Harnessing the Power of Digital to Engage Clients in a Virtual World

Neda Whitney

SVP, Head of Marketing - Americas at Christie’s

Learning Objectives

In a marketplace where client engagement was largely in person, the global pandemic led to the digital evolution of the Christie's brand across all touchpoints. From our auction livestream approach to site innovation and AR technology, the brand adopted new approaches to ensure that we could offer our clients the high touch service they expected within the confines of a virtual environment.

"It's important to remember that digital landscapes are ever-evolving."

Neda Whitney

SVP, Head of Marketing - Americas at Christie’s


Hi, I’m Neda Whitney, SVP and Head of Marketing America at Christie’s. Thank you for joining my presentation on Harnessing the Power of Digital to Engage Clients in a Virtual World. 

A little bit about Christie’s before we get into the meat of the presentation. For those who don’t know, Christie’s is the world’s leading art business. It’s a name and place that speaks of extraordinary art, unparalleled service and expertise, as well as international glamour. Founded in 1766 by James Christie, we have since conducted the greatest and most celebrated auctions through the centuries. We offer around 350 auctions annually in over 80 categories, including fine and decorative arts, jewelry, photographs, collectibles, wine, sneakers, and more. Our prices range from 200 to over 100 million. Christie’s also has a long and successful history conducting private sales for clients and online sales are offered year round across all categories. Our global presence is spread across a network of international sales rooms and 61 representatives and offices. 

Today, I wanted to talk to you all about Marketing in a post-pandemic world. For Christie’s, we’re a marketplace where client engagement was largely in person. The global pandemic led to the need for digital evolution of the Christie’s brand across all touchpoints, like many brands faced after COVID-19. 

Some of the questions we faced were: How do you connect with high net worth individuals virtually? How do you maintain brand equity and the transition from physical to digital interaction with a brand with the prestige that Christie’s had in the art and auction space? Many brands were facing similar issues, and our approach can offer a unique perspective on how to engage clients via new digital approaches will offering them the high touch white glove service they expect within the content confines of a virtual environment. 

The state of the art market in 2020—I know that not everyone is an expert on the art market, and I certainly wasn’t when I joined Christie’s. It’s important to note that in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, auction sales were down approximately 30% among the major auction houses compared to 2019. The volume of lots offered was down approximately 15% year on year. That picture is an incredibly negative financial picture for art and auction. The market had spoken and they’d spoken loud and clear, innovation was no longer a part of the digital roadmap, it was an essential ingredient to success in a post COVID world. 

There are three steps to our success, and I want to walk you through each of them. The first is invest. The first step we took when the pandemic struck was making a significant investment in a 360 approach to technology. This means thinking of technology at all its touch points along the infrastructural path. We wanted to allow clients to digitally engage with works in a meaningful way, even if they couldn’t travel or see our exhibitions or auctions in person. 

The second step to success is impact. We wanted to focus in on the places where we needed to engage with clients the most, targeting thoughtful areas to revamp our digital experience. This included the website, auction live streams, and interactive content. 

Finally, iterate. It’s important to remember that digital landscapes are ever-evolving. We have to have a mindset of iteration in order to continue to meet client needs, and the evolution of technology. This is not a one size fits all solution that’s going to last in perpetuity, you need to be prepared to make some changes.

Let’s talk a little bit about the power of thoughtful investment. One of our goals was to utilize our technology to maximize value in a changing world. Something I like to say a lot is we don’t just innovate for innovation sake. Looking at our backend re-platforming to fine tuning our CMS tools, and developing a best in class live stream approach, we wanted to always think of the client at the center of these decisions. 

How would these changes better engage our clients? How would they add more value to their ability to view and understand the landscape of art in 2020 and beyond? How do these tech practices and the changes we might make engaged with what’s happening in the broader world? 

2020, as we all remember, had a lot of change from politics to business to unemployment rates, and obviously health and wellness. We wanted to make sure we were thinking of everything in the broader context. Every decision we made was in context of our role within the art world and our clients obligations. 

Let’s talk about some of the areas that we focusing on. First, strategic timing. One of our most important weeks is our Marquee 20th and 21st Century Sale Week. In 2020, we moved our Marquee 20th Century Art Week from mid November to early October, and held a second set of auctions in December. This timing took advantage of a strong art market, and avoided potential instability in the financial markets in the lead up to and following the US presidential election. 

