10 omnichannel questions answered by Forrester analyst Ryan Skinner

We asked Forrester‘s Senior analyst serving B2C marketing professionals, Ryan Skinner 10 questions on omnichannel.

As an analyst, Ryan has access to some of the biggest brands in the world and riche datasets on marketing and content. So, his answers offer a broad perspective on the industry – which is part of why he was such a crowd favourite at OmnichannelX 2019, and we invited him on our podcast.

Forresterites are a passionate group. They get most excited about three things:

  1. Clients – helping them succeed and grow in challenging times
  2. Facts – discovering truth in the confusing noise; and
  3. Ideas – generating new ways of thinking that can short-circuit the path to success for our clients.

Using this customer focus, Ryan’s (co-)authored two major Forrester reports specifically on omnichannel:

What is omnichannel? Your personal definition…

Omnichannel refers to experiences that correspond to the needs of the user, not the brand. That means flipping the script from what the brand wants to say or do in the channel where the brand planned it, to what the customer wants to see or do in the channel he or she wants to use.

Do you feel it’s becoming urgent for brands to consider content strategy in the context of omnichannel experience?

Let’s set aside the banal ‘you should do this’ recommendations for a second (you probably should, but still), and look just a couple years down the road. One of the things we’re tracking very closely at Forrester is how AI rolls out in marketing and brand experiences. We’re already seeing some interesting use cases where AI is used to drive decisions of what content to present, when and to whom. At even a low level of scale, AI’s about the only thing that’ll be able to handle content and brand experience decisions involving many interactions and touchpoints. No amount of rules-making can resolve even a dozen different touchpoints interacting with five types of content over different time periods and in different locations (as I like to say, every truly random shuffle of a 52-card deck yields a deck that’s likely never – ever – been seen before).

So, what’s this got to do with content strategy and structure and omnichannel experience? Well, AI can do a lot, but it can’t easily do a few things that the shift to omnichannel content facilitates – notably, creating a way to parse content units or atoms apart so that they can be reassembled, constructing a metadata system that makes sense for your business strategy, or thinking through the data sources that will inform the AI’s content decisions. The businesses that have taken these challenges in earnest will be far ahead of their peers and competitors. So, yes, you should do it. It’s probably urgent. And you’ll see immediate benefit. But the real urgency is more likely from things that you can’t entirely realize right now, but will be realizing in astonishingly short order.

Where does an omnichannel content initiative usually start?

We’ve asked a number of clients and partners like agencies and implementation companies. I’d say that there was a bit of a mix of marketing-side and technology-side places for this to start, but it seemed to be the unanimous opinion that attacking it as tech without explicit backing from the business side would not go far. That is, you need a business user who says that this is very important to him or her, and who’ll sponsor the work to set it up.

Typically, that might be a very limited endeavour, specific to the experiences he or she is primarily concerned with, but it gives the whole thing a huge boost in terms of focus and its orientation towards outcomes. It breaks a lot of ground for the entire organization, opening up opportunities elsewhere in the business to build off of that foundation.

What tends to motivate an organisation to go omnichannel?

The metaphor I use here is the difference between a hungry man or woman and someone who wants to open a restaurant. The first is entirely interested in food, sustenance: “just give me the damn food I want and need right now”. The latter’s thinking entirely differently: “what’s a system that will feed people in a particular, valuable, and repeatable way, and how do I make it?”

As businesses and brands accumulate professionals who are less focused on “feed the beast” and more focused on intelligent, repeatable experiences and what lies behind them, you’ll see more businesses head to omnichannel approaches. It’ll continue to be the person or people who want to rise above the calamitous commotion of the content factory, and into the rarefied air of a well-set-up system, that drive this thing, I think.

What do you feel is the biggest challenge holding back organisations from delivering excellent omnichannel experiences?

The biggest challenge is of course organizational fiefdoms. The brand can’t deliver omnichannel experiences because it requires a level of openness and collaboration and sharing and goodwill that defies lots of corporate nature. I mean, omnichannel ‘lite’ wouldn’t require much of the technical savoir-faire; it’s just sharing plans across teams, and talking through some degree of asset-sharing and collective reporting. It’ll take marketing, or brand, leadership to tear down this mentality, which they’re loathe to do. So, it gets done as pilots on the side, with the hope that this can then infect the bigger organization.

