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Does the Hybrid Continuum demand a radical omnichannel strategy?

Is radicalizing the contemporary management of go-to-market channels a foregone and unavoidable conclusion in the hybrid continuum? Outlooks and open questions about a changing marketplace.

Luca Mascaro, Matteo Petrani, Serena Tonus
CEO & Head of Design, Technology Director, Design Director

22.01.21 - 6 min read

In one of our last contributions, we described how the Hybrid Continuum and people's changing habits favour the rise of hybrid go-to-market channels, defined by transparency, redundancy between physical and digital contexts, and purpose to include the majority of people.

The Hybrid Continuum also seems to push the omnichannel idea towards a more radical form. The present article aims to set out our thoughts on the topic and stimulate a debate.

Dealing with the transformation of service models, we have glimpsed a path of evolution in the way companies convey their products and services to the market and to people: we moved from a multichannel perspective, understood as the ability of a company to offer services on an assortment of non-integrated channels, to the idea of omnichannel - understood as the ability to optimize strategies between channels - and we grasped the possibility of an even more radical omnichannel strategy, where the journey, services and products are offered identically and symmetrically on all the media, even in terms of price. Thus empowering people to carry out their journey in complete freedom.

However, the definition of ‘omnichannel’ is ambiguous, and changes when applied to marketing or infrastructure and services, or even to internal processes. Here we have chosen to use the term's broad definition, a sort of lowest common denominator that unites all word meanings.

Omnichannel means establishing a presence in different channels and platforms allowing consumers to buy, interact and be involved across channels simultaneously and without any loss in their customer experience.

Form and implications of a radical omnichannel strategy

If we define radical as above, it is possible to infer some characteristics of a strategy as such and explore some of its applications.

For the sake of clarity, let's pick up on the design principles that guide the design of products and services in the hybrid continuity:

  • Complete redundancy between the physical and digital worlds. People must be able to do the same things in one context or another. Every single feature must, therefore, be present in every context.
  • Total transparency between the two worlds. People can move from one context to the other without interruption nor  any loss of value.
  • Total inclusion. All people, even those with disabilities or limited literacy, must benefit from these new services, processes and systems whatever their technological competence or capacity in both worlds.

The 3 design principles that guide how products and services are conceived in the hybrid continuum.

In the hybrid continuity, people can do what they want along a continuum between physical and digital. Hence, companies must find ways to enable this condition and make available various channels - physical, digital or hybrid - that allow for this dynamic. This doesn't mean considering all the possible channels. Still, only those that best fit their customer base's habits and expectations, especially when considering inclusion as a guide for the activities.

Access to services and products is also a cultural and sociological dimension, which follows demographics and patterns of use, which must be taken into account to build practical solutions and control complexity.

Expanding the availability of channels to fit user subcultures dramatically increases the complexity that a company must manage. It means simplifying the offering to make products and services available across physical, digital and hybrid channels.

An example: Tesla manages to sell its vehicles both in dealerships and online because it has four different models, available in five colours and with two options; BMW, on the contrary, with its extreme variety and the possibility of customization, manages to sell only through physical channels, and it suffered significant damage during the lockdown period.

There are substantial effects on the way we plan market access in a radical omnichannel approach: single-channel strategy, price and availability differentiations, and the design of specific functions progressively lose their meaning in favour of a systemic, inclusive, synchronized vision.

It will no longer be useful to wonder which functions to make available on which channels, but which channel to add to the system and make everything available on that channel instead.

The experience paradox

In a radical omnichannel situation, designers who, like us, have always put people's experience at the centre of their design action face a paradox. The experience must be consistent and synchronous on every channel and must pass seamlessly from one to the other; the only differences must follow the ergonomics and the model of interaction between people and the touchpoint. Moreover, in this landscape of total channel neutrality, the user chooses the path of their experience in complete autonomy through a series of micro-moments in a completely fluid journey.

This puts designers in a problematic situation: in the Hybrid Continuum, you have to accept that users could do anything, in any way, at any time.

Other dimensions enter the equation with force: for example, the relationship with the brand, the role of technology, and user demographics, as we have just seen.

The relationship with the brand that offers products and services in a radical omnichannel dimension becomes significant: the brand experience must be perceived, identical and stable, at every moment of the relationship, on any channel. If the channel strategy loses relevance, then the brand strategy must increase prominence by building trust and reinforcing the ties and expectations between people and companies.

Finally, machines' role (predictive analytics, automation) could be crucial to find the best funnel working across all channels. It can reorganize communications and operations based on emerging complexity, and optimization and rationalization issues based on data and numbers can be addressed, even when they are very complex and layered.

Radical, with prudence

At the moment, there are no conditions for talking about a radical omnichannel strategy other than as a possibility. Today, companies are organized in a non-compliant way: there are models of offer and service that are too complex and ill-suited to the implications we have just discussed above.

In terms of implementation,a radical omnichannel strategy doesn't scare companies if they were to be newly established. Still, it represents a complex challenge for traditional ones that carry a significant legacy in offerings, processes and customizations.

But our dilemma is another: should we move towards a wide radical omnichannel condition? Is this a reasonable path for us as designers to take? We are dubious on one side and possibilistic on the other.

For example, we believe that radical omnichannel strategy should be pursued in some sectors - such as public administration and personal services - to allow everyone to participate in democratic and welfare practices. So that no one, even the less competent, is left behind to experience new forms of inequality.

However, in other contexts, such as retail or telcos, we have a few more qualms, perhaps given by the novelty of the thinking plan that has opened up by introducing radical omnichannel.

Radical omnichannel, therefore, but with prudence. And we would really like this search for meaning to open a debate with the business and design community.