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Omnichannel vs. multichannel: What's the difference?

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Customer expectations have shifted in recent years. Customers want to be able to interact with brands across multiple channels on the platform of their choice. These shifting expectations have made way for two unique but easily confused approaches to marketing: omnichannel and multichannel.

Today many businesses engage with customers across different channels. That being said, the level of service provided across multiple channels is often inconsistent and data can remain siloed. For this reason, customer demands and business capabilities are often misaligned; and this misalignment provides the starting point we need to differentiate and transition between these two approaches.

By the end of this article, you’ll know what the difference is between multichannel and omnichannel, and how each approach stacks up against the other in today’s fast-paced, digitally-driven world.

What’s the difference between multichannel marketing and omnichannel marketing?

Often, the lines between omnichannel and multichannel marketing are blurred. There’s a constant debate about the differences between these two marketing approaches, and more often than not, the terms are simply used interchangeably.
At their core, the definitions of each approach yield various similarities. Yet, they also differ in crucial ways. Let’s take a look at both approaches to marketing and examine the key similarities and differences.

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What is the meaning of multichannel?

As you might have guessed, multichannel means “many channels”.

Largely used among marketing professionals, it’s also a phrase familiar to customer service and experienced professionals to refer to a brand’s interactions with leads and customers across diverse channels.

Multichannel marketing channels can be online or offline, and can include:

  • Voice
  • Email
  • Chat
  • Print
  • Physical Store

What is a multichannel approach?

Businesses who opt for a multichannel approach to customer service focus on being present where their customers are. Businesses aim to establish their presence on the channels with which their customers are most likely to interact.

With a multichannel approach, businesses adopt two or more channels. However, they won’t necessarily focus on providing a seamless experience across those channels. Instead, they’ll formulate strategies based on each channel and how to make it engaging and easy to use for the majority of their customers.

Moreover, a multichannel approach is often implemented via various systems for every single channel, as opposed to a unified customer engagement solution.

What is multichannel engagement?

Multichannel engagement involves reaching your audience on the right channel, sharing the right message, at the right time.

Nowadays, consumers deal with hundreds of different distractions every day. Engaging with customers on multiple channels is imperative for businesses. It’s the only way to reach out to potential customers, achieve customer service goals, and remain competitive in today’s dynamic market.

What is omnichannel?

Omnichannel means “all channels.”

Omnichannel marketing is a multichannel approach that aims to provide a personalized and integrated experience across diverse touchpoints and devices. An omnichannel approach unifies sales and marketing, so the customer can jump between channels to seamlessly continue their journey with a brand.

90%1 of consumers jump between channels and devices throughout their day. With this in mind, an omnichannel strategy ensures that customers don’t get lost or drop off when switching between channels, as everything is integrated for a better user experience.

It means a customer can visit your website from a desktop or mobile device, or visit your brick and mortar store after work and encounter a seamless experience. Or they might contact your customer service team via social media and see their contact escalated to a phone call without losing contextual data across channels.

So, is omnichannel the same as multichannel?

No, multichannel and omnichannel aren’t the same. Although omnichannel involves using multiple channels, the final experience of the customer is completely different.

  • Multichannel: Channels are not integrated and customer engagement is often siloed
  • Omnichannel: Channels are integrated to deliver a consistent customer experience across the board

How to differentiate multichannel and omnichannel

Here are three of the key differences to keep in mind when differentiating between these two approaches.

  1. Channel-based vs. customer-based— The aim of a multichannel strategy is to enable customers to reach your brand on the maximum number of channels. It focuses on using channels to increase engagement—the more engagement, the better.On the other hand, an omnichannel approach is customer-centric. This means it’s focused on developing stronger customer relationships through a holistic approach that connects channels for a unified and personalized experience.
  2. Customized experience—The multichannel approach focuses on sharing a brand’s message with customers. With the goal being that the customer completes a call-to-action.An omnichannel approach does the same but tries to understand the customers and use data to provide a customized experience. Here the goal is to offer cohesive engagement and an effortless customer experience.
  3. Consistency— Multichannel strategies approach channels separately. This means there’s a lack of integration, which results in an inconsistent and often frustrating experience across channels and internal departments. The lack of ability to switch between platforms at will can cause customers to switch to brands that do offer a holistic omnichannel experience.

