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Long gone are the days when a single radio ad would send customers rushing to a store. Instead, companies must compete with a million distractions before they can direct customers to their products. Luckily, companies also have more ways to contact customers. Often called ‘channels’ in marketing, these ways to contact customers have grown over the years. In addition to television and radio marketing, companies can now take advantage of ways to contact people online, such as email and messaging via social media.

Rather than focusing on a specific ad campaign in a specific location (such as a billboard), marketers now work to contact customers multiple times. Multi-channel marketing includes a variety of different approaches. Channels to include would be billboards, bus ads, emails, phone calls, TV ads, Google Adwords, Facebook, Twitter, websites and so forth. Any way to reach out to customers to sell a product can be included as a channel.

These repetitions or ‘contact points’ are considered essential. The customer is likely to remember the product when needed and visit the company’s store or website to purchase it; contact points enable the customer to continue the buyer’s journey toward an eventual purchase.

Developing a Multi-Channel Strategy

With so many channel options, businesses need to develop a multi-channel strategy. Without a careful strategy, companies attempt a ‘do-it-all’ approach—which Entrepreneur warns can be ineffective. A ‘focused’ approach is better by far. A 2006 article in the Journal of Service Research highlights these five challenges companies face when developing a multi-channel campaign:

  • Integrating data
  • Understanding customer behavior
  • Evaluating channels
  • Allocating resources across channels
  • Coordinating strategies

These challenges and ways to successfully circumvent them are explained below.

Integrating Data

The only way to gauge the effectiveness of a multi-channel approach is to track customer responses. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Many channels do have excellent means of tracking customers. Facebook and Twitter have extensive analytics available. Google Analytics can track movement of every customer through the site. However, these bits of data do not integrate easily. Did the customer that came through Facebook initially see the advertisement on Twitter? It’s almost impossible to say. While each channel has data on customer behavior, these discrete snippets do not provide the whole picture.

To counter this challenge, companies can build robust data tracking systems. Many customer relationship management (CRM) software services work to integrate customer data from social media outlets with website visits. Businesses can also be better informed of customer traffic through the site by signing up for Google Analytics which can usually display what channel the customer used to reach the company’s website. These tools provide a better overview of customer behavior across channels so that companies can make adjustments to their multi-channel approach. Thus, if no customers are accessing the website via Twitter, it may be time to divert resources from Twitter to another channel.

Understanding Customer Behavior

If the data shows how customers are contacting the business, marketing managers can begin to understand how the customers behave. For example, they may start to see patterns. It may take four points of contact through multiple channels before most customers visit the website. This could imply that more points of contact may make customers more likely to visit the website. While such insights can help multi-channel campaigns be more successful, the challenge is that these conclusions are often guesswork.

To obviate this, marketing managers should constantly experiment and use the data to see what’s working. If Facebook is sending a bunch of customers to the company website, but no one can figure out exactly why, that’s okay. While it’s better to understand why a strategy is working, sometimes it’s just not possible. The alternative is to rely on data that shows what is working and stick with it for a successful multi-channel campaign.

Evaluating Channels

Data and insights into customer behavior help marketing managers decide what channels to keep and which to remove—but some customers may come through entirely unique channels too. It’s also hard to know which channel finally convinced the customer to buy. Since the data and behavior insights won’t have all the answers, companies need to continue experimenting. A flood of customers will signal that the multi-channel strategy is working.

Allocating Resources Across Channels

Another challenge that companies face is how to allocate time and money to each channel. Without knowing which channels are the highest performers, it’s difficult to know where to send resources. If a company sees a lot of traffic from Facebook, it’s tempting to adjust the multi-channel approach to direct more funding to Facebook ads. However, this may or may not increase the number of customers visiting via Facebook. It depends on many factors that may not be visible to the company or in the data.

To address this, companies should work on finding a balance of resources across multiple channels. It’s an art to find the right allocation to each channel, but the science shows that having more than one channel is a good option.

Coordinating Channel Strategies

Multi-channel approaches are inherently more complicated than selling through a single channel. A Facebook ad may highlight a certain sale. If the person clicks on the ad and lands on the main page of the company site instead of the sale item, a sale may be lost because the customer decides it’s not worth searching for it. Channels often have to be carefully aligned with each other for maximum benefit. Each ad for each channel may need its own landing page for the customer to make sense of the buying process. More channels usually add more complexity.

The best way to address this challenge is through careful planning. Each pathway to purchase should be analyzed to make sure it is clear and makes sense. A person that sees an online ad and goes to a brick-and-mortar store should be able to buy the item for the same price. As companies have improved at integrating channels, a new marketing approach has been developed: omni-channel marketing.

The Future of Marketing? The Omni-Channel Approach

The purpose of omni-channel marketing is to provide customers with a seamless buyer’s experience. It’s the next step in multi-channel coordination–every channel works together seamlessly. An example provided by Forbes provides insight into a successful omni-channel marketing strategy:

  • Channel 1 (Smartphone): The customer decides to buy a pair of shoes via his smartphone, but he’s not quite ready to go through with it. He puts the shoes in his cart.
  • Channel 2 (Desktop): He goes to his desktop to show the shoes to his daughter. She doesn’t like the color. He puts a new pair into his cart and waits to get his wife’s coupons before buying.
  • Channel 3 (Email): The customer forgets about the purchase. However, an email arrives reminding him of the item in his cart.
  • Channel 4 (Desktop): He purchases the shoes via the desktop.

The cart provides a seamless experience for the customer. No matter what channel he uses, he is able to continue the journey towards his purchase.

While this level of integration may seem difficult, omni-channel solutions are available to businesses. CRM software solutions can integrate various channels. For example, a CRM system may respond to a Facebook message with a reminder email a week later. These software solutions help companies develop more seamless buying experiences for customers.

Connecting with customers through multiple points of contact is an effective marketing strategy. However, the multi-channel approach should be monitored via integrated data. Combined with an understanding of customer behavior, this data guides the implementation of further strategies. The complexity of a multi-channel approach can make it difficult to make clear strategic decisions. However, close monitoring and experimentation help marketers home in on the best strategies for each company. Finally, careful coordination of each channel makes a multi-channel approach more likely to be successful. The goal of coordination is likely to be an omni-channel approach which provides a seamless customer experience, no matter what channels the customer uses.