At one time channels were divided between sales channels, e.g. brick 'n mortar, catalog, and ecommerce, and marketing channels, e.g. email, direct mail, advertising, and search. Over the years the term 'channel' has taken a lot of twists and turns as it has coursed its way through the marketing landscape. The evolution has gone thru several stages.
- Channel: when used in the singular it refers to an isolated, uncoordinated communication; the term eblast or catalog sales sums up this thinking.
- Multichannel: implies the coordinated publication of a message to reach consumers through several individual channels; the use of preferences reflects this period as does varying assortment by outlet.
- Cross-Channel: refers to a sequence of integrated messages delivered based on a single view of the consumer and her journey; understanding the path-to-purchase is characteristic of this era.
- Omnichannel: exists when both marketing and buying platforms each have not only awareness of the others but are in fact hard-wired together; this is the future and a hot topic of discussion in the retail conference world.
Because of this blurring, the sooner we demote "channel" to a minor, technical decision based on consumer intent and context the better. As a marketing term it is past its sell-by date.