It seems like every time I get together with digital marketers these days they break the ice with a persistent question of utmost importance: Omnichannel or multichannel?

Tomayto or tomahto, right? Maybe, but maybe not.

Word nerds and industry analysts tend to unite around semantic debates. But I’d suggest that there’s something more fundamental in this distinction—something beyond the correctness of language.

Both sides of this debate probably agree with the premise that customer touch points are growing like kudzu. This adds to the challenge of orchestrating consistent, compelling—indeed, coherent—offers and experiences across online and offline, paid, earned and owned media.

Standards like HTML5 and techniques like mobile-first and responsive design help unify digital experiences; and data-driven techniques help us target and personalize offers and experiences to the market of one. But it doesn’t stop at bits on a screen. We also need to align offline experiences and operational details like incentive systems that create channel conflicts which can reveal themselves like ugly welding seams in the customer experience.

Getting this right is good for both customer and brand: better engagement and conversion makes marketers smile, while greater contextual relevance makes customers feel, well, something between less annoyance and utter delight.

This, I think, we can more or less agree upon.

But let’s get back to the tyranny of words—where the disagreement persists.

As my colleague Jennifer Beck correctly points out in her armchair etymology, omni is a prefix that stands for “every” or “all.” Thus, while I recognize the risk of parsing this argument too finely, omnichannel implies the activation of every channel for every offer and experience. Omni suggests all channels all the time.

Does that make sense? I think not.

Before you dismiss this as pedantic pseudo-punditry, consider what this means for digital marketers. Omnichannel asks the digital marketer to boil the ocean, to submit to the “matrix of hell” in mapping every offer and experience to every channel based on the glib conclusion that all channels must be engaged in the age of Omni.

This is a classic inside-out perspective that places methodology over customer intimacy. The better approach is to enrich your understanding of your audiences through data-driven and ethnographic techniques to model and map experiences across channels. Here, the customer is at the center of the discussion and their patterns and preferences drive channel selection. As Jennifer Beck says, “Multichannel is a complementary set of channels, based on the objective being served and the audience being targeted.”

In a sense, it’s less about omni or multi than it’s about the right channels. It’s about enabling customers to experience the equivalent of “MyChannel” personalization.

Postscript: Want to learn more about multichannel marketing? Gartner recently published its Magic Quadrant on Multichannel Campaign Management (subscription required). Also, register for the free public Gartner webinar on the topic here.

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