Going Virtual: 4 Ways to Keep Your Charity Auction Exciting
With the nonprofit sector facing unprecedented levels of disruption, it’s definitely a challenging time to be a fundraiser. However, smart nonprofits look at challenges with excitement, not dismay. There’s never been a better (or more necessary) time to explore new options and make your organization more resilient.
This is particularly true when it comes to fundraising events. For many organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic and the new realities of social distancing have created the need for a paradigm shift around how they approach events.
Charity auctions are a great example. As classic high-impact events, traditional live and in-person silent auctions are among the most engaging choices for nonprofits. Going virtual with online auctions is the right move for organizations that rely on these events each year or are looking for new ways to engage their base from a distance.
The Basics of Online Auctions
Online auctions are very similar to traditional, in-person auctions with the main difference being that they’re entirely virtual. By setting up a dedicated auction site to host your item catalog and process payments, you get the same core functions of a traditional auction without the costly logistics of venues and food.
The process of planning an online auction is very similar to planning a typical in-person auction, but there are a few key differences between these events:
- The right tech is more central to an online auction. Using nonprofit-specific auction software gives you a full range of functionalities without needing to piece together individual solutions.
- Digital marketing will be even more important for an online auction than for an in-person event. Virtual events open you up to remote supporters, but you have to actively reach them first.
- Online auctions are more cost-effective, requiring only investments in technology, item procurement and planning. You may need to also plan for costs associated with shipping items, though.
- Online auctions can vary in length, some occurring over several days, rather than a traditional event taking place on a single night.
- Live elements of your event, like an auctioneer, announcements or awards ceremonies for ambassadors, will need to be livestreamed to attendees.
Check out this guide to planning a silent auction for a refresher on the core steps of planning this type of event.
If you’re making the shift to virtual fundraising and, specifically, adapting an auction to an online space, how can you ensure your new event remains exciting for supporters? We’ve got you covered. Here are four tactics for making your online auction more engaging:
- Provide mobile bidding options.
- Send participants real-time notifications.
- Develop an item procurement strategy.
- Use engaging gamification and ambassador techniques.
With so many ways to take your operations online, including auctions, now is definitely not the time to stop fundraising! With these tips, you’ll be planning your next virtual auction in no time.
1. Provide Mobile Bidding Options
To boost participation in your online auction, you need to meet donors where they are. Their laptops and desktop computers are definitely a great start. After all, eBay has been popular since the 90s, so the idea of bidding on items online is already natural to most donors. Your online auction’s website and item catalog will handle this aspect of the donor experience.
However, to truly maximize engagement, your auction should be easily accessible via smartphone as well.
Mobile bidding tools are already a staple for many traditional in-person auctions for this very reason. Methods like silent auction bid sheets and paddle-raising have always had their drawbacks, so going digital makes more sense for most organizations. Allowing participants to place bids straight from their phones offers these benefits:
- A streamlined, convenient bidding experience that keeps the energy up
- More effective and immediate notifications for bidders (more on these below)
- A complete view of your auction’s performance, with data from mobile bids and online engagement flowing together into useful reports
Think of it this way: With the rise of the internet (and particularly eCommerce) as integral parts of our daily lives, organizations of all shapes and sizes have learned the importance of high-quality mobile UX, or user experience. As online consumers, we’ve become accustomed to streamlined mobile processes. Anything less than intuitive quickly becomes frustrating and decreases engagement.
Simply put, not reaching donors on their smartphones will hold your online auction back without your team even realizing it. Tools designed specifically for mobile bidding are a smart choice for any organization that relies on virtual auctions for fundraising.
2. Send Participants Intuitive Notifications
One of the many reasons that nonprofits have been shifting to the digital space for a long time now is that it offers more immediate and convenient ways to connect with supporters. As described above, one example is mobile bidding for both online and traditional charity auctions.
Specifically, virtual auctions give you the ability to instantly notify participants of changes or announcements. This is huge for boosting engagement. After all, how many times a day do you look at your phone because it buzzed?
Paired with the right tech, your online auction can send a range of different types of notifications to donors. Typical reasons for sending notifications include:
- Notifying participants that they’ve been outbid on an item, encouraging them to immediately jump in and up their own bid.
- Sharing announcements about deadlines, like when there’s only one day or one hour left to place your final bids on your favorite items.
- Promoting additional offerings in your online auction, like buy-it-now options for items or extra raffle tickets.
- Upping the energy by directing participants to hot items, or drawing attention to items that haven’t received many bids yet.