Instead, brands that implement an omnichannel approach provide the same consistent and personalized experience across all channels and devices. As a result, businesses can convey a unified brand image and customer experience, which builds trust and familiarity among consumers.

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Multichannel and omnichannel examples

These two strategies operate in different ways and yield different results. However, it can be difficult to visualize these approaches in action to understand what they actually mean for businesses.

Let’s look at some examples that illustrate how these approaches work in relation to retailing, supply chain, and customer service.

Multichannel vs. omnichannel retailing

Multichannel and omnichannel retailing provide entirely different customer experiences.

With multichannel retailing, retailers’ focus is on giving information to customers. For instance, a brand might let their customer base know about an upcoming sale by sharing a message on social media or via email. Their goal? To get the customer to buy their product or service.

With this approach to retail, businesses can see how consumers react to their message on a particular channel, and use this information to adjust the channel accordingly.

Omnichannel retail, on the other hand, is a customer-centric approach that prioritizes consistency across retail channels. Buying a new product or service often involves much more than going into a store and buying something then and there. Instead, the modern customer journey involves multiple channels and devices.

An example of omnichannel retailing could be a customer who browses a brand’s e-commerce store mobile app on their cell phone on their commute home and later decides to make a purchase from their desktop.

When they access the website on their desktop, their cart should include what they selected during their mobile session, so they can seamlessly continue their journey. Moreover, they could select to pick up their purchase in-store, reflecting an inter-connected journey that remains consistent across mobile, desktop, and in-store touchpoints.

Differences in the supply chain

Both multichannel and omnichannel supply chains aim to provide for various sales channels to be used by consumers. The key differences lie in the internal structures that support these approaches at an organizational level.

Multichannel supply chains often develop different organizational silos for particular channels. For example, an e-commerce website might have its own department, warehouse management system, and transportation system. Whereas a physical store—albeit belonging to the same company—will have different ones. This can result in a disconnect across departments, which increases costs and leads to heightened customer frustrations.

Consider some customer frustrations that might arise from a multichannel approach supply chain experience:

  • Different prices in-store vs. online
  • Promotional codes that are only applicable online
  • Products and services unavailable on their preferred retail channel

Omnichannel supply chains also offer products and services across diverse channels. However, channels are integrated to provide an improved customer experience.

With this approach, there’s a constant flow of products across sales channels. Not only is this convenient for customers, but it also increases the likelihood that they’ll complete purchases. Alongside reducing cart abandonment due to customer frustrations arising from siloed multichannel supply chains. With omnichannel supply chains, consumers can enjoy the freedom to:

  • Buy items online and have them delivered to their home or pick-up in store
  • Place orders from their smartphone if a product isn’t available in-store
  • Browse online and commit to a purchase decision later while ensuring the product is still available

Omnichannel vs. multichannel customer support

Customer support is another of the main areas in that omnichannel is making a splash.

Nowadays, customers expect to be able to engage with brands on diverse offline and digital channels. Particularly when they have a problem they want to be addressed as quickly as possible. That’s where omnichannel support takes customer service to the next level.

With multichannel support, a customer can access multiple channels in separate interactions. On the other hand, omnichannel customer service ensures a seamless support experience with integrated channels.

This means customers can get in touch with a live agent on their preferred channel, whether it’s messaging, live chat, phone, social, or email. What’s more, if the customer feels that they aren’t getting the support they need to resolve their problem on live chat, for example, the agent can jump channels to continue the conversation via a phone call or video chat. All of the customer’s data is stored and transferred, to enable them to seamlessly continue the support experience without having to repeat themselves.

Cloud-based contact centers like RingCentral offer a unified solution with various customer engagement and customer service solutions that enable businesses to handle support operations from a centralized, cloud-based platform. With CRM integrations, agents can access customers’ data to provide personalized, streamlined support, and better customer experience.

