It is tempting to define an online fundraising auction as a variation on a gala fundraising auction. After all, in each case your supporters are engaged in a fun competition to purchase donated items in order to support your cause.
However, the differences point the way toward several challenges that can undercut your chances at mounting an online auction as a successful fundraiser. Let’s explore a few of these, and then I will offer some guidance on how to address them.
First, participation in an online auction brings no immediate recognition to the guest. Gala fundraising events are philanthropy-as-spectator-sport; your guests who make pledges or bid on live auction items are acknowledged for their generosity in the moment with applause and cheers; this recognition often spurs further participation and greater loyalty to your event and your group.
In an online auction, however, the only feedback a bidder is likely to receive is the click of their mouse and a visible note about their bid on the item page of the website. When they win an item, they get an automated email asking them to come back to the site and enter their credit-card information. This is nowhere as stimulating as the applause of the crowd.
Second, participation in an online auction happens in the spaces in between other events in our life . Gala auctions happen on Friday or Saturday night (okay, sometimes in the afternoon, sometimes on a Thursday), but when a guest attends a gala fundraiser the main focus of their attention is that event. Not so in the online auction; it’s just waiting there, and your supporters fully plan to sit down and get to it soon, or after dinner, or before bedtime, or tomorrow morning before the kids get up, or…
You get the picture. It’s hard to focus their attention on your organization, its needs, and your fundraiser. And when you do, the next distraction is only moments away.
Third, gala auctions often feature an auctioneer; a professional salesperson with practiced, polished, proven techniques for stimulating buying behaviors in your guests. In most online auctions, there is no one prompting your bidders to take action and support your group and its cause . Think back to galas you have attended; how often have you seen guests respond to the cajoling and encouragement of that auctioneer? How high do you think those guests would bid without that encouragement?
So, how do you plan for these challenges? I offer three suggestions, all of which revolve around one core concept: marketing each stage of the event to your supporters.
1. Start by driving auction registration.
Use your in-house email list (preferably assembled through an opt-in process) to announce the fundraiser to your supporters. You will likely want to send a “teaser” message to this list in the days leading up to the opening of the auction, and one or two more to it after you begin the bidding. Your call-to-action once bidding is open should be simple: please register at our online auction, so you can bid on wonderful items and support our cause. You can emphasize that registration is free, and entails no obligation to bid. At this point, you want to get them to “buy-in” to the event.
2. Next, promote the items.
Once you have driven supporters to the auction site, and encouraged them to register, your marketing job has just begun. Now you have to move on to driving those registered supporters to take the next step – placing bids.
- Start by segmenting your list – use the institutional knowledge you have about individual supporters to create groups of bidders who will respond to specific items or categories you have procured. Then send out customized email messages to those groups with images and links to take the recipients directly to the page where they can bid on one item that you know will appeal to them.
3. Then, promote the bidding action.
Once you have competitive bidding emerge on an appealing item, use your lists to alert other supporters to the fact that your event is generating excitement – and that they should get in on the action, too. Note the bidders who are in participating, and use the item closing times to create a sense of urgency – “Bidder ablebakercharlie currently has the high bid on the fishing trip for 4 to Lost Creek at $165.00 – and it closes in three hours! That means there’s not much time for you to get in and win this must-have experience, so click here and make your bid!”
- After your first closing, make sure you close each promotional email with a thank-you section, calling out specific guests who have won items – and a progress report on the event – “As of today, this online auction has raised over $6,000 to help fund our cause. We have a way to go to meet our $15,000 goal, but if you join in with bidders like JimmyFox, karenjones and tommytuxedo, whose winning bids have helped us get this far, we know we will make it!”
The most common reasons why online auctions fail to raise the money their organizers hope they will is the lack of a robust marketing campaign that is focused on each intermediate step in the auction. Online supporters are less focused, and more easily distracted, than guests at a gala event, and thus the job of the online auction team is to repeatedly and gently guide them back to the task at hand – supporting the organization through participation in the fundraiser.