The second biggest challenge is probably legacy IT environments and technical skill willing to bite off this challenge when other areas of the business are screaming for all the different reasons IT orgs are screamed at. That is, the business users don’t have the mastery of some basic skills needed to drive an omnichannel approach – or even the knowledge that such an approach is feasible or can be done – and those technical capabilities that could advise them have more pressing issues, like the business being hacked by hordes, or an ERP migration gone sour, or all the other levels of IT pain.

What skill-set or skill-sets do you recommend those trying to drive omnichannel strategies should develop?

I think customer journey mapping would be pretty important, in terms of understanding how to get stakeholders to see a view of reality that has fidelity to how customers see the world and work out both the priorities and the conflicts. Second would be around governance, I’d say, but I’m not sure that’s an official skill or skill-set to many. Visa’s recently hired a head of marketing governance, which I think is a start and a demonstration that it’s a skill.

You need someone who can help the organization understand and engineer its own priorities, and motivations, and teams, and outputs, and customer interactions, in a way that would eventually allow some machine-readability. Someone who can take the organisation through the thought process of “right, so we are transitioning from a region>>channel>>product set approach to our logic to a segment>>journey phase>>solution approach to our logic, and what does that mean?”.

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How do you reconcile omnichannel’s cross-silo, cross-channel nature with the usual funding and resourcing model of an enterprise?

As I mentioned, these things typically need to be organized around addressing a business priority that cuts across channels and the teams that are organized into them. That kind of person sees the channel-minded approach as a hindrance until the channel teams get onboard to the bigger agenda.

Sure, they’ll see some of their mojo slip away, but ultimately they’re at the service of the business’s strategic direction. Take, for example, a major apparel maker where the desire to renew a product catalog meant taking a wrecking ball to the catalog approach and organization, to become a product content service function for the entire business. That kind of stuff is liberating. Constructive destruction.

Top down or bottom up? How should you move forward?

I’m pretty convinced it has to be top-down, or it at least needs top-down sponsorship that understands why things need to be done the way omnichannel things propose things be done. And it needs to align with a high-level initiative that has clear and unblinking support from the business; i.e. “we need to get our customer engagement on an entirely different level or our business will simply die”. I’ve heard that from not a few companies in the services (specifically, financial services) space, but it’s broadly applicable.

How should you move towards omnichannel? Big bang or incremental change?

I think big bang’s a bad idea. Omnichannel for omnichannel’s sake is a bad idea. It’s all about the purpose it’s serving, and signposting what underlies the purpose and what actually drives the fulfilment.

“How did this happen? What was involved? Why was it done like this? Oh, you call it omnichannel content? OK, then. It was valuable; is this approach applicable to these other problems we see here, here, and here?”

Size probably isn’t the right place to start. Start with the business priorities, and where an omnichannel approach could serve those. The ambition level will probably decide itself.

What books do you recommend to learn more?

I liked the “Designing Connected Content” book by Carrie Hane and Mike Atherton. I’d be mugged if I didn’t plug a Forrester production – specifically, “Outside In“, I guess. It’s a little long in the tooth but explains well one of the underlying tectonic shifts that puts omnichannel in a grander, customer-obsessed context.

I also really like the “Content Design” book by Sarah Richards. It’s not explicitly about omnichannel content, but the way it thinks about content and experiences is good seminal stuff for why we’re thinking omnichannel content.

Bonus question! Do you have any omnichannel thought-leaders you recommend our audience follow?

I don’t do bonuses 😉 . However, I interviewed Noz Urbina for my research report, as well as a lot of other good people, including Cruce Saunders, Rahel Anne Bailie, Jeff Eaton, Meghan WalshHugh Zettel, Jennifer Battalin, George Hammer, James Naylor, a long list of fellow Forrester analysts (Nick Barber was a co-author, and Mark Grannan, Cheryl McKinnon, Michele Goetz, and Rusty Warner were all consulted) and finally so many different technology vendors that I dare not name a few as all the rest will give me endless grief.

About Ryan Skinner, Forrester

Based in London, Ryan primarily contributes to Forrester’s offerings for B2C marketing professionals. He analyzes how marketers should pivot from campaign- and channel-focused strategies to content- and customer-focused ones. In this context, Ryan leads Forrester’s research on content marketing, content strategy, customer engagement, and content intelligence for marketers.