Mobile bidding software offers the most direct and effective way to send real-time notifications to bidders. However, this is a best practice for any type of auction regardless of the exact tools you’re using. Emails and text message announcements can be great ways to direct attention, share announcements and boost engagement as well.
3. Develop an Item Procurement Strategy
Bidders in your online auction won’t be able to actually see your items as they would in a traditional silent or live auction. This means investing plenty of time in procuring a strong range of offerings and creating an engaging catalog for them will be critical.
Item procurement is one of the most important steps in planning any type of auction because the items you offer are the main draw of the event. We recommend a few best practices:
- Form a procurement committee to help share the work.
- Get started with procurement early in the planning process.
- Create an item wishlist to help guide your efforts and keep everyone focused.
- Anchor your procurement strategies with one or two “main attraction” items.
- Reach out to a variety of potential item donors, including large companies, small businesses, individuals and other organizations in your community.
- Ask businesses if they’d also be interested in sponsoring your event in exchange for recognition in your digital materials and announcements.
Reviewing your donor data and results from previous fundraising events is a smart way to strengthen the entire procurement process, too. Identify the target segments of your donor base who you hope to engage with your online auction. Then, explore what has historically caught their attention and successfully secured their donations.
What size gifts do your target donors typically give? How old is your average donor? What are their interests? What is your retention rate from one event to the next? The answers to questions like these are invaluable for showing you what types of items and packages will be most appealing for your audience. For instance, younger parents will likely be drawn to a range of items different from what might best interest retirees.
Make sure to use effective tech to manage and track your items, as well. Ideally, your online auction software will include comprehensive item tracking and catalog-building features. Review the array of silent auction software and support tools in the space for help with item management, consignment services, and more.
4. Use Engaging Gamification and Ambassador Techniques
In addition to mobile bidding tools, notifications and an appealing range of auction items, you can take extra steps to ensure participants feel engaged and eager to get involved with your virtual event. Gamification is already a popular tactic for organizations looking to boost engagement with their peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns, but it can be applied to online auctions, as well.
Consider these strategies for incorporating gamification elements in your auction:
- Add a leaderboard to your main auction site, showing top bidders. Offer a special prize to your most engaged participants to create some healthy competition.
- For any type of online fundraising event or campaign, digital fundraising thermometers or progress trackers are another great way to up the energy as you approach your goal.
- Create a social media campaign to spread the word before your auction. Encourage registrants to post their own messages and photos with your unique hashtag explaining what draws them to your mission. Then, give shoutouts or prizes to your top supporters.
Gamification techniques are effective energy-boosters both before and during your auction. Another engaging way to supercharge your auction beforehand is to recruit volunteer ambassadors. This tactic is similar to traditional peer-to-peer fundraising, but the approach is typically more focused and centralized.
Your auction’s ambassadors should be well-connected, excited supporters in your community who can take the lead on promoting your auction to their own online networks of family, friends and colleagues. Encourage them to register a specific number of bidders or donations, and empower them with plenty of resources and your item catalog. Then, recognize and reward your ambassadors over the course of the online auction.
With livestreaming technology, you can verbally recognize and award your ambassadors during an opening ceremony or grand finale virtual gala, as well. Including a live element in your online auction is a surefire way to engage attendees who might be missing the social aspect of your events.
This strategy works well for both traditional live auctions and online events because it taps heavily into the power of social media.
Ambassador techniques and gamification are easily adaptable for organizations of all shapes and sizes, from national nonprofits to local schools. These tactics can work especially well for tech-savvy schools and other organizations because of their more close-knit and dedicated base of support. Explore this guide to school auctions to learn more about how they can pull off their own online auctions.
Though your nonprofit has likely gone remote, that doesn’t mean your new virtual fundraising events and campaigns have to be unengaging for donors! Taking a classic, engaging event like a charity auction and adapting it for digital audiences is less of an undertaking than it might initially seem.
This is largely because there’s already a strong infrastructure in place for online auctions — software designed just for these events, existing familiarity with eCommerce and online bidding and the popularity of social media. With the right strategies and additional tips for keeping your bidders engaged, you’re sure to see success with your online auction. Best of luck!
Kelly Velasquez-Hague brings over 20 years of fundraising, nonprofit management, and marketing experience to her role as the VP of Donor Engagement Strategy for OneCause. Prior to starting her career in nonprofit fundraising technology, Kelly worked in the nonprofit sector as a Development Director and Event Coordinator. She’s an active speaker and thought leader sharing insights on donor trends and fundraising best practices at nonprofit industry conferences and webinars. Kelly is passionate about empowering great missions and loves that her current role allows her to continue to help nonprofits reach new donors and raise more funds for their cause.