In today’s multi-platform digital world, a key strategic item on every art market CEO’s agenda is to establish high quality, high visibility digital services in order to diversify existing sales channels and extend into new markets. And it’s no longer simply a case of knowing your position relative to established competitors. New entrants to the market are capitalizing on the disruption digital is bringing to the art world and are looking to take market share. These ‘born digital’ companies – often regarded more as upstarts than startups – wear their youth and lack of centuries of tradition as a badge of honour. A combination of technology and agile business practice has enabled them to leapfrog longer-established organizations and establish their presence in the quickly growing online art sales market.
In future posts we’ll be analysing how some of these new entrants are performing (for now, look for them in the Art Market Technology Directory). Today, we’ll take a look at the two market behemoths who, with over five centuries of trading between them, have defined what we know today as the art market: Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Can we identify some digital KPIs (key performance indicators) that illustrate how their digital strategies are performing?
Let’s start with some non-digital metrics (each is presented as a ratio Christie’s : Sotheby’s)
Consolidated sales – 1.16:1
- Christie’s $6.3bn 
- Sotheby’s $5.4bn 
Employees – 1.26:1
- Christie’s 1,900 (est. 2009) 
- Sotheby’s 1,501 
Traditional metrics such as sales and employee numbers may give an indication of what we should expect from digital KPIs – or at least some context in which to place digital KPIs. In terms of sales, Christie’s leads, albeit narrowly. (Well, ‘narrow’ being $900m. But when you’re dealing in the top end of the market that gap can be closed pretty quickly.)
A breakdown of sales into traditional versus online auctions is not available. As the number of online-only auctions ramps up – particularly at the lower end of the market – this will be an important metric to track, and 2013 is likely to be a significant year in this regard. The Financial Times quotes Steven Murphy, chief executive of Christie’s:
“We have moved from seven online [only] auctions in 2012 to 50 online [only] auctions in 2013, and we average between 45 per cent and 75 per cent of the successful buyers are individuals new to Christie’s.”
[Christie’s and Sotheby’s deepen rivalry ahead of art sales – FT.com http://on.ft.com/124npO3]
Let’s look at some more digital KPIs, beginning with social media.
Twitter followers – 1.45:1
- @ChristiesInc 35,142 
- @Sothebys 24,141 
YouTube views – 1.33:1
- Christie’s 600,084 
- Sotheby’s 452,073 
Facebook – 1.09:1
- Christie’s 73,261 likes (1,684 unique posters) 
- Sotheby’s 67,399 likes (1,593 unique posters) 
In terms of social media reach, Christie’s appears at first to be ahead. The highly sociable art world has taken to social networking online in a big way, and Christie’s takes the lead in terms of Twitter followers.
Christie’s also lead in terms of YouTube activity, although this could perhaps be played down in importance as both companies deliver incredibly rich archives of video through their own websites. Sotheby’s has over 500 high quality videos available on Sothebys.com, and Christie’s has 2725 videos in its own multimedia centre. (Just yesterday Christie’s also launched #TheArtPeople, expensively produced interviews with many of Christie’s key staff.)
Facebook provides the closest metric we’ve found between the two companies, and suggests that it’s here that Sotheby’s is focussing its social media activity – very successfully. A post yesterday on the most valuable diamond ever to be offered at auction (The Pink Star which will be sold by Sotheby’s Geneva in November) was shared by 443 people.
Finally, let’s look at discoverability. How visible are the two companies online, particularly in terms of search engine optimization?
Pages indexed in Google  – 1.22:1
- Christie’s 10.4m
- Sotheby’s 8.5m
Google PageRank 
- Christie’s 7
- Sotheby’s 7
Alexa rank 
- christies.com 20,122
- sothebys.com 40,104
Although both companies have equal PageRank in Google (which contributes to ranking in Google search results) the Christie’s website domain has the higher number of pages indexed. This makes sense: more sales means more catalogue pages.
Alexa, which attempts to rank the top 1,000,000 websites via browser toolbar plugins can be used as a quick indicator of site traffic in the absence of official statistics from either company. Alexa rankings have their flaws, but the relative rank of the two companies feels representative in light of the other metrics we’ve looked at. (Another service, Google Trends for websites, which offered similar statistics, was discontinued in 2012.)
Measuring performance as a ratio against competitors is a useful technique for tracking KPIs. The ratios above demonstrate that the difference in the two companies in terms of sales largely carries through the various metrics we’ve looked at.
In some cases the digital gap is much closer than the revenue gap, indicating that Sotheby’s is arguably out-performing Christie’s in those areas. When looking at the overall picture, however, Christie’s appear to be performing more consistently in the digital arena.
As with many metrics, the trend is more important than the actual number, and so we will revisit these at a future date. A word of warning, though. Numbers can give an illusion of more science and meaning than may be warranted. As someone (possibly Albert Einstein who knew about numbers) once said:
Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.
 2009 figure
 At 25 September 2013 on Google.com, searches for site:christies.com and site:sothebys.com
 At 26 September 2013 via SEO for Chrome