“Omni-Channel”. That’s a great-sounding phrase, isn’t it? It’s big. It’s powerful. It evokes hope in the future of Consumer Experience and alludes to the payoff for advertisers of all the online/offline data and technology we, our partners and competitors have been telling them about. For years now, we and our clients have been saying that we either are omni-channel, are becoming omni-channel, or will become omni-channel. It’s practically table stakes to say that phrase or something related at least five times per day.
But what does it really mean? Do we even know what we’re saying when we utter those words? Do our clients know what it means when they say they want to be, “omni-channel?” What about omni-channel’s ancestors, Cross-channel, Multi-channel, and (bless its stone-age heart) Single-channel? And finally, if we are truly being honest with ourselves, which of these are we?
Foundational questions, all. Let’s spend a few minutes digging in to them and see if we can’t learn something about how we engage our clients and lead them on the journey to the Consumer Experience future they desire.
Let’s begin with the base case – single-channel marketing.
As a matter of definition, single-channel refers to a marketing tactic that contacts consumers through only one type of touchpoint (e.g. mail, TV, Radio, etc.) and only offers products or services via that channel. Technologically speaking, single-channel is typically supported by a solution of modest architectural sophistication supported by a very small number of partners.
As with any approach, single-channel has its advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, single-channel strategies are low-cost, easily and rapidly deployed, simple to measure, and can perpetuate an aura of exclusivity for brands with certain unique characteristics that make such a thing of value. Conversely, single-channel strategies severely limit both the scale and diversity of potential audience reach.
Outside of a small handful of very specific brands (typically in extreme niche markets), single-channel is not a viable strategy – nor has it been for a very long time. In fact, I struggle to think of a time in my 17-year career at Acxiom where single-channel has been in play for any of our clients.
Multi-channel represents the next step in the evolution of brand-consumer relations. It is, by definition, a marketing tactic whereby consumers are engaged independently through multiple types of touchpoints. Some or all of a brand’s products and services are offered within each channel. From a technological point of view, multi-channel is typically a collection of single-channel solutions operating in silos with little to no uniformity of architectural or operational standards and practices. Furthermore, multiple channels within a multi-channel strategy are often supported by different sets of partners.
From a reach and scale perspective, multi-channel is a dramatic leap forward from single-channel as it opens the brand and its offerings up to a much broader and more diverse audience, and offers interactions with them in more methods that may potentially suit their needs. However, the lack of coherence across channels creates massive inefficiency in operation and ambiguity in performance analysis. At a high level, brands can clearly see the positive impact of a multi-channel strategy. However, generating credible data at the channel, product/portfolio level, or lower, is extremely challenging.
The vast majority of brands (and, as such, the vast majority of Acxiom’s client base) have been leveraging a multi-channel strategy for decades. Furthermore, many of the challenges with multi-channel engagement remain unsolved at scale in even some of the most advanced solutions in production today.
Taking multi-channel to the next level, and in doing so, attempting to solve for many of the challenges attributable to its silo-based approach is what brings us to cross-channel. Where multi-channel represented a quantum leap forward in reach and scale, cross-channel is more about coherent treatment of audiences within the reachable universe. Sure, brands (particularly digital agencies on their behalf) are still investing significantly in growing reach. But the real opportunity lies in how effectively a brand can engage those they are reaching.
With the emerging capabilities in linkage of data across devices and channels – both online and offline – providing the technological foundation, brands are now truly able to drive coordinated interactions with consumers across a significant subset these touchpoints. Furthermore, and perhaps the most significant aspect of cross-channel strategy, the technologies and techniques that allow coherent engagement of consumers across these channels have also ushered in a new era of campaign/channel performance measurement. We now have the ability to understand (with actual data) how certain publishers, segments, tactics, creatives, etc. are truly performing in context of the multiple exposures consumers have to a brand. Additionally, we are discovering innovative ways to leverage a mix of channels to awaken portions of audiences that have historically been poor (or even non) performers – all because we can bring together the data that allows us to accurately measure performance and derive actionable insights.
Cross-channel represents the true operational state of leading edge marketers today, including Acxiom’s more sophisticated clients. It is already driving significant improvements in MROI, yet it remains largely underexploited as a strategy. The upside with cross-channel is massive – we are only scratching the surface of what can be done with it. It would surely be the pre-eminent strategy for the next decade…if not for our next topic…
Simply put, omni-channel is what cross-channel will be when it grows up. It is the gateway to true people-based Consumer Experience management. Where cross-channel solves a portion of the problem, omni-channel solves it all (or at least achieves a critical mass that has the same effect). It is the means by which the concept of channel is eliminated from a consumer perspective and is replaced with a fluid, continuous brand experience which is bi-directional in nature. This is the sea change – through omni-channel, brands will no longer be simply displaying content to consumers. They will be engaging them in an on-going conversation. This type of interaction not only aligns to the ever evolving technology of our time, but also suits the lifestyle fostered by it, which is graphically evident amongst Millennials – the next great economic power in our economy.
Technologically speaking, omni-channel and cross-channel are one and the same – at least fundamentally. There are surely advances to be made in data and addressability (particularly in matching offline and online data), and technologies will be innovated that will enable more advanced tactics & techniques. Attribution, for instance, will become a real possibility, mobile addressability and measurability will catch up to utilization, the Internet of Things will open up new touchpoints and data sources, etc. But those things will happen – they always do.
The real challenge lies in how brands use the data and technology, and how they navigate the journey from the adolescence of cross-channel to the adulthood of omni-channel. This is a problem of people, process, organization, and commerce – and it is where the true innovators will separate themselves from the pack. Brands must evolve internally and rally around an intentionally data-driven and omni-channel strategy that is explicitly championed from the highest levels of the company. Marketing services platforms and providers must be leaders for their clients in both forming these strategies and implementing and executing tactics that drive them. Agencies and MarTech/AdTech players must adapt their business models to support this evolution – many foundational aspects of the commercial model that drives the ecosystem today are incompatible with the efficient, fluid management of Customer Experience across all channels. And finally, all of the above must significantly invest in talent and skill development across their respective organizations.
All of this will take time, and technology and innovation will continue to outpace our uptake of it. But make no mistake, omni-channel is the future, and the opportunities that come with it are enormous.
Call to Action
As marketing services providers, we must champion honest self-awareness for us and our clients about where we really are on the spectrum, how we drive to a true omni-channel state, and how we achieve incremental value along the way. It is our mission to not only keep innovating and perfecting the technology that underpins the evolution toward Customer Experience management, but also to be the partner that helps the great brands of the world chart the right course to this destination.