2014-15-July-Milk-Processing.jpgIn January of last year, Macy's became the first major retailer to name a Chief Omnichannel Officer. In May of this year, Target announced the formation of a new Digital Advisory Committee to focus specifically on brainstorming omnichannel strategies.

Clearly the need to deliver true omnichannel experiences is something that retailers and their marketing teams are taking very, very seriously.

From Multichannel to Omnichannel

For those of us who were around to see the emergence of digital commerce back in the late nineties and the early enthusiasm for mobile commerce back in the mid-2000s, the current focus on omnichannel may seem like old news. How is omnichannel different from the multichannel and cross-channel strategies of these earlier eras?

I would argue however that omnichannel communication represents something significantly different from multichannel -- and that it will require a very different set of skills and technologies.

In the early days of online shopping and marketing, virtually all digital interactions were done via websites from a PC. Today, a new and ever-growing range of connected digital devices allows people to shop from anywhere, at anytime. As a result, customers are increasingly using mobile devices at every stage in the shopping lifecycle -- from initial discovery to final purchase and beyond. Customers are spending more time online researching products and services. And social communication is an important part of this research.

This shift to always-on, mobile communication is bringing more and more of the traditional buying and marketing cycle online. All this is leading to a more empowered customer that is more informed, more self-reliant and less dependent on brands to make shopping decisions. And as customers become more empowered, brand strategies based on basic multichannel -- or even cross-channel -- strategies are insufficient. In fact, they may even be preventing companies from being able to deliver true omnichannel experiences.

What makes omnichannel so different from multichannel is its focus on delivering a complete, and truly unified, customer experience across all channels. In the multichannel model, each customer touchpoint is often treated as a separate and distinct experience -- managed by a different team using different tools and content -- with limited or no connections between them. Companies listening to their customers soon realized that customers don’t know or care what goes on behind the scenes – they see only a single brand and they expect a single, seamless experience.

Brands and retailers responded by developing cross channel strategies that applied consistent branding and messaging but only ad-hoc connections between channels. While this may have addressed some customer concerns, it was only a stopgap measure and could not scale to address the expectations of the always-connected shopper. True omnichannel experiences can only happen when companies stop thinking in terms of channels altogether and only think in terms of their relationship to the customer. The heart of omnichannel is its ability to transparently adapt to shifting customer demands and expectations -- regardless of the channel.

The Challenges

To accomplish this, companies need to overcome at least three major challenges:

Holistic View of the Customer

Companies are struggling to understand how to speak to this new breed of customer. How do they want to explore and interact with brands online? How do they want to purchase and transact?