Benefits of omnichannel marketing

  1. Better data and integrated marketing analytics
    Omnichannel strategies allow businesses to collect and unify customer data from diverse channels. From website cookies, shopping carts, mailing lists, PoS systems, and social media, marketers can obtain a strategic 360-degree view of their audience members. This data can be leveraged to provide personalized experiences and inform marketing campaign design, which will ultimately improve engagement and drive sales.
  2. Improve brand visibility and recall
    An omnichannel approach to marketing increases brand visibility by offering an integrated experience across various channels. The emphasis on consistency means customers see your brand in the same way across channels, resulting in better customer relationships and improved brand recall. What’s more, consumers are more likely to make a purchase from a brand that they trust!
  3. Save on costs
    Data insights enable marketers to inform successful marketing campaigns and allocate resources more effectively. By studying metrics and understanding which channels customers are engaging with the most, business owners can make data-driven decisions about which ones to invest time and money in.
  4. Improve the buyer experience 
    Omnichannel marketing provides customers with all the information they need on their preferred channels. Customers are more likely to complete purchases when this information is readily available, and they don’t become frustrated by disparate channels. What’s more, consumers will often research products online before committing to a purchase. That’s why it’s important to be accessible across channels and devices without interrupting the buyer’s journey.
  5. Increase ROI
    Building long-lasting customer relationships through consistent customer engagement and a frictionless journey will inevitably lead to more conversions. Omnichannel marketing helps brands to not only retain customers but to attract new ones through improved word-of-mouth marketing and content customization.

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How to develop a successful omnichannel marketing strategy

Developing an omnichannel marketing strategy isn’t a simple task. However, there are a few best practices you can follow to ensure the success of your omnichannel strategy.

  1. Understand your customers
    One of the keys to a successful omnichannel marketing strategy is to know your customer. Understand their wants, expectations, and pain points to know how you can best assist them along their customer journey.It’s also important to know which channels they’re most active on to better target your marketing efforts and provide them with a seamless, customized experience.To understand your customers better, revert to your buyer personas. Leverage information acquired from data and analytics, social listening, and customer feedback to know how you can make the right decisions for you and your customers.
  2. Invest in the right tools
    Empowering your sales and marketing teams with the right tools is crucial to implementing an omnichannel marketing strategy. Invest in sales and customer management systems that are intuitive, streamlined, and highly integrated.

    The systems you choose must be able to adapt to customer preferences and the contextual elements of their journey. What’s more, sophisticated software that streamlines workflows is a must for implementing an
    omnichannel marketing approach.

    Investing in a contact center and customer engagement tools (like
    RIngCentral CX solution, which has both!) will enable you to carry out omnichannel service and support that results in happy customers. RingCentral’s blended omnichannel cloud contact center supports inbound, outbound, and digital interactions, making it easier for agents to work together and best serve customers.

    Omnichannel interactions aren’t the only thing RingCentral’s CX solution facilitates. You can benefit from smart routing that uses AI, skills-based routing, and analytics to streamline workflows. Moreover, it features team messaging, CRM integrations, and an open API for enhanced productivity and robust customer service interactions.
    This way, you’ll never miss a customer’s call. 
  3. Leverage data insights and make data security a priority
    Leveraging data insights from multiple systems are crucial to the success of an omnichannel approach. Delivering a consistent and streamlined experience requires customer data to be stored and shared effectively and securely.Combining data from your CRM, PoS, inventory management, etc, will allow you to execute your strategy and make data-driven decisions to improve campaigns and provide customers with highly personalized and integrated experiences.On the topic of data, it’s important to remain vigilant and make data a priority. Customers are entrusting you with their personal data, so it’s important to ensure you’re keeping it safe and using it to improve their customer journey.
  4. Reconsider your business’s organizational structure
    Going omnichannel means that sales, marketing, development, customer service, and warehousing teams need to communicate and collaborate effectively. This means ensuring that your teams are equipped with the tools and technology they need to enable cross-department workflows.

Final thoughts

Omnichannel marketing enables businesses to provide customers with an integrated omnichannel experience that yields numerous benefits. They include improved brand awareness, increased customer loyalty, better conversions, and enhanced long-term customer retention. 

In today’s digital world, it’s simply not enough to be present across multiple channels. Instead, marketing teams must shift to an omnichannel approach to meet and surpass customer expectations. 


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Originally published Jan 08, 2021, updated Jan 16, 2024

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