As a modern-day consumer, you’re making more decisions every day than any previous generation. Not only are you making conscious choices about where to eat or which shirt to buy, but you’re also making subconscious notes about advertisements or posts from friends on social media. You are generally processing thousands of data points each day.
Going through a day is now less about time spent seeking answers and more about considering existing choices and moving forward. Whether we like it or not, we’re omnichannel customers, and retailers know it.
While being hit with information through a vast set of online and offline channels may seem stressful as a consumer, it’s actually the business marketer’s best friend. Done correctly, omnichannel marketing gets the right piece of marketing in front of the right person at a point in their journey where it positively impacts the outcome of a conversion.
Performing well in an omnichannel world requires businesses to think creatively and be hyper agile in decision making. This guide makes an argument for omnichannel experiences, helps you and your team see how it can fit into your broader strategy and provides tips for getting started. Let’s start with defining omnichannel and the pieces that live inside an omnichannel strategy.
What is an Omnichannel Retailing Strategy?
An omnichannel retail strategy deploys strategic, intentional marketing efforts across all available offline and digital channels to a well-segmented audience. This means your online and offline communications must align. Alignment and consistency are what separate omnichannel from multichannel efforts.
It means your emails and text messages should mirror real-life events. It means you need clean data, a deep understanding of your customer’s intentions, and an ability to refine your approach constantly. Ideally, your omnichannel efforts are run by a full team of experts–though it’s quite possible to accomplish great things with a team of a few or even one.
Here are some key elements that sit behind a great omnichannel approach.
Customer Journey Mapping
Customer journey maps come in a variety of formats but generally highlight key points along the path from awareness of a brand to making a purchase, and beyond. Simply, it’s a document that shows how strangers find your business, consider whether they’d like to do business with you, and then where and how they make their decision. Ideally, this map indicates channels being used throughout the journey.
Benefits of a well-documented customer journey are felt from sales (ability to empathise with customer position) to marketing (quicker refinement of channel mix and incorporation of other elements), and beyond. For omnichannel marketing, the map gives you a clean way to see which channels fire at which point in the journey.
This isn’t typically a place to list out specific assets or even necessarily specific marketing activations. It is a place to note things like:
- Which channels are used to collect and highlight customer reviews? Is there any action that happens after a review is left, such as a rewards program update?
- How do you communicate differently with visitors during their in-store checkout process as returning vs new customers? Are there specific efforts undertaken to ensure new customer returns? Where along the timeline, do these things happen?
- Is email used solely to communicate rewards or sales, or is there another purpose like shipping updates, educational content, or a referral program?
- Where are potential customers first researching your type of product or service? Are there online or offline communities you need to join? Is there a specific advertising network that speaks to this audience effectively?
- How does social media fit into your strategy? Are there ongoing community-building efforts in addition to campaign-specific advertising activations?
Getting started with a customer journey map can be intimidating. Learn how to make a customer experience map or read about a unique method called a customer waveline. As with many things in business, a customer journey document can begin on a sheet of paper. Don’t overcomplicate things and you’ll have a beautiful journey map before you know it.
To properly deliver messaging across all channels in a meaningful way, clean data is imperative. What does this look like in practice? Primarily it means working to have one source of truth for all data (like marketing performance, operating expenses, or CLV) sitting inside a database that can be queried for basic insights about individuals and segments.
Since a true multi-touch attribution model (shows the value of each touchpoint in encouraging a customer conversion) is a pipe dream for many companies, the first goal should be dependable data.
Dependable customer data is knowing whether a mobile device is associated with a customer and their email address. It’s able to see how long someone’s been a customer. It shows what percentage of return customers make returns. In short, it’s accurate where you, as a retailer, need it to be.
Channel Mix (Balance)
Your channel mix describes the channels you’re using to convert customers. It discusses the goal of each channel and how you intend to use it within your month-to-month strategy. With an omnichannel approach, this generally means you’ll use every option at your disposal from texting platforms to in-person feedback mechanisms at a brick and mortar store, and numerous online channels.
