Omnichannel is the hot word on the lips of marketers in 2013. Clearly more than a passing fad, it’s an increasingly urgent point of discussion both internally and externally for agencies and brands alike; all madly racing to evolve campaigns and offerings to meet this new consumer demand to the extent that estimates project retailers are set to invest £5 billion globally in transition to omnichannel over the next five years.

42% of shoppers now expect a similar experience regardless of channel according to Kobie Marketing…

But despite the attention, column inches and gaudy figures devoted to such discussion, it’s questionable just how many of these brands and agencies are actually ready to transition out of the theory stage, and put a legitimate omnichannel proposition into place. In fact, judging by how distant many appear to be from realising said proposition, is it reasonable to question whether omnichannel is more an unattainable aspiration than tangible marketing reality? In the majority of cases, budgets remain siloed across channels and campaigns are split across digital, social, mobile and offline. If omnichannel is upon us, shouldn’t we be seeing it reflected in these elements?

Certainly, the thesis that omnichannel is what consumers want is not in doubt, even if they’re unaware of the term themselves. 42% of shoppers now expect a similar experience regardless of channel according to Kobie Marketing, whilst 75% of customers will move to a different communication channel when unhappy with the first method used, according to Forrester Consulting. That last figure is particularly significant – demonstrating not just the level of comfort on display from consumers in traversing effortlessly between these channels, but also a perception that a different level and capability of service will be easily distinguishable between channels. If the consumer thinks he’s more likely to find an answer at another customer service touchpoint, then clearly he doesn’t believe all touchpoints were built equal.

Meanwhile, this connected shopper is finding new ways to demand brands respond and react in real-time to all their whims and needs, not just customer service. There are now over one billion active smartphones around the world and as many as 60% of 18-31 year olds own at least three connected devices. Our own research shows that 89% of consumers admit to browsing and buying whilst commuting to work via smartphone or tablet, demonstrating the increasing ability and desire to connect, browse, shop and engage anytime, anywhere.

While connectivity is important, such is the speed of transition that it’s a consumer trend that’s been already consigned to the past and accepted as the norm. The latest shift is instead towards real-time, offering an unsettling and uncertain future for brands now being asked to respond and react immediately to consumers instinctively, stripped bare of the safety net of internal consultation and consideration before offering a reply. As James Hilton of AKQA cleverly put it at the Guardian Changing Advertising summit, brands risk looking like they are “wearing dirty coats and standing outside primary schools”, when they get real time marketing wrong.

Meanwhile recent estimates placed as much as 20% of all online products changing price at least daily, with some even changing price every few minutes. More so, following an Accenture survey, 92% said that real-time product availability would influence where they shop; a remarkable opportunity for those brands able to meet this new demand, but equally the finest of margins for error.

Thus, the fertility of the landscape for omnichannel may be more challenging that it initially seems but despite the relatively slow growth, there are some brands forging ahead, sowing the initial seeds for an omnichannel proposition by beginning to connect the dots between various touchpoints.

Topshop already has a strong brand experience, built upon an understanding of its audience that few brands can top. Its shop floor employees live the brand, whilst collaborations are frequently initiated with designers and celebrities relevant to the consumer audience. Known too for technological innovation, Topshop has continued to seek new ways to not just link the real to the virtual, but seal the loop too and ensure that offline feeds online and online feeds straight back to offline.

The brand recently launched a campaign where shoppers received a free styling and make-up session in store, before being encouraged to create a digital postcard via Instagram. Once created, consumers were given a copy to take home and upload to their own social channels too and share with friends. The activity has generated hundreds of blog posts, millions of Facebook views and helped Topshop become the number one fashion retailer on Instagram. Its apparent simplicity belies both a rich understanding of its consumers and what they find valuable.

The differing needs of each individual means it’s crucial that a brand seeks to understand the entire purchase decision journey from start to finish, from the very first impulsive desire to buy right through to the point where the consumer has the purchased product in a bag and even beyond. Understanding exactly where and when a consumer chooses to spend time with a brand and why is the place marketers need to reach before omnichannel can be realised.

For example, one of the biggest misconceptions in marketing currently is around the word mobile; increasingly a misnomer. Just because consumers are browsing on their mobile, it doesn’t mean they are mobile, or ‘on-the-go’. They could just as easily be lying on a couch, or at a desk, seeking to engage in the same actions as they would with a desktop or a laptop. Paring down a user experience to fit on a smaller screen, rather than creating one that maximises the medium is one of many faulty assumptions preventing brands from delivering the right message is delivered at the right time.

Ultimately, omnichannel requires a shift in mentality. An approach measured not by individual pieces of activity but by a coordinated strategy that places emphasis on long-term aims, rather than short-term wins.

As the number of platforms on which to engage consumers grows, brands need to understand individual motivations before they can even begin to interact. Using thorough insight to inform the strategy, method and messaging, brands can maintain the same experiences across all channels of communication. In the face of a savvy consumer who knows they can look elsewhere for a better deal, understanding the behaviors of each customer has never been more important to influencing their purchase decisions.

Brand experience and activation is not just a marketing tactic, it’s the best way to effectively connect brands with consumers through engaging real and digital world experiences.

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