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10 Tips to Host a Successful Online Auction


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Published April 24, 2020 Reading Time: 7 minutes

Fundraising does not stop during these uncertain times. Instead, your organization must be prepared to adapt to unforeseen and unexpected circumstances that potentially limit fundraising revenue.

Typically, spring fundraising campaigns, events, and initiatives help nonprofits raise money for their programs that take place year-round. As those campaigns are canceled, pivoted, and moved with the news of the COVID-19 outbreak, many organizations are now taking their in-person events online.

With so many moving pieces, an in-person event can be slightly overwhelming to take online. For instance, if you’re hosting an auction, how can you emulate a paddle raise through a webpage? Can you create the same energy online that you’re used to from a crowded room with an open bar? How do people collect their auction items after winning and paying online?

ClickBid has helped many of nonprofits transition from an in-person auction to an online auction. To help you maximize your fundraising opportunity, we’ve compiled a few tips from our experience with many of these online events.

1. Take Stock of Your Items

First, inventory all of the items you were planning to include during your in-person auction. It’s hard to know when certain items like travel and experiences will be available again, so consider holding off on excursion items until a fall event, or even an next year. This may require you to fill in some gaps with more fun-from-home items like meal delivery services or online shopping gift cards.

The beauty of an online auction is that you can sell one or 100 items over a period of time. To start, we recommend selecting a key group of about 20 items. Then, you can go back later and begin to add more items to your auction when you’re ready. You can also stagger closing times on items to keep your bidders engaged and coming back for more.

2. Set Your Starting Bids Properly

Typically you should set starting bids for your online auction items at 35% of their proposed value. Your goal here is to get between 80% to 100% of market value, and gauge for 12 to 16 bids per item.

For example, an item with a market value of $100 might start at $35 and have a minimum raise value of $5. With 16 bids that would total $115. This can, and should, change based on what price point you’re comfortable selling the item for.

3. Define the Rules

At an in-person gala it’s understood that after the event, winners go to the checkout table to pick up their items. However, if you’re hosting an online auction bidders will likely have questions about how they’re supposed to secure their items, or what the logistics around shipping might be.

For example, you can alert all winners that you’ll reach out via email or phone for delivery options. Alternatively, if shipping is available, define the costs that are passed through to the winner and inform them they’ll be charged for this separately. Try to anticipate as many of these questions as you can and put the information on your event website. Additionally, you can include this information in any emails you send when you first announce the online auction.

4. Promote Everything

Now that you are hosting your auction online, it is important to effectively communicate to your donors via email and social media. For example, once you have your items online, post the event landing page to your social profiles even if the official auction isn’t open yet. Be sure to also include a few photos of your key items.

Similar to the example from 21st Century Leaders below, you could write a post that says: “Pre-register for our auction now! Browse our growing list of great items.”

Post frequently about the auction and items on social media as well. Your online auction is a way to stay in front of your donors with updates when you add items, open your auction, and feature unbid items To make the sharing easier, you can use mass messaging services for text and email within your auction software to keep bidders aware of new items. Additionally, encourage your bidders to re-share your posts on their own profiles.

5. Use Photos

Bidders will likely look at your items from their laptops, phones, tablets, and other devices. Make sure you add at least three images per item. If you don’t have an image available, use accurate stock photos that relate, or even logos. Remember that “eye appeal is buy appeal” and no item should be without a photo.

A business’ logo on a white background is an easy addition and makes the item quickly recognizable. If you’re offering signed memorabilia, have a photo of the complete item, but also include a close up of the autograph(s). Stay away from collage photos tough; they lose their impact on mobile device’s smaller screens.

If you’re taking your own photos, ensure that lighting and setting are appropriate. If there is something special about the item, ensure that you are capturing it; items that include bottles of higher priced wine should have a clear photo of their label showing the winemaker and vintage, if applicable, like with the photo below.

A wine bottle label, showing how you can elevate your online auction with images.