Since your decisions won’t revolve around which channels to use, the focus becomes which channels should be used more than others to improve the customer relationship.
Your choices here impact things like how much budget you’ll spend on each channel, where you hire more personnel, and how media is distributed. They also impact which channels get put on autopilot (though they’ll never be “off”) for a certain time period. In the next section, we’ll show you how this plays out in practice alongside some benefits of using all available channels.
Benefits of Omnichannel Retail Strategy (and One Potential Downside)
As mentioned above, the goal of an omnichannel strategy is to provide a consistent experience, cross-channel. But, what is the actual benefit of this when done well? How can it impact your business and where might you fall short if you ignore the idea entirely? Here are some ways omnichannel strategies can benefit your business, and one-way things can go sideways if you go overboard.
Creating enough value for customers to turn them into long-term followers and believers of your brand is an ideal state. When you deliver a consistent experience across all channels, you’ll slowly become a part of the customer’s life. The brand becomes something a visitor wants to include in their life.
Equity is just as easily lost by using clickbait content or making offers that don’t come true. Is increasing an ad’s conversion rate by 5% really worth ruining your reputation with an audience segment? Is introducing a mobile app worth having fewer resources for customer support? Return customers will appreciate you sticking to your word and backing up your product or service when it falls a bit short.
Much of the benefit of an omnichannel strategy is being able to meet the customer on their terms, with context-appropriate messaging and offers. The same rules apply to customer service. While many customers will be okay receiving shipping updates and promotional offers by text message, others won’t want to provide their mobile phone number.
This isn’t a place to go out of your comfort zone too far, though, as your internal processes must be able to support the inbound and outbound messages, alongside real-time updating of your database. Beyond alerts, there is immense value in having a thorough help centre. Whether online or in-person, a knowledgeable and consistent voice explaining how things work will always lead to a happier customer.
And timing matters, too. A slight, unexplained pause in the customer support process can immediately make someone upset or feel like their concern is not being investigated. Offering consistent updates (even if they truly say, “we have no update”) shows your customers you’re on top of making things better for them.
You likely have a channel that outperforms all others regularly. Your Facebook community loves discussions, your promotional emails have an eye-opening clickthrough rate, or your in-store rewards activations increase lifetime value by a wide margin. But what about the nooks and crannies of your other, less explored channels?
By exploring all channels, you greatly increase the potential you’ll discover an unrealised and high-performing audience segment. And, by layering in a great customer feedback system, you’ll quickly pick up on demographics outperforming what they’ve done historically.
Once you discover a potential audience to work with, run a series of tests to see how they react. Have your onboarding emails go out in a different order, adjust the order pickup experience, or change the language of your advertising CTAs.
Potential Downside: Becoming Annoying
Managing an omnichannel effort is all about balance. You need to find the point between building a strong long-term connection with customers and becoming a nuisance. This means understanding messaging frequency within each channel and each phase of the user journey.
Too many messages and you risk being annoying or even pushing a customer to unsubscribing or completely leaving your brand behind. Not enough communication, and you’ll become an afterthought at the key time when someone goes to make a purchase.
This isn’t to say one extra touchpoint will throw off your average customer journey, but rather always to recognise how your efforts impact the customer. That’s another key differentiator between an omnichannel and multichannel approach.
6 Tips for Developing an Omnichannel Retail Strategy
So, you’re sold on the idea of working towards an omnichannel strategy. Here are six ways you can make life easier as you develop your digital marketing plan, and avoid any unnecessary challenges that many organisations experience.
1) Get On The Same Page With Internal Communication
Being great at omnichannel retail isn’t a simple feat. It usually takes a coordinated effort across various skill groups working towards well-organised goals. Establishing a vision for your omnichannel presence at the outset allows each team to understand better their role and which portions of the strategy they can impact. From product and marketing to customer support, sales, and development, your people need to align under the goal of delivering on your promise.
