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?

Behaviors and habits vary depending on the channel, the product category and where the shopper is in the buying cycle. For example, buyers might prefer to research electronics online, try out specific products in a retail store, then buy from an online discounter using their mobile device. Fashion shoppers may behave in a completely different way.

Disconnected Platforms

The old way of selling goods and services online involved building entirely separate brand sites and web shops with siloed Web Content Management (WCM) and e-Commerce systems. The core commerce functionality of such sites is typically reduced to a set of core transactional features: browsing, check out and customer self-service. All other interactions take place in a separate “brand” area of the site.

The problem is compounded further when companies roll out dedicated mobile apps. These functions may appear to be part of the same experience, but they’re often not, creating a disconnect that is immediately obvious to the customer. With significant investments of time and money in building these separate systems, companies can ill afford to simply rip-and-replace them overnight

Learning Opportunities

Disconnected Teams

The problems companies face in delivering unified customer experiences are not just technological, they’re cultural. Most organizations have entirely separate teams -- with different goals and work patterns -- for managing marketing content and e-Commerce transactions. Marketers are looking to create impact with seasonal campaigns that are frequently based on one-off technology investments. The content they work with is often unstructured and takes considerable time and effort to create and deliver. e-Commerce teams, on the other hand, are charged with driving conversions and optimization are more likely to look for simple, predictable and repeatable solutions that can help them increase ROI. The content they deal with is typically more structured.

Stepping Stones to Omnichannel

So, how do companies resolve these conflicts and establish a technological and cultural foundation that can scale from basic multichannel to true omnichannel experiences? There are at least three major steps:

Integrated systems that support blended content and commerce experiences

Companies need to deploy solutions based on deep WCM and e-Commerce integrations that leverage each system for its strengths and combine assets into unique hybrid experiences. These types of solutions allow marketers to access up-to-the-minute product data and blend it with brand content in real time to create dynamic customer experiences that can be infused seamlessly across the entire customer shopping experience.

Personalize the experience with relevant, contextual content

Different customers have different needs and goals -- and they expect that the online experience will adapt to reflect their unique history and current situation. Online stores, brand sites and apps can no longer be static, one-size-fits-all experiences. Companies need to be able to deliver personalized content to shoppers based on device capabilities, user profile, cart contents, past purchases, social activity and more.

Incremental innovation

The final step for delivering true omnichannel experiences is perhaps the most critical -- the ability to transition incrementally and intelligently from legacy platforms to a new set of integrated tools and business practices. The desire to change everything overnight in response to pressing market challenges is understandable but is usually a recipe for failure -- particularly given the cultural changes that need to take place.

Shifting from separate, multichannel experiences to true omnichannel delivery is not something that can happen overnight. Companies need an approach that allows them to manage their level of risk by taking an evolutionary and predictable approach that lays a sustainable foundation for future growth.

The shift to true omnichannel experiences will be difficult for some companies but the shift can be made much easier with the right partner. The effort will be well worth it. Companies that make the transition can expect to see increased visitor engagement and loyalty, improved SEO and higher traffic from earned media, greater brand awareness, higher conversion rates and more revenue.

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