Buzzword hell: “Omni-channel marketing”

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I guess I should open by explaining what omnichannel marketing is, eh? It’s all about providing a seamless experience regardless of channel or device. It ties back to customer experience in about four dozen ways — if you get one version of the brand/company on Facebook, another on Pinterest, and another in a printed catalog said company has, well, that’s not omni-channel marketing. That’s disjointed marketing, and that can theoretically cost you customers and revenue. (Not always, but theoretically it can.)

I’ve worked a lot of places, including a school district (one of the biggest in America), two Fortune 500 companies, several non-profits, several small businesses, etc. Now I work for myself and I often talk to people about omni-channel marketing strategies. I’ll say this: it may well be the biggest buzzword in the marketing world these days, and marketing is absolutely chock full of buzzwords and obsession with ‘campaigns’ as is.

There are two concepts within business that people try to use all the time and almost always use incorrectly, IMHO: one is omni-channel marketing and one is “scale.” Most mid-senior leaders talk incessantly about “scaling” something and use it horribly wrong each time. When they say “scale” they usually mean “have effective daily operations.” Scale actually means expanding operations at reduced cost, best I can tell. Anyway. Onto the other buzzword hell: omni-channel marketing.

Omni-channel marketing and a word on how marketing has evolved

The absolute №1 thing you need to understand about the evolution of marketing is that it changed virtually everything about how the silo/department needs to operate. Look at the sales funnel, for example. The sales funnel of 1999 is about 15,671 times different than the sales funnel of 2016. You don’t often see that drastic of a shift in one silo or functionality across 17 years, but here we are. (The other big thing that happened with marketing and technology is that now old-school marketers have to often collaborate deeply with IT, whereas before they just went to IT to get passwords reset. That terrifies many marketers.)

Psychologically speaking, change is hard — people cling to what they know. In a work context, this is even more drastic. Work is really all about ‘trying not to seen incompetent’ and ‘consistently underscoring your relevance to anyone within earshot.’ At that intersection point, people throw themselves on the cross confusing “busy” and “productive” (nowhere near the same thing). Within marketing specifically, people race around focusing on campaigns or task checklists and never really stop and think about the big picture of what marketing is — which is how a product or service ties back to value and emotions.

Where we’re at in most marketing departments these days is a mix of people chasing task work, chasing relevance, chasing things they understand to not seen incompetent, and mostly just hanging around waiting for the big dog (the CMO) to offer some guidance. Here’s an issue: average CMO tenure is barely four years. Since most new CMOs or even promoted ones probably take 6–9 months to get their house in order, that’s basically 36 months of legit work. Factor in vacations, trade shows, meetings, conference calls, and other out-of-pocket time — and good luck getting true guidance from any senior leader, in reality.

Here’s issue 2: when you get guidance from your CMO, chances are he/she knows nada zip zilch about digital tools and efforts:

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Look at that there graphic. Basically, most CMOs aren’t very far along at all with their omni-channel marketing strategy. Wonder why? We just covered that: clinging to traditional revenue models and streams to showcase relevance back to their boss (CEO) and not seen incompetent down a chain (direct reports). It’s pretty simple, really.

What many marketers mean by omni-channel marketing

At most places I’ve worked, the term omni-channel marketing simply means “We post on a bunch of different social media sites, although often we post the exact same thing regardless of the types of people who might be on that platform.” It can also mean “We hired a 22 year-old to run social for us last year, so now we get it.” A third definition is “I think we have an e-mail program and we send stuff out to people, but I’m not really sure if we do or who owns it. If you’ll excuse me, I need to run to my 1:00pm and present a few slides about Facebook impressions from Q3.”

This is what omni-channel marketing should mean: people can reach your brand, product or service in many different ways. They can come in on different devices or via different platforms. Your brand clearly knows its value and conveys that across these different touchpoints, but conveys it a little bit differently based on the audience of each. Your marketing team also looks at analytics and makes changes based on what they see over time in terms of mobile users, tablet users, Pinterest users, or whatever it is. In short, your brand should use omni-channel marketing as a way to touch as many potential customers or clients as possible in a variety of proactive, productive ways.

Of course, what I just described is a marketing utopia. It’s mostly meetings, calls, more meetings, more calls, aimless slide presentations, someone getting a Buffer account and thinking they just solved global hunger, someone figuring out the Google Analytics password finally then hoarding it for himself, and a series of no-ROI deliverables being chased like a dog in heat by the entire department. This all comes from a lack of priority management internally, which comes from that CMO tenure stat and that CMO chart above. Don’t know, don’t care, and gotta hit the targets that will please my CEO. Who cares what the directs of my directs are doing? I’m chasing my bonus, baby!

The last joint I worked at was this to a tee: old-school professional running marketing (her business card didn’t say SVP Marketing or CMO, it said “Publisher” of the in-house magazine they had — laser-like transparency on what she actually gave a shit about), and most of the department was running around like chickens with their heads cut off on no-priority tasks all week. I almost self-immolated in a few social media ‘strategy’ meetings when we started talking about how to pin to a Pinterest board. (That’s not ‘strategy,’ it’s ‘operations’ or ‘tasks.’) In reality, the in-house magazines meant everything. You hit people for ads in ’em, they paid out the wazoo, and that hit the revenue line. Everyone was chasing some connection to those things but screeching about omni-channel marketing because the CEO was big on Facebook and Instagram, so everyone assumed that meant the company had to be too. It was a painful series of meetings, calls, and target-whiffing deliverables.

What I just described is one company, but it’s hardly uncommon in many marketing worlds these days. Omni-channel marketing is a buzzword, plain and simple — well, that is unless you understand what it really means.

What is omni-channel marketing, in the simplest terms?

It’s less about having a presence on each channel/platform and posting there — and more about understanding how to integrate the channels and platforms you do have. Almost every major marketing study you’ll ever see says that omni-channel marketing is the A-1 priority of marketing leaders and teams. They say that on surveys because it sounds like a good thing to say. In reality, most marketing teams have absolutely no idea how to execute omni-channel. They know how to hit target checklists and task deliverables within a campaign, then move on to another campaign. That’s how we’ve built up the marketing silo for 30+ years, if not longer. If you keep doing the same shit you’ve always done, you’re not doing omni-channel marketing at all: you’re just doing rinse and repeat and throwing a new coat of buzzword paint on top of it. That’s not going to drive sales, drive growth, or keep your top dogs happy. If you do omni-channel marketing, right, though — it might. Hit your targets, but don’t just throw buzzwords at the wall and hope they stick.

Can we scale this idea, by the way?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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