‘Omnichannel’ may never catch on, but it’s the next big thing for local

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There are a lot of buzzwords that purport to describe the latest digital marketing strategies for brick-and-mortar stores: multi-channel, cross-channel, online-to-offline, and omnichannel. Though all have slightly different nuances, they all describe (to some degree) an evolution of the way the wide variety of marketing media relate or intersect.

Omnichannel isn’t a new term, but it seems never to have really caught on. Yet conceptually, it seems to be the next logical step for the path from search to purchase. Fred Argir, Chief Digital Officer at Barnes & Noble, put it this way: It’s a stupid word, but it’s no longer optional for businesses.

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The Local Search Association (LSA) worked to define the search space and path to purchase. While we initially illustrated it as a funnel pointing toward the final purchase, we realized that the funnel was too limiting — that consumers searching for products and services didn’t follow such a clean model. What we came up with was something more holistic.

Search is no longer typically used in a standalone fashion; instead, it overlaps and intersects with other channels. For example, search results pull up social media pages which direct to websites that may lead to a call or in-store visit. Other information or results lead to other types of searches, more refined searches or use of new keywords.

Local Search Association - Omni-channel

Local Search Association: Omnichannel search

The problem businesses have faced is the need to anticipate a consumer’s path to purchase so that they can reach a consumer at the right time and right place. Lots of tools have been developed to find consumers using data including location and search terms. Yet after reaching a customer, much of the action is to direct them down a linear path, even if that path involves multiple channels or media. For example, a consumer successfully targeted with a mobile ad might then be directed to a coupon with the goal of driving the consumer to redeem it in the store.

Consumers today each make their own path. And they aren’t going to silo their journey into bite-sized experiences segmented by media or channel. They demand seamless experiences across different devices, channels, media and people. They want you to provide information they find helpful at that moment, not be pushed down a fixed path to purchase.

Google reports that 75 percent of shoppers who find local retail info in search results helpful are more likely to visit stores. And instead of worrying about in-store shoppers using mobile phones to compare you with competitors, embrace it. Seventy-one percent of shoppers who use smartphones for research in the store say it’s an important part of the experience. And shoppers who buy online and in-store have a 30-percent higher lifetime value than those who use just one channel, so integrating your shopping experience to make both easy and attractive will boost sales.

I recently was shopping for a gently used car to replace my wife’s kid-mobile after it hit 180,000 miles. I knew what model of car she wanted, so I didn’t have to search or do any comparison with other vehicles. But we did search for inventory, price, mileage, model year and options. When we found a few that met our criteria, we reached out through a variety of media. Some we called, some we emailed and with some dealers, we just showed up to test drive.

After test driving, we did some negotiating, some more research, were contacted through text and phone about other cars, received some pictures, then test drove some more. I’ve revisited websites to look up things like Carfax reports and check vehicle options. We’ve done some negotiating in person, some via email. While we still haven’t closed the deal on a vehicle, this process illustrates how back and forth across platforms, media and channels a purchase can be.

While the car-buying experience may involve more touches than purchasing other products, it does illustrate that the process isn’t linear. Someone buying a pair of running shoes might search online, find the right pair in stock on a retailer’s website and come in to try them on. If the fit isn’t right, they might go through a similar process there in the store or decide to search further. The buyer may even decide to not buy it in the store because she doesn’t want to carry it around while she’s meeting a friend for dinner. So she waits until she gets home and orders it online to have it delivered to her house.

But local businesses often have enough trouble already managing separate and siloed channels. Can small businesses cost-effectively integrate their channels to create a seamless experience for customers? Fortunately, the answer is “yes,” and below are a few tips to help you adopt some changes to make your channels work better together.

1. Use technology to merge online and offline experiences

The thought of integrating all your pieces into one well-oiled machine might sound like a task only large national businesses can manage, but technology makes it scalable for small businesses, too.

Small business solutions are being developed that fit small business budgets and business models and that merge online inventory solutions with e-commerce and web templates. An example is Camilyo’s platform that integrates social media management, online booking, e-commerce and web content across devices, all in one dashboard.

Another platform is Lightspeed. The video below details how Lightspeed helped the retail store, Dash, coordinate the entire customer experience from search to checkout through one online platform. The same interface is used to keep track of inventory, display it online, sell at brick-and-mortar locations, collect customer information, post social media updates, communicate with customers and accept payment whether online or in-store.

Tools like these not only make the customer experience more seamless but also make managing a business more efficient.