6. Use Buy Now and Max Bidding

Two great values of online auctions are Max Bidding and Buy Now. Max bidding allows a bidder to set a “not-to-exceed” amount and let the system bid on their behalf. When someone bids a higher amount, the system will check for a max. If one exists, the system sets the higher amount and the item sells for more money.

Buy Now allows you to set a top price that you are willing to sell the item for. Typically, if a bidder chooses to purchase with the buy now feature, bidding stops on that item and the item is sold to that bidder for the buy now price. If you allow a buy now option for an item, be sure to set the price 20% to 30% higher than the market value.

7. Host a Multi-Day Auction

When you transition from an in-person auction to an online auction, you’re no longer locked into a single night to capture all of your bids. You can host your auction over a multi-day period, and you can even consider opening the auction a week early. Those extra days allow you to send multiple emails and social media posts promoting the event, your items, and driving donors to your site.

8. Lead Into a Virtual Event

Opening your auction a few days early can create a natural bridge that leads into a full-fledged virtual event or live stream. You can use your virtual event to recreate certain elements of an in-person auction by live streaming a small group of people sharing the experience with viewers. Services like Facebook and YouTube make live streaming readily available and reliable.

For additional help, contact a local audio/visual company. Many are starting to offer live streaming packages to replace their presence at ballroom events.

Live streaming fundraising totals during a virtual event with an online auction.

From an internal perspective, your virtual event should be scripted. Create a run-of-show timeline, plans for who will speak to specific topics, and for how long each person will speak. It’s time to channel your inner QVC host to describe items that are up for bid! Pictured below, ClickBid’s public leaderboard and appeal display can help bring the spirit of a live event to the virtual.

Live streaming fundraising totals during a virtual event with an online auction.

Broadcasting your virtual event allows your bidders to see you in real life, and it’s a great way to connect with your donors. To make it even more fun and engaging, you might consider asking winning bidders to post selfies to celebrate their wins and show off their at-home party attire, cocktail recipes, and drinks. You can then feature these posts in the live broadcast or in post-auction email and social media messages.

9. Keep Everyone Motivated

Remember, with an online auction you’re competing for a donor’s attention online, so give them a reason to pay attention to you. For example, you can consider holding back a few key items from auction and instead use them as a giveaway to anyone who places a bid or shares a picture to social media.

Be sure to communicate when these incentives are happening so your audience is aware and can take part. This also becomes yet another touchpoint to connect with your donors and keep them engaged.

10. Ask for Donations

No matter how you decide to orchestrate and host your online auction, you should always ask for donations throughout. Set up a fund-a-need item, or create a whole category of donation items as a ‘wish list’. You can also take advantage of ClickBid’s online donation or text-to-give capabilities to drive in-the-moment donations. If someone was outbid, suggest that they make a donation instead.

Regardless, make the ask to donate clear, concise, and compelling. You should also take the time to add some photos, a story, even a video explaining what this is all for so the donor knows they can still help.

These are extraordinary times, and many activities that have typically been in-person are now being conducted online. At ClickBid, our reputation has been built on helping charities leverage the internet to raise funds, stay connected with donors, and ensure that their mission critical work can continue. We’ve earned the trust of thousands of organizations by helping them raise over $200 million for their causes with scalable infrastructure, PCI compliant credit processing, and a dedicated team to help you achieve your fundraising goals.

Classy also offers an integration with ClickBid that your nonprofit can use to get an online auction up and running. Reach out to our team today and learn how you can get it set up today.

Matthew Burnell is the founder and CEO of ClickBid Mobile Bidding. Matt has spent his career, spanning more than two decades, blending technology with fundraising around the world. Most recently, he has helped start a ride sharing nonprofit for individuals with special needs called GoLou. He has a degree in Computer Science and Film Studies from Grand Valley State University. Matt lives on the West Michigan lakeshore with his wife, son and sleepy dog Blu.

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