So, what are you communicating? Everyone who will touch the program should understand overarching objectives, as well as the metrics that matter, and any specific elements that fall under their responsibility. One way to format your goals is through Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). This system allows you to develop objectives tied to business goals and quickly identify how each team’s efforts will fit into the puzzle.
2) Let Technology Play A Large Role
Executing an omnichannel retail strategy without proper tools and technology is next to impossible. This includes things like conversion rate optimisation tools for your website, a customer communication platform, and a CRM to store and segment customer data.
Equally important are employees who know how to use the tools to their fullest extent. You’ll want to account for onboarding and ramping up of task competency within the tools. Setting initial goals just for using the tools and communicating findings can be a wise first step before layering in more performance-based objectives.
To add a layer to your omnichannel presence, consider working on personalisation. Personalisation, in this sense, can mean everything from using the customer’s first name in an email subject line to offering product highlights based on prior purchases. Anything that makes a customer feel like they’re an active participant in your journey is a good thing when you’re seeking to produce a seamless experience.
3) Stay Flexible and Always Listen to the Customer
Omnichannel marketing can get complicated. Take it slow when adding new channels or technologies. The total experience you’re putting forward will slowly optimise towards your customers’ needs, and adding too much too quickly will only make it more difficult.
A great way to prevent this is by testing everything before it goes 100% live. This includes testing new messaging channels and specific messages, data platforms, and really anything that the customer will see hear, or touch, or which will otherwise impact their user experience.
Start small and start slow when adding new channels. Some competitors have likely been operating on the channel for longer than you, so your work will be immediately compared to theirs – as well as to goliaths of online presence such as Amazon.
Offering a coffee shop rewards program? Consider how masterfully Starbucks incorporates theirs into the overall marketing strategy. Working on incorporating a text message campaign for shipping updates? Make sure you allow time to follow all required security and compliance protocols.
4) Research & Data are Key
Don’t get stuck in past trends just because they worked for you for a while. Always be researching new trends in your vertical and paying attention to your customer feedback loop. With key conversion points like an e-commerce checkout page, new features like creative payment options can have a major impact on your business outcome.
With modern consumer behaviour shifting regularly, be sure to re-evaluate customer personas and segments at least once a year to keep up with trends and take advantage of new opportunities. Don’t perform this update too regularly, though, or you risk changing your system based on noise in the data instead of true changes and updates in consumer behaviour.
5) Unify the Online and Offline Customer Experience
Unifying your online and offline efforts into one strategy may cause some confusion at first. After all, CPC doesn’t translate across all channels or even have an equivalent metric in some in-person interactions. Just as you wouldn’t force a customer to fill out a survey every time they buy at your physical store, you wouldn’t create 80 landing pages just to improve your data and tracking abilities.
Injecting a bit of common sense into marketing decisions will provide a natural path to channel prioritisation if you see great success with something, lean-in to it and take a slower approach with other channels. The main goal with an omnichannel approach is to keep everything moving together–even if some things are moving faster than others.
Having a plan for change management with your teams is a great way to avoid any struggles caused by updating priority.
6) Consider Every Device & Every User Touchpoint
Staying flexible and truly listening to customer feedback is a great starting point for sustainable growth. Another balance to strike with this approach is between being proactive with new efforts and reactive based on that feedback loop. That said, investing in different channels for customer support is always a good decision (even if the need is small to start).
Start with an FAQ or help centre on your website if you’re not able to hire customer support, team members. Watching session recordings of visitors on this part of your site will allow you to update and optimise answers to common questions over time.
Having an understanding of omnichannel strategies helps provide a point of reference for your brand. Whether you’re just getting started or are operating an industry-leading effort, being intentional with messaging and marketing activations across your entire channel mix can pay major dividends in building long-term customer loyalty and business success.
Originally published Dec 16, 2020, updated Jan 17, 2023