2. Adapt your communications to account for customers who’ve navigated through extensive search and media content

It’s not just about technology. You’ve got to adapt your communications and personal interactions, too. One of the sales reps I dealt with during my vehicle search took us on a test drive and then sat us down to talk about the car. He proceeded to tell me about the inspections they do for used cars, the attributes of the car we were looking at and the accolades of the dealership, then printed off some information for us, like the Carfax report.

The problem was, I probably knew more about the car than he did and had viewed the Carfax report for that vehicle on their website. I was ready to get their best offer and compare it to other offers I already had from other dealers. Instead, I sat through about 20 minutes of chit-chat while growing impatient. Then, after leaving me sitting alone for an additional 10 minutes, he returned with an offer that was only about $300 below their published price. I left feeling I’d wasted a bunch of time.

In contrast, a competing dealer emailed me close-up pictures of a few minor scratches on a vehicle I was interested in and sent me an offer sheet that was very competitive before I’d seen the car in person. Even though it’s a farther drive, I’m ready to come in and test drive the car.

Customers today arrive at the store at various points in their search — from those who may have come directly to the store to those who’ve browsed through significant online content and media related to your product, service or business. Treating everyone who walks in the door the same deflates the omnichannel experience that you serve up until that point.

Instead, ask questions or pull up a customer’s account and figure out what they’ve searched for and found and where they are in the path to purchase. Pick up where they’ve left off, or fill in the gaps of what they haven’t experienced yet so that their seamless experience progresses forward instead of frustrating them by starting from square one.

3. Adopt early

Customers love new technology, and those businesses embracing omnichannel experiences are few enough that they are unique and memorable. Adopting early will help your business stand out from the crowd.

An omnichannel experience can also be a great conversation piece, so coveted word-of-mouth marketing gets a boost as well. I’ve had more icebreaker conversations about Uber than perhaps any other subject because people love sharing their experiences with the service. I’ve told a buddy of mine that flies through Minneapolis about an airport restaurant, Shoyu, that has iPads at every seat where you browse the menu, order and pay. And then you can surf the web while you wait for your food, check gate information and departure times and leave any time without having to wait for the check.

Great experiences get customers talking, posting positive reviews and sharing on social media — and omnichannel practices can help you get there.

4. Maximize the use of your data by merging it into one database

According to Forrester, marketers average 15 separate systems to store customer data. That means that customer profiles are slivered into small and limited-use pieces. Only 22 percent of marketers used a single database that supplied a full picture profile.

One of the benefits of omnichannel marketing is being able to serve customized content to enhance the customer experience, but that ability will be severely hampered if your customer profiles aren’t complete.

For example, when you send out an email about the latest designer shoes you have in stock, you don’t want to send them to a customer who just bought a pair yesterday. Or you don’t want to ask for a customer’s email three times in the span of a couple of minutes when emailing a receipt after checking out, adding her to the priority customer list for updates, and sending a picture of an out-of-stock item she was interested in.

Having one complete customer profile will help you avoid problems like these and give the customer a personalized experience.

5. Iron out the seams for a frictionless experience

Since the whole omnichannel strategy is designed to provide a seamless experience, be alert and find points of friction or bottlenecks that might degrade that experience. Amazon became aware of friction in their checkout process that contributed to about 70 percent of online shopping carts being abandoned. That led to the development of one-click purchase. Today, that change is worth billions to Amazon.

A few other brands have also done an exceptional job at addressing friction. The aforementioned Uber allows you to request a car while you are waiting for luggage, talk to the driver about your location, get picked up, dropped off and pay with just a few clicks.

Apple has made its store visits a very hands-on experience. Its customers can browse products in store, scan a barcode with their iPhone, pay for it via the Apple Store app and walk out the door. They’ve successfully combined in-store and online experiences together.

Sometimes even seemingly small friction points may drive big change. An article in the The Wall Street Journal reports that the difference in time between paying with a chip-enabled credit card and smartphone mobile payments such as Apple Pay is 13 seconds vs. six seconds. It suggests this may be enough to drive the still low use of mobile payments to explosive growth.

Thus, to the extent you can identify areas of friction in your omnichannel experience, it can help you reap big dividends.

Conclusion

In closing, regardless of what you call it, omnichannel strategies are no longer optional as you consider how customers search and find your business. Customers find it novel now, but they will soon demand and prefer those who provide more seamless search-to-purchase experiences. The only uncertainty is what that “omnichannel” strategy will be called. We need a new buzzword.  Anyone? Bueller?

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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Author: Wesley Young

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