What is the difference

between Omni-channel

and Multi-channel?

Omni-channel and multi-channel are very similar-looking terms that describe subtlety different approaches to the way brands communicate with their customers.

Multi-channel is channel-focused – developing different channels to maximise their effectiveness. Omni-channel is customer-focused. 

While multi-channel describes the possibly familiar ‘multiple’ channels through which a business maximises its marketing – through social media, traditional print advertising, TV and media advertising) – omni-channel focuses on the experience that each individual customer has when they’re interacting with that messaging. The goal of omni-channel experience is to make that experience as immersive and seamless as possible.

So, that’s the basic difference. We’re going to use this article to go into a bit more detail and clarify some of the advantages and pitfalls of each approach.

Casting a wide net

Let’s start with multi-channel.

The term multi-channel simply describes running many different channels at once to reach customers, through whatever medium. The implication, when we speak about multi-channel marketing in comparison to omni-channel, is that these channels don’t connect or relate with one another.

The great advantage of the multi-channel approach is its focus on reaching the most people possible. It has sometimes been described as casting the widest possible net to catch the greater number of fishes. Everything is done with the intention of driving new business. Not a particularly discerning method, but, compared with alternatives (as we will see below) very cost-effective – and suitable for highly competitive, low margin business where the customer is looking for expediency and not making any life-changing decisions – like groceries, for example.

That’s not to say there’s no room for discernment. Brand messaging can and frequently is altered when targeting different demographics, for example. In the UK, today, media consumption still dramatically differs between varying age groups. For example, according to an IPA report, over-55s still get most of their media from watching TV (53%), while smartphone use is rising much more rapidly among younger and middle-aged people: from 33 to 47% as of the end of 2019.

So, while the multi-channel model promotes mass messaging with some room to target specific demographics – there are some possible drawbacks. One of the great arguments in favour of omni-channel is the consistency of experience for the customer – which can be lost in a multi-channel model. The company has many different – usually tailored – messages being sent out at once, which may sometimes clash.

As a digitally native company, ASOS is one of the best examples for fluent use of multiple channels. ASOS has an easy-to-use website and app, which regularly updated and tweaked (both the sites and UX, as well as the catalogue) to keep things fresh.  They also have a hefty social media presence with curated content, their own ecosystems of shared content that promotes liking, saving and sharing – encouraging discussion and troubleshooting between customers. This platform is integrated with native marketplace apps (e.g. Business Manager on Facebook). This helped them capitalise (literally) on the e-commerce boom during 2020: they saw an 18% increase in sales last year in the UK, and 22% in the rest of Europe, according to its website.

Tailoring an experience

An omni-channel model integrates and builds on this sort of presence. A Harvard study found that a sizable majority (73%) of consumers utilised multiple channels to make a purchase with a retailer. This increased a bunch of key metrics, like time spent online, but, at the end of the day, increased spending with that retailer by 13%.

The principle behind omni-channel puts the customer experience is at the centre of the company’s messaging, with consistency as a priority. It attempts to build a coherent and unified communication style, for the benefit of the customer. Information is freely shared between different teams to keep the experience for the customer frictionless and – importantly – consistent.

An omni-channel model is customer-focused and allows for personalisation, and thus increases brand prestige (“they took such good care of me!”) and retention. A word that has been tossed around to describe omni-channel is ‘immersive’: the business and customer are interacting during the entire process of deciding whether or not to make a purchase.

Apple is perhaps the most prominent example of omni-channel native business: appointments and customer service is mediated through digital and brick-and-mortar stores as well as – of course – Apple devices for an immersive and efficient experience.

On that basis, omni-channel may seem like the obvious choice. But there are reasons why a business might still prefer to operate along a multi-channel model, at least in certain scenarios.

The most immediate concern must be the sheer investment required to set up a proper omni-channel approach. There are marketing automation tools that can lighten the load – but these represent a drain on cost, time, and expertise that many businesses will scarcely be able to afford to give away. It is also difficult to achieve in half-measures – given that consistency across all platforms is a huge part of its selling point. Tools like Emarsys and Monetate can, however, make the job significantly more achievable.

There may be other concerns. The potentially invasive use of consumer data (or reliance on hefty cookie policies for consumer insights), for instance, is only ever becoming more of a concern. According to data from the Internet Society and Consumers International, 69% of consumers say they are concerned about how personal data is being collected and used. Prior to the implementation of the GDPR in 2016 – or, notably, the explosive Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 – this was almost a non-issue.

Understanding your needs

Businesses need to look at their own needs to make a choice. Banks and insurance, for instance, have taken omni-channel very seriously up to now: making false or inconsistent communications can take a massive toll on consumer trust when you’re handling people’s money – especially during a time of crisis (like, to pull an example out of thin air, a global pandemic). This is also where the higher rates of retention in omni-channel (an increase of 91% YoY, suggests a survey from Aspect Software) may become especially significant: the only real reason to change bank accounts is poor customer service.

In many other cases, however, the cost-benefit calculation is going to tip heavily in the direction of a multi-channel approach. A digitally-native brand will almost certainly need to integrate an omni-channel approach to some extent – customers will appreciate being able to access it from a range of locations, whether it’s social media, email or phone – and it’s asking for trouble not to have these different channels integrated to some extent. A brick-and-mortars outfit, however, may not be so pressed.

It’s worth saying that there is obviously also significant overlap: where one approach can benefit the other. Sharing customer data between channels and using those insights is ‘omni-channel’, by our definition – but can be used in an otherwise multi-channel approach without being disruptive or lots of investment.

Taken together, it might make sense for many businesses – especially younger businesses – to focus first on developing a robust multi-channel: identify a buyer persona, prioritising the best channels for your business, developing automation and analytics. Later, when it provides a growth opportunity, an omnichannel approach may recommend itself. Deciding between multi-channel and omni-channel is a process.

Hopefully, it should be clear now that multi-channel and omni-channel represent two different models – philosophies, even – on the way in which businesses can reach their customers. It’s important to stress that one is not necessarily better than the other – and there are no fine lines: parts of one approach can be tailored into the other. It’s about the business and its specific needs – as, indeed, may be the case with the customer.