Michael O’Neal is in charge of Christie’s new media efforts. Art Market Monitor talked to him last week after the company announced its new iPhone application:
The iPhone and apps are big and getting bigger. What was the main strategic motivation for creating the app? Was it to give your customers greater control or was it to be able to broadcast more from straight out of the company?
Well, there were two objectives. One is to reach a new population of consumers that have not experienced Christie’s, and the other is to empower our existing clients with a new delivery platform. So, for example, if you are technology-savvy and you’re an early adopter and you happen to use an iPhone or an iTouch, how can we get the equivalent of our catalogues or our e-catalogues or our lot finder products, how can we get those to you in a portable device like the iPhone?
Does this have an eventual interface with Christie’s Live?
It does, it may not be live, per se, but what it will eventually allow for is mobile bidding. In terms of product evolution, the next step is really…in six months, nine months, what has been the adoption rates on the iPhone, and then if they’re positive, and we think they are, what other mobile applications can we take this out to? For example, Blackberry’s looking to go head to head with Apple on the consumer side, so might we roll out a Blackberry application to speak to the corporate base that Blackberry has? If that’s successful, we can bring those two platforms together to allow for bidding to occur.
To use the app as, if not a complete replacement, then at least an alternative to the telephone bid.
I think where I am on this, and you talk to different folks here, and we all have varying opinions, but where I am, all these channels can peacefully co-exist, not one replaces the other. I think they’ll all nicely compliment and augment. If you have someone that is fearful of technology and continue to bid through the phone, you may have folks who were on the phone who migrate to the Web, you might have folks that loved the Website, but are en route all the time and traveling and love the portability that the handheld provides. There are some who turn up and just want to be part of the community for the auction and the social bit, and they’ll turn up in the room. I don’t know that any one channel is the winner, I think we need to be in all places and sort of be somewhat neutral and agnostic.
It does seem that you see this as a way to expand the capacity of the auction room, so that someone could either use their app while in the room or use the app somewhere else to participate in an auction that is taking place with live actors either in the room on the telephone or bidding with Christie’s Live.
Yes, it definitely is looking to solve our geographical barriers. The typical example that we’ve talked about with Live–[Christie’s online bidding system]–is a Russian buyer in the musical instrument sale bidding in a Stradivarius in New York. It’s to solve for that remote buyer, and now taking that even further, the remote buyer who used to be locked to their desktop can now be portable.
Do you have any numbers on the proliferation or increase in bidding from Live?
The channel overall last year represented 11 percent of our total lots sold.
Meaning the winning bid or there was a bid?
A winning bid. That number that underbid, I’d have to look to clarify. I want to say, inclusive of underbid, the number looks like 13 percent.
So they’re serious bidders.
Yeah, it’s sizable, and it’s actually even better than that, because year after year, our number of sales and lots offered at auction have decreased, so the channel contribution percentage is actually somewhat higher than that.
Do you see this in connection with the general idea that you’re trying to expand the types of objects that people can buy through Christie’s with the emphasis on estates and the strength and the kind of property that gets sold in your house sales and the design sales and all is having the app a way to sort of continue to make a broader, middle market of bidders, or do you see this as being effective for the trade and evening sales?
Absolutely – first, I think right now, while we could position the device as a middle market or trade, we may see that someone who we think is somewhat dusty is actually very technology-savvy, and chooses to use the iPhone application. In terms of broadening the brand, I think the device will definitely allow for that. What we’ll start to thread into the main page of the device is you can buy a watch here, you can buy a bottle of wine here, so the middle value categories will start to be illuminated through the device.
Moving away from the sale aspects of it, how do you see people using it email lots? Is that a significant part of the way people interact over lots in a social way, sharing them, or is that a way for people to turn the iPhone into a digital catalogue?
In terms of addressing the viral component to it, we’ve seen the email or friend functionality, which is basically the functionality that the app is in parity with on the Website, that’s a hugely popular feature and piece of functionality, and the rationale behind that is whether you are an art advisor to someone or you’re a decorator working on someone else’s behalf, it just gives you the ability to connect with the end consumer or the end client, and it’s also a way of enthusiasts that are part of a broader community…if I’m interested in English silver and I have 10 friends interested in English silver, and I happen upon a special find that’s up for auction at Christie’s, I can provide that to their attention.
Did you say you’re seeing a lot of use on that on the Website already?
So people are emailing lots to friends, this is a well-used feature.
Does that mean you want to create further social media accessibility with that, do you want to be able to connect to that part of it to things like Facebook? Or is that just more trouble than it’s worth?
No. Right now, we have a Facebook page, we have about 1,800 fans or so, we’re represented on Twitter. We’re just sort of toe in the water in terms of social community, just trying to understand where do luxury brands fit within broader social networks.
As the art market continues to globalize and you use these apps to get people more involved, does that continue to open up the concept of what an auction ought to be?
It’s not just related to the app, I think it’s for anything, whether it’s through a potential Blackberry application or our current Live base, we need to be able to satisfy that remote bidder that doesn’t have the tools available to him or her that the room experience would allow for, or the person representing the potential buyer over the phone. I think we’re just trying to settle for that right now with Live, and I think those benefits will also come through with the other devices or channels we develop.
Is the bandwidth and capacity of the apps too limited for you to provide a live feed on the app alongside the information? In theory, you could watch the video of the auction alongside the data.
Yeah, we just met with Apple with regards to 3G. We started the development exercise prior to them announcing 3G and their toolkit associated with 3G. Sooner or later, we will be offering video, so you will be able to see a video of the auction. The bit about could you participate with data and bid a little bit closer…not in the short term. But video is something we will explore probably in the next couple of months.
Is the Blackberry app in the works?
We’re thinking of doing it, it’s going to be based on the adoption rates of the iPhone. Blackberry, for the longest time, has really tried to satisfy the corporate market, and they’re now making a play for the individual consumer, they’re opening up the equivalent of Apple stores in major metro areas, they’re looking to develop applications that are consumer-focused, so I think as they continue to morph towards a consumer as opposed to corporate client base, we would also consider them, just based upon their footprint in the market right now. But nothing that is imminent, we don’t have a product roadmap right now that includes Blackberry, it’s more of a, “Let’s wait and see what the adoption rates look like on the iPhone,” and if those are successful, and I think they will be, we’ll also look to include the Blackberry.
The idea of being able to browse through a catalogue using the touchscreen makes a great deal more sense than using your computer. I’m not sure if you’d get the same from a Blackberry app, maybe that would be more data-intensive.
Unless, of course, their device changes. Right now, it’s targeted towards the corporate market, but as they begin to thread in more of a consumer appetite, how might that change? I think it’s really wait and see. We want to make sure the metrics are there on the iPhone app first, and if they’re successful, which we think they will be, then we’ll look to other devices.