce.

There is good news, though.

While having multiple marketing and sales channels often represent architecture silos with a tightly coupled user experience, the leaders responding rapidly to the evolving demands of this new eCommerce experience are embracing a “headless” architecture using an API-first approach.

“Headless” has become a buzzword in eCommerce. In the words of Forrester analyst Joe Cicman, headless “is an architectural model based on touchpoints loosely coupled to capabilities through APIs. It allows you to deliver consistent customer experiences across touchpoints, even between mobile, kiosk, TV, and laptop.”

Omnichannel experience meets customer expectations by delivering convenience.

Headless commerce offers a truly new, immensely customizable capability to continuously modernize applications in direct response to customer demand, enabling omnichannel experiences.

And, importantly, a headless approach helps support the broad array of newer touchpoints: the same presentation code that runs a website or native app is not always valid, but the same underlying ecommerce capabilities are required.

To support the many “heads” of an omnichannel ecommerce, presentation is decoupled from the application logic via APIs. Embracing a headless, API-first approach is therefore critical to successfully navigating the evolving ecommerce landscape.

Get more insights into headless commerceEbook: Win and Grow Customers in the Experience Economy with Headless Ecommerce

What is the Future of Omnichannel Retail?

Consumers are more digitally savvy now. That’s given them new expectations about convenience and personalization when they shop. The online shopping habits we developed over the past year aren’t going away. Instead, we have an accelerated blend of digital and in-person experiences into one seamless experience.

Smarter search will continue to change how we shop both online and in-person. What does the future of omnichannel retail look like? Imagine shoppers walking through your clothing store while describing the outfit they want into their phone, and then your brand’s app sends them to the right aisle.

Or a customer needs one more screw to assemble a new bookcase. So they take a picture of the screw and input the photo into your home improvement app. The app tells them what kind of screw they need and whether it’s available at a nearby location.

These capabilities are exciting, Compton said, but multichannel retailers shouldn’t lose sleep if they’re not ready to implement them right away.

“What I’m hearing across the board, with a couple of vertical exceptions, is perfect the search box first,” he said. “Don’t worry about these new input types. But when you’re shopping for a technology partner, make sure they can handle them in the future.”AI-powered search is another way to level the playing field, even for brands that may be a bit behind on the shift to omnichannel marketing. Creating a relevant ecommerce experience can overcome many obstacles.

Dig Deeper

Omnichannel personalization is the baseline — how do you accomplish unique results for individual customers, at scale, successfully? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Personalization in Ecommerce for insights and how to go to the next level with artificial intelligence.

What should retailers’ top priority be as they prepare for the future? Tune in to Episode 5: The Future of Retail of our podcast, The Ecom Edge!

Share this story:

About Linsey Knerl

Linsey is a Midwest-based author, public speaker, and online content consultant. She has 15 years of experience helping small business owners do more with their resources via the latest tech solutions.

Read more from this author