<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=1990767864476420&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
Niamh Reed
Niamh Reed is a contributor at Ecommerce Magazine, which exists to highlight digital innovation in the fast-growing industry of e-commerce.
Mar 29, 2018
Omnichannel and Multichannel: Know Your Terminology
What's the difference?
✉️ Get top ecommerce knowledge in your inbox once a week.
Start a free trial of our Shopify Facebook Messenger platform. Used by Kiehl's, GoPro, Royal Caribbean and more more.

Have you noticed the terms omnichannel and multichannel getting used a lot recently?

There are many articles about ecommerce that promote either an omnichannel or a multichannel approach to customer service, but it isn’t always clear what that terminology means.

The thing is, it can be difficult to see the difference between the two terms. Some websites like to use them interchangeably, some promote multichannel over omnichannel, and some swear by omnichannel. Yet no matter the approach to these terms, they’re often promoted as an integral part of your ecommerce customer service strategy.

So, with no clear definitions or differences, are omnichannel and multichannel just buzzwords? It’s time to tackle terminology.

Different Terms

Both omnichannel and multichannel can apply to all areas of ecommerce – from your marketing practices to customer service. At the simplest level, they are used to describe the ways customers can interact with your business and the ways that your business is able to interact with customers.

Leaving it there, the two terms sound near identical. Even the prefixes are similar: ‘omni’ means ‘all,’ and ‘multi’ means ‘many.’

But is an increase in the number of channels suggested where the differences stop? It begs the question – are omnichannel and multichannel just different words for the same idea?

Not quite.

The question of omnichannel vs multichannel is more than a question of ‘all’ vs ‘many.’ The similarities are confusing, and the definitions have become so blurred that untangling them is quite a task. But despite this, the two terms do refer to different strategies for connecting business with customers.

Multichannel

Multichannel is the simpler of the two terms as far as definitions go, and the older concept as well. A multichannel (or ‘many channel’) strategy simply means that there are multiple ways that a customer can contact and interact with a business.

A multichannel strategy gives customers the opportunity to choose how they approach your company.

Shopify’s Aaron Orendorff explains it well: multichannel allows customers to not only interact with you through whatever medium is most natural to them, but to purchase through that medium directly.

A smiling online shopper.

So, this could be how they find a product, how they complete a transaction with the business, or how they obtain customer support. In other words, a multichannel strategy lets your customer follow any path they like to your brand, be it through live chat software, social media, email, a phone call, and so on.

With a multichannel approach, customers can choose from an array of options and pick the communication mode that suits them best.

For example, they aren’t forced to make a lengthy phone call, because they can choose to contact you through live chat software on your website instead. Or, if they’re not browsing your website, they might choose to message you on social media. You’ll help them complete their query through whichever channel they choose to contact you.

Omnichannel

The term ‘omnichannel’ is newer and more intricate. The prefix ‘omni’ relates the strategy to the notions of omnipotence and omnipresence, which of course, any customer would welcome when they’re in need of support. But breaking the word down still doesn’t provide us with a clear definition.

So, does that mean that omnichannel is just multichannel with a sense of grandeur thrown in? Well, it’s a little more complex than that.

Frost & Sullivan defines omni-channel as seamless and effortless, high-quality customer experiences that occur within and between contact channels. – Michael Desalles

In other words, an omnichannel strategy is like letting your customers swim around in your brand.

Swimmer

You’re reachable from a social media account, a smartphone, and a website. You’re in their emails, their highstreets, and so on. All your communication channels are integrated together with your customer data to provide a single, streamlined experience.

With omnichannel, barriers and distinctions between each method of customer contact are blurred.

Where multichannel strategies let customers pick the channel they use to approach you, omnichannel lets them change their mind, and seamlessly swap from email to live chat, from chat to call, and so on without the customer ever needing to repeat their problem or question. Every service channel is integrated; every switch is seamless.

At the core of it all

The crux of the difference between omnichannel and multichannel is twofold – integration, and the focus of your efforts.

Multichannel puts your products and services at the centre and provides multiple channels for customers to approach you. Omnichannel, meanwhile, allows customers to drift in a space entirely encompassed by your brand.

Put simply, multichannel lets your customers choose how to contact you. Omnichannel lets them change their minds. Multichannel makes you approachable, omnichannel makes your customers approachable.

While there are these subtle differences, both omnichannel and multichannel answer the business goal of meeting their customers where they already are.

Adopting either approach to ecommerce and customer service is a level of proactivity in reaching your customers.

Why so popular?

We are solidly in the ‘experience era’ of ecommerce. This means brands can’t compete on traditional criteria – your products are the same, your prices are similar, and you can all be found from the same Google search.

So, crafting the best possible experience for your customers isn’t just the best way to keep your footing in the competitive marketplace it’s the only way.

Enter omnichannel and multichannel approaches. These strategies enable businesses to serve customers wherever they are. This means more relaxed customers, and that in turn means a better customer experience.

Experience, after all, is what will keep your customers.

So, which should you choose: multichannel or omnichannel? It sounds like a no brainer. Omnichannel is clearly the best option because of the freedom and seamlessness it gives to customers. Why would any company choose multichannel instead?

Well, multichannel is cheaper, easier and provides the building blocks to an omnichannel approach later down the line.  Think of it like this: omni is the ultimate goal, which takes a lot of time and money to obtain. Multi is the MVP – minimum viable product, providing the foundation for future greatness.

Know your terminology

Regardless of whether you’re looking to create the ultimate omnichannel approach, or whether you want to dip your toe into the experience era with a successful multichannel approach, you can’t get far without diversifying your service.

You need to explore live chat software, social media, email, bots, and do so with a clear understanding of your customer demographic. Having these options means you’re building a multichannel strategy. Integrating them together is a step towards the dream of an omnichannel experience.

As you build your business, continue learning from from experts in the ecommerce industry by subscribing to Ecommerce Magazine.

Subscribe to Ecommerce Magazine »

Share this article
✉️ Get top ecommerce knowledge in your inbox once a week.
Start a free trial of our Shopify Facebook Messenger platform. Used by Kiehl's, GoPro, Royal Caribbean and more more.

Topics: Ecommerce, Retail, Entrepreneurship, Social Media, Customer Delight