Platforms vs. Channels: What’s the Difference?
In today’s fast-moving digital engagement landscape, one of the most important things you can do to boost your business results and ensure strong customer relationships is to engage thoughtfully with your audience across the full range of platforms and channels that they use. But more than a decade after the launch of the first iPhone, many consumers—and marketing executives, for that matter—still aren’t clear on the difference between digital platforms and channels.
That’s the thing: While many people use the words “channel” and “platform” almost interchangeably, the terms aren’t synonymous and come with their own—significantly different—benefits, opportunities, and challenges. So let’s take a closer look at these key concepts and explore how they relate to each other and what they mean for your marketing efforts.
1. What is a Platform?
The most basic definition of a platform is a technology that allows other businesses to connect and build on top of it. Platforms enable smaller companies to build, innovate, and grow faster while empowering the companies that run them by strengthening their stickiness and giving consumers more reasons to stick with their offering. Over the past fifteen or so years, we’ve seen companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon mature beyond their original product offerings to create digital platforms that support thousands of businesses and products across the globe.
Some key platforms that play a major role in today’s digital landscape include:
The Web: Arguably one of the first true digital platforms and certainly the most decentralized, the web provides an open setting where brands can directly engage with their customers via websites and web messaging.
iOS (Apple) and Android (Google): These mobile operating systems, which power Apple’s App Store and the Google Play store, respectively, helped to establish mobile apps as a compelling way for companies to engage with their customers online and made it possible to build whole new brands (i.e. Instagram) on mobile.
Facebook (Meta): This is an example of a platform built on top of other platforms. While many businesses use Facebook (and other Meta platforms like Instagram, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp) to connect with consumers, those consumers tend to come into the Facebook ecosystem via the web or using Android or iOS mobile apps, showcasing the potential for platforms to layer on top of each other.
2. What is a Channel?
At its core, a messaging channel is a technology that makes it possible for brands to directly communicate with members of their digital audience. There are many different channels out there, each with its own unique capabilities, strengths and weaknesses, and related rules, but this focus on communication is central to all of them. Some common channels include:
Mobile Messaging Channels
Push Notifications. These attention-getting mobile messages are a powerful way to surface time-sensitive outreach and urgent updates.
In-App Messages. These versatile messages make it possible to communicate with users when they’re active within your mobile app and can take multiple different forms, allowing you to match the outreach approach to your audience.
SMS/MMS. This long-standing mobile channel predates smartphones, making it possible to reach and engage customers on virtually any mobile device with urgent, attention-getting communications.
Web Messaging Channels
Web Push Notifications. The web version of push notifications, these messages allow marketers to seamlessly reach users even when they’re not currently visiting a company’s website.
In-Browser Messages. The web version of in-app messages, these messages make it possible to engage web visitors within the context of their website visit.
Cross-Platform Messaging Channels
Email. The original digital messaging channel and still among the most impactful, email allows brands to reach users on the web and mobile alike with rich, memorable communications.
Content Cards. This emerging channel supports unobtrusive, persistent messaging that feels native to a website or mobile app, opening up new marketing opportunities for brands.
3. How Do Platforms and Channels Relate to Each Other?
In general, think of platforms as virtual “locations” where consumers can engage with a brand’s digital presence (whether that’s a website, a mobile app, a social media page, or something else), while channels are digital communication mediums that are often associated with a given platform.
When people talk about mobile marketing channels, for instance, they’re referring to messaging channels that function exclusively in the context of a mobile operating system like Android or iOS. However, it’s important to keep in mind that some channels—like email—are designed to function across different platforms, allowing marketers to reach both web and mobile users with a single message.
4. Why Do Platforms and Channels Matter for Customer Engagement?
For most brands, digital platforms represent the core digital experiences that they’re offering up to their customers—and in today’s increasingly digital-first world, these experiences may be central to how each customer perceives and values that brand. Similarly, messaging channels often offer the most effective ways for brands to engage, monetize, and retain their customers. By understanding the platforms and channels that resonate (or don’t) with your customers, you can better assess where to invest your finite resources to drive better marketing outcomes.
What does that look like in practice? Imagine that your brand is looking to build out a major holiday campaign. If you know that, for instance, your mobile app users tend to make purchases more frequently and that push notifications and in-app messages used in tandem historically have driven the most conversions, you can ensure that your highest-impact platforms and channels are being leveraged to support your business goals—then look at ways to improve outcomes for the other platforms and channels your audience engages with.
Interested in potentially expanding the mix of channels that you’re using to engage your digital audience on mobile, the web, and beyond? In our guide Brilliant Experiences, Channel by Channel, we explore the functionality of different channels like email, push notifications, and web channels. We also describe why it’s so important that your channels match each customer’s specific preferences. Check out the guide here.