Second, we took a curatorial approach. In 2020, we found great success in offering smaller curated sales on a regular basis in response to pent up market demand. This strategy allowed us to build our sales thoughtfully and with a curatorial approach. More frequent sales provided us with real-time data, and allows us to respond to nuances in the market effectively and efficiently. It’s also important to note, that with more online sales, we had to upscale our online sales capabilities from a back-end and a front-end perspective. That was where we loaded some of our investment. 

Thirdly, responding to our clients. Our clients more and more frequently are collecting works across traditional category lines. To better serve them, we merged some of our most important departments in impressionist and modern art, and post war and contemporary art. This enabled them to cross-pollinate projects, and create new platforms for innovative 21st century art formats. It was important for us to note the emerging digital art platform, as well as other formats which required a more digital first approach. This was another area where we invested. 

Finally, connecting the world. In late 2020, we refined the hybrid live and online sale model. Our auctioneer was in a sales room in New York, taking bids in front of a dynamic LED screen updated with any pertinent information for the bidders. Clients were able to place high level bids online from anywhere in the world, or bid seamlessly in real-time via our specialists on the phone globally. It was extremely important for Christie’s to acknowledge that clients needed to maintain the ability to bid in multiple ways, and we built our technology infrastructure to appeal to that. 

Let’s take a look at a few of the features that we enhanced. First was the homepage. As our most heavily trafficked part of the website and where international visitors can explore sales and content, it was important to invest in innovation. We curated our website to feature top lock collections, recommended sales, and trending objects. Now, our homepage is designed to foster long engagement and visitors, and provide direct click to paths for bidding. 

The second was being cognizant of how people search for art and objects, and matching that approach in our digital experience. On our lot panels, we created filtering by popular, trending and recommended so that we could increase the exposure of top lots and give clients direct paths to bid. Our sales page is one of our most traffic pages as well, so top highlights of each sale were illustrated in large scale photographs, alongside sale descriptions at the top of the auction homepage. Again, importance to give clients a direct click to path to bid. One of the themes that you will notice throughout this presentation is that every choice we made was thoughtful in not only the client experience, but also the return on investment and translation to increased bidding and purchase. The conversion funnel is an important part of our decision making process. 

Next is our specialists. One of the things that we’re known for at Christie’s is our specialists and the breadth of knowledge they bring to art objects in auction. We worked with our specialists to curate top lots for each sale and prominently positioned those on the carousel. That way, people could have quick views, giving them details on each of the highlights without losing their place to bid on the page. 

Next, let’s talk about our auction calendar. For many brands that have calendar eyes activities, there are calendar sections on the website. We found that it was important to include illustrations with the top lots from each sale, because it’s a key entry point to online and live auctions. We also allow the ability to filter by date, location, and category so that there’s seamless engagement. 

Next, I want to talk to you about the “Brought to you by” section. Brought to you by provides contact details for our key specialists and heads of sale. That way, people can have direct access to one on one engagement with sale managers. For other brands, this could be chatbots, or other ways that they can get one to one connections to key employees and specialists in your brand. 

Next, the enhanced digital experience, which digital experience such as viewing rooms, virtual tours, and related content pieces create a more digitally engaging experience, and allowed our clients the opportunity to immerse themselves in the exhibitions and the stories behind selected highlights without the ability to go inside the auction room. 

Finally, we made sure that each of our lock pages had a bespoke background and text color drawn from the work on view to create an elevated online viewing experience. 

Next up, content. As most of you know, content is king. Much like other industries, compelling content at Christie’s is essential. The stories we tell about our objects at auction from their significance in history, their iconic nature, their ownership and provenance. These are all important elements of the items value. Often, a content piece is the client’s first step towards bidding with 40% of visitors to Christies.com viewing our content pages, and an average 13% click through to sale landing pages from content stories. 

We leaned into three key areas to enhance our content experience. First, was understanding what was some of the best performing content. For us, that was online collecting guides, a chance to educate collectors, buyers, and consigners about what was an important start and progression to their collection. Oftentimes, offering clients educational content is really valuable and helps them engage with the brand. 

Second, dedicated sale and lot editorial pieces. We wanted to make sure for our prime sales and our prime lots, we had dedicated storytelling around that content, as it was expected to be some of our best performing sales and lots. 

Finally, video content. In 2020 and 2021, our video content has grown exponentially, as we see more and more clients are willing to engage with long form and short form video content in lieu of the one to one client relationships. 

Next up, leveraging social media. Social media remains an indelible part of most brands marketing campaigns. At Christie’s, we use social media to raise international awareness for sales and engage top tastemakers as part of our brand image. Our ability to create content that converted social media interactions into transactions was an important focus of our strategy during COVID. 

