Omnichannel vs. Multichannel: What’s the Difference?

Omnichannel and multichannel refer to the way a brand uses its touchpoints. While both approaches involve using multiple “channels” to communicate and facilitate an experience, these two terms represent fundamentally different ways of thinking about these channels and how they contribute to the customer experience.

Omnichannel literally means “all channels,” whereas multichannel just means “multiple channels.” But that simple definition doesn’t really illuminate the difference. 

Two organizations could use the same number of channels—such as their website, a marketplace, a Facebook page, an email list, and brick and mortar stores—but the way they use those channels determines whether the brand is using an omnichannel or multichannel approach.

Here are the key differences between these strategies for using your communication channels.

Omnichannel strives to create a seamless experience

The biggest difference between omnichannel and multichannel strategies is continuity. Using multiple channels well doesn’t always mean that those channels work together or that your brand provides a seamless experience from one channel to another.

In many ways, this is one of the traits that makes “omnichannel” aspirational—because it’s extremely difficult to pull off. Brands that want to facilitate an omnichannel experience need to think about how their various channels can support each other and contribute to the customer journey.

The challenge is that these channels are often siloed. Different employees and teams are responsible for them, and in the case of offline channels like brick and mortar stores, there’s very little interaction—even though customers may switch between these channels multiple times before buying.

To the customer, these distinct touchpoints all contribute to a single experience—every interaction is part of their relationship with the same brand. But for multichannel brands, these interactions are isolated, anonymous events. That’s usually because these brands don’t have the visibility they need to track customer activity from one channel to another, or they aren’t using the data they have to create a cohesive experience.

With an omnichannel approach, each interaction should build on the previous ones. For example, with a multichannel approach, a customer might see retargeting ads for a product they recently viewed. An omnichannel strategy, however, would use that same retargeting to highlight their concerns and address their hesitations head-on. 

If the price point was too high, an omnichannel approach might showcase a payment plan or offer a discount. If the customer explored the sparse reviews on a product page, the ads might leverage social proof from a retailer’s product page with more ratings. Rather than trying to use each channel as an entry point, the channels work together to make a more compelling case for the product.

Multichannel brands lack visibility

One of the most significant marketing challenges ecommerce brands face is a lack of visibility into the customer journey. If you sell your products through retailers, it’s extremely difficult to measure the effectiveness of your marketing efforts because you can’t track activity that happens off-site.

Someone could click through a YouTube video or email and explore product pages on your website, then leave to continue shopping with their preferred retailer. When they buy, the marketing asset that established the first touchpoint deserves at least some of the credit, but that can’t happen unless you have universal tracking.

This lack of visibility can create tone-deaf experiences, where a brand might show someone ads for a product they just bought after clicking through that same ad. With truly omnichannel commerce, brands can attribute sales to the assets and channels that triggered them, helping channels to build on the customer’s experience rather than disrupt it.

Omnichannel commerce gives customers more choice

Brands that take an omnichannel approach to commerce are more focused on ensuring that customers buy their products, and less concerned about where they buy. Especially when brands don’t have visibility into the buying process, brands tend to push customers toward a single path to purchase—such as direct-to-consumer—where they can track the purchase, and where they may have the best margins. 

Tools like PriceSpider’s Where to Buy help brands increase sales by letting you present customers with a variety of paths to purchase. Rather than fighting against a consumer’s preferences to drive sales toward a single channel, you can capitalize on those preferences to maximize conversions. You can even highlight special buying options available through brick-and-mortar stores, like click and collect or BOSS.

Since Where to Buy facilitates universal tracking, you can focus on optimizing conversions rather than driving sales to a specific channel.

Connecting online and offline channels

The channels that are hardest to create a cohesive experience between are online and offline channels. Consumer shopping behaviors like webrooming and showrooming already leverage the strengths of both channels—where shoppers research online then buy in-store, or research in-store and buy online. But omnichannel brands also make an intentional effort to forge stronger connections and greater continuity between online and offline channels.

After your marketing assets drive someone to your product page and convince them to buy, you can make a point of highlighting local buying options. Some customers seek out buying options like buy-online and pick-up in-store (BOPIS), so providing pathways to the stores that facilitate them can secure more sales, remove opportunities for competitors to cut in, and support a seamless cross-channel experience.

You can also use offline channels like packaging materials and direct mailing to drive people to relevant online experiences, such as collecting emails for a membership program or soliciting online reviews in exchange for discounts and add-on products.

With an omnichannel approach, brands actively seek opportunities for online and offline channels to interact and support each other.

Omnichannel commerce starts with the right tools

Where to Buy lets you highlight a variety of channels your customers can use to buy your products—and just as importantly, you can track these transactions, regardless of which channel they occur on. Thanks to our universal tracking capabilities and access to in-cart data, you can focus on facilitating an omnichannel experience and stop confining your customers to a single channel.
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