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Omnichannel vs Multichannel: What's the Difference?

Wilson Lau

Sr. SEO Marketing Manager @ AdRoll

The world of digital marketing is overflowing with jargon and insider lingo — "conversion funnel," "flywheel," and "tech stack" are just a few of the more obscure ones. But there are two concepts in marketing that are most often confused with one another, leading to misunderstandings about strategy and tactics. Those two terms are "multichannel" and "omnichannel."

At first glance, you might assume that these two concepts are the same. After all, they both refer to marketing that involves more than one "channel," and they're often used interchangeably. But there are differences that digital marketers should make sure to understand. 

Today's online shoppers hopscotch between a wide range of channels before making purchases, from social media, email, and video to third-party markets like Amazon, ecommerce shops, browsers, and device types. By the time a customer has made a purchase decision, there's a good chance they've received the brand's marketing from multiple sources and used many different routes to arrive at the product they want to buy. The key to successful digital marketing is understanding that widely varied experience.

So what do "omnichannel" and "multichannel" mean, and how are they different from one another? Let's explore each concept, highlight some specific benefits of each approach, and dig into how they interact with each other. 

What Does Multichannel Mean?

"Multichannel" refers to the practice of providing several different routes, or sources, through which a customer can make a purchase. In the multichannel marketing scenario, each channel — social media, third-party markets, the digital storefront — is essentially siloed into its own world, guided by its own specific goals and tactics. The key idea behind multichannel selling is to make it as easy as possible for a customer to purchase from a brand, regardless of where the purchase occurs.

Multichannel marketing and selling are guided by the concept that any conversion is worthwhile and that channels can be siloed as long as they deliver value.

Multichannel benefits

  • Options: Customers have many options for purchasing products, allowing conversions to occur even if the user hasn't found the brand's website or store. Customers can buy from Amazon, Etsy, social media shops, and in some cases, through email. 

  • Searchability: With multichannel selling and marketing, your products will be easier to find than if you only sold them through your ecommerce shop. Paired with a solid organic search strategy, multichannel puts your products in front of more potential customers, in places from which they're already accustomed to shopping.

What Does Omnichannel Mean?

"Omnichannel" takes the multifaceted yet siloed structure of marketing and selling platforms and unifies them under a single strategy and center of operations. Some marketing tools, such as AdRoll's Growth Marketing Platform, do most of the omnichannel work for marketers, centralizing all efforts and data sources into a single dashboard. 

In a sense, omnichannel is dependent on multichannel in that the company has to create all of those channels before they can unify them. The key differences occur in how those channels are managed and how they treat the customer.

Users within a multichannel approach might experience some frustration as they jump between marketplaces, devices, and social platforms if those channels are not integrated into a continuous customer experience. Imagine the frustration you would feel if you spent hours adding items to your cart on mobile just to find an empty cart when you open your laptop at home to complete the purchase. The waste of time alone would be aggravating enough to create negative feelings toward the company. You would likely jump ship to find a different brand that offers a more seamless experience rather than take the time to refill your cart. With omnichannel selling in a unified system, users can hop between channels in whatever way is convenient for them without losing their progress. This well-integrated experience makes it easy and fun to browse, shop, and complete the purchase. 

Omnichannel benefits

  • Better experience: The omnichannel approach can deliver a more cohesive brand experience for modern shoppers who are comfortable jumping between channels and information sources before making a purchase. These shoppers — especially those on the younger side who are digital natives — are more likely to be frustrated by a disjointed experience, costing you customers and revenue.

  • Personalization: It's much easier to market effectively under an omnichannel marketing strategy. Because this approach unifies all of your channels and syncs customer data across those ecosystems, you'll have a much easier time delivering highly personalized, specific content and ads that show customers you understand their interests and needs.

  • Logistics: Omnichannel strategies also make logistics considerably easier to manage. An omnichannel ecommerce platform will synchronize your inventory across different channels and markets, making it much simpler to track orders, manage stock, and deal with customer service issues. With a multichannel approach, you have to handle all of those tasks separately for each channel.

So, Which is "Better": Omnichannel or Multichannel?

Like most topics in digital marketing, no one answer applies equally to every brand. Different target audiences require different marketing approaches. There may be cases where a brand might lean in the multichannel direction if it has a considerable customer base loyal to a single platform (say, Amazon). Likewise, brands that run on limited resources might not be able to afford the technology and integrations required to develop a truly seamless customer experience through omnichannel selling. Deciding which strategy is best for your brand requires analyzing your target audience's behavior and reviewing the tools available to you at your budget. 

Overall, the omnichannel experience provides a cleaner customer journey and a backend process that's much easier to manage for the brand. With a reliable platform like AdRoll that can track data, attribute conversions, and manage customer issues from one place, the omnichannel approach could transform your business and help bring more customers into the fold.

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