First up, taste maker and brand partnerships. For every brand and Christie’s is no exception, it is important to understand the types of tastemakers and brand partnerships that can help increase your brand awareness and your brand halo. The right tastemaker partnerships can bring new audiences to the brand and deepen your relationships with existing audiences. We curate our tastemaker and brand partnerships carefully to ensure that they have international reach. 

Next step, dedicated sale posts. Again, we want to make sure that our sale posts are supported by media spend so that we get the broadest reach and awareness possible. 

Finally, making sure that in social, we have bespoke posts for our top lots and sales that are our Marquee sales. This will ensure that audiences that engage with us in social will also learn about the content and the sale. 

Next up, translating in real life to digital. Once the site social and content had been enhanced, there remain the issue of translating the real life experience of auction content and in-person viewing to digital. From our highly polished live stream sales productions to interactive and immersive gallery tours viewing tools, we leveraged emerging and developed technologies to bring the art and auction experience to life for our clients around the world. We use tools like online viewing rooms and 360 virtual tours to enable our clients to better view the artwork and understand a bit about the context of the artwork. We leveraged our specialist personas to have compelling video content, taking you on tour through the gallery, and letting you know the art from their POV. We enhanced our online presentation with additional views like super zoom and other views of the photography and the objects, and we use augmented reality to allow clients to place artworks virtually into whatever space they desired. 

Finally, and a critical part for Christie’s, was the ability for our clients to view our sales. We invested heavily in innovating our live and sales streaming, so that clients could feel the experience of being in the auction room, in the comfort of their own homes. Most important through all of this, the results. We wanted to make sure that we were getting the best intel so that we could continue to iterate as needed. 

In 2020, we innovated all of our live streams to enable us not only to do live streams in certain locations, but we also had relay live streams globally from Hong Kong, London, Paris, and New York. In 2021, our live stream garnered over 1 million views across its website, YouTube channel, Facebook profile, and art-focused websites in Asia. It’s a huge audience that not only dwarfs the in-person attendance at a traditional auction, but it’s roughly on par with the average daytime viewership of business news channels such as CNBC. 

Let’s look at some of the other results that are innovation-achieved. Again, to adapt to the rapid digitalization of the art market in 2020, we developed a suite of tools to reach clients wherever they work globally. As we can see, the unique website visitors has grown exponentially compared to our competitive set. 

Let’s talk a bit about some of the other innovations. In virtual viewing rooms, we saw 450,000 unique visitors in our viewing rooms in 2020, 33% of those visitors clicked directly through the sale, and 62% of the visitors were new visitors to Christie’s. For Christie’s as with other luxury brands, it’s incredibly important to continue to engage new audiences to the brand. Our virtual viewing rooms and other tools has done just that. 

Let’s look a little bit at content, social, and augmented reality. 27% of our website visitors viewed content features, and 7.4000 visitors used our augmented reality on average every six weeks. In social, we have over 1 million followers that are incredibly engaged in our Instagram channel handles, and we have seven times more engagement on WeChat in the industry benchmark. 

Now, let’s talk a little bit about the results on our website. In 2020, we had over 15 million unique visitors to Christies.com, and that isn’t slowing down anytime soon. In the fourth quarter of 2021, we saw almost 4 million unique visitors, and also we’re seeing new visitors. We saw over 89,000 new accounts created in 2020, and that’s up 20% year over year, which means we’re gaining traction with new audiences internationally. Speaking of international, 230 countries and regions were represented by unique visits to Christie.com, and we had a 20% increase in clicks to sale pages from Christies.com’s home page. 168% increase in time spent on the page for auction and lot pages, and an 86% of our buyers in 2020 transacted online, many of them never having seen the piece of art that they were purchasing for auction, which means that our clients are adopting our digital tools. 

Let’s talk a bit about 2021 and beyond. As I mentioned, it’s incredibly important to be open to iterating and trying new things. We continue to seek ways to improve our digital connection to our clients and innovate on the auction experience. In May of 2021, we offered virtual skyboxes via a partnership with Microsoft for our top clients. We experimented with our live stream production and pre-show with celebrity hosts such as Derek Blasberg and Precious Lee. In addition, 2021 was the year we joined clubhouse to engage with an emerging client base one to one and we also started selling NFTs and accepting cryptocurrency for key sales. We don’t plan to stop innovating anytime soon. 

At Christie’s, we believe in the power of digital transformation, pre-COVID, post-COVID, and beyond. I hope you all enjoyed. Thanks for joining.

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