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Multi-, omni-, cross-channel communication: similar terms, different meanings

With the introduction of e-mail, paper (for a long time used for all kind of business communications) has been gradually put aside through a “de-materialization” process. The benefits were many: faster and cheaper communications, as well as reduced postal costs and felled trees.

In the initial phase of the transition, while the transmission channel quickly changed from paper to bits, the content remained substantially the same. It was simply adapted to the new medium (e.g. from a physical document to its scanned pdf version), with minor if not negligible changes in terms of user experience. If once people could read their bank account balance, bills, or contracts on pieces of paper, with the digitization of communication they started to read the very same documents on a screen, first on their desktop, and then on their smartphones.

To dampen the enthusiasm, many marketers soon discovered that the new virtual messages could be thrown in the trash bin just like physical letters (which, additionally, were immune to SPAM filters). So, on the one side, communication became faster, cheaper, and more sustainable. But the click-through rates did not increase as expected. This proves how the effectiveness of a message doesn’t depend only on the channel used to convey it, but most and foremost on the strategy used to disseminate it.

As we know, on top of e-mails, other communication technologies were introduced: SMS, social media, apps, and so forth. Just like with e-mail, companies rushed into these new technologies, starting to disseminate messages through a variety of new platforms, reaching enormous masses of people in an instant.

In this new scenario in which companies were able to reach their target audience through a plethora of different channels, terms like multi-channel and omni-channel started to become widespread. Often, the two terms were (and are) mistakenly used interchangeably to indicate a communication strategy that involves a media mix with two or more channels.

The term multi-channel actually describes a communication that conveys a message (or different parts of it) through more than one channel. For instance, an internet provider that communicates the same offer through both SMS and e-mail, or a bank that updates its followers both through Twitter and Instagram. With a multi-channel communication strategy, the messages are not necessarily integrated and can be markedly different, both in terms of content and of delivered user experience.

The term omni-channel describes something different, more specific. In fact, it doesn’t only define a communication strategy that leverages on multiple channels, but an approach that creates a coherent and integrated message across all channels (digital and physical). The omni-channel approach guarantees a better user experience, boosting greater awareness, improving the general effectiveness of communications, and making sure that the receiver holistically perceives each message from various channels as part of a congruent entity (sometimes referred to as holistic marketing).

A more recent term is cross-channel communication. This concept refers to a group of messages whose integration is particularly developed, up to the point that it allows the user to have a single, coherent experience through multiple channels, without any repercussion on the quality of the overall experience.

A great example is the case of the cities of Ancona, Genova and Milano in Italy. Through a partnership with Doxee, the two cities managed to simplify and improve their citizens’ experience in relation to the collection of the local waste tax. This was possible through an innovative cross-channel communication strategy based on four main touch-points, both digital and physical (all the details here).

The cross-channel approach aims at fully exploiting the potential of every single channel involved in the media mix, with the ultimate goal of creating a fluid experience in which the user can switch from one channel to another in an easy and efficient way.

In conclusion, the differences between multi, omni and cross-channel don’t lie in the number or type of the channels selected for the communication media mix, nor in the quality of the messages that are conveyed. In fact, a company could have a killer app and very effective website, without necessarily having a strategy that is definable as omni- or cross-channel. Rather, the determinant is the depth and integration of the message across all channels.

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