Online Auction Checklist: Beginning to End Coverage

Create virtual events that drive auctions.

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This post was contributed by Joshua Meyer. Josh brings over 14 years of fundraising, volunteer management, and marketing experience to his current role as the Director of Marketing for OneCause.

With the entire nonprofit sector facing an unprecedented set of new challenges, your fundraising event plans for the year have undoubtedly seen some drastic revisions.

Your radar is probably jammed with constantly changing priorities, but remember that reinforcing your personal relationships with supporters and staying relevant in the community is key going forward. Staying grounded and responsive will strengthen any of your new virtual strategies, especially when it comes to online events.

While shifting strategies on a dime is never easy, technology has opened up more opportunities than ever for nonprofits to go digital. Online auctions are a great example.

Charity auctions are classic high-impact nonprofit events, and online auctions have already been trending up for several years. If you’re thinking about hosting an online auction to engage your audiences and raise support remotely (or if you’ve been forced to go back to the drawing board for an auction you’ve already planned), you won’t have to go it alone. Plenty of nonprofits have already succeeded with online auctions, so there’s an existing methodology to tap into.

Let’s walk through an online auction checklist of essential steps and considerations:

  1. Review what you’ll need to go digital.
  2. Outline the basics of your online auction.
  3. Procure and price your auction items.
  4. Set up your auction website.
  5. Promote your event and register your bidders.
  6. Host the online auction and follow up.

As nonprofits of all sizes face the new necessity of fundraising virtually, it can be difficult to get your bearings if these online techniques are new to you. At OneCause, we’re experts in all things auctions, and we’ve walked many organizations through the process of adapting their fundraising to the online space. Let’s get started.

1. Review what you’ll need to go digital.

Before we dive into specific steps, it’s important to have your basics covered. Making changes to your existing strategies, or developing a plan for something completely new, requires some preliminary preparations. It will certainly be possible to grow your revenue in 2020, but only if you’ve got the right infrastructures in place to take advantage of new online opportunities. 

For online auctions, a digital infrastructure will consist of these essentials: 

  • Online auction or mobile bidding software. This is what facilitates the bidding and payment processing for your auction. Look for software that brings as many relevant tools, like item cataloging, site creation, and text messaging, together in one package.
  • Existing digital marketing structures. Your social media accounts, email capabilities, and website will be especially crucial for promoting your online auction. Look for auction software that offers intuitive contact reporting and social media integrations.
  • An underlying database or CRM. You’ll want easy access to segmented contact lists and historical data on event performance, especially if you’ve hosted auctions in the past. For maximum long-term benefits, your auction software should be able to freely send new data to your CRM or provide a variety of compatible exports.

These are the core technical elements you’ll need in place to begin preparing your online auction, but tools you’ve relied on in the past or want to include (like live-streaming, direct mail, websites) are welcome additions, too. 

The main idea is to ensure your nonprofit isn’t jumping blindly into a new fundraising strategy without the right infrastructure in place. Explore the OneCause guide to taking your auction online for a complete overview of the topic.

2. Outline the basics of your online auction.

This step involves outlining the core guidelines that will shape your virtual event. Just like any other major event you might host, you’ll need to determine a few basics, like:

  • The date for the event. For an online auction, this will most likely be a date range during which bidding will be open. We recommend a 5-day duration. 
  • Your budget. What’s your budget for new software and marketing materials? While online auctions are less expensive to host than in-person events, you’ll still likely want to invest in new tools that will be helpful now and for future online events.
  • Your goals. Set specific KPIs for your online auction, including revenue, participation rates, new donor acquisition, or whatever matters most to your organization right now.
  • Any sponsors or partners. Just because you’ve moved online doesn’t mean you can’t involve your existing network of partners. Many businesses today will jump at the chance to get in front of more eyes, so corporate philanthropy of all types remains an important avenue to boost the impact of your events and campaigns.

This early stage in planning your online auction is all about laying a solid foundation. Building your auction site is probably the most important (more on that soon), but tasks like reaching out to potential partners and procuring items should also be tackled early. Use our auction donation request letters to get a head start!

3. Procure and price your items.

Another crucial task to tackle early in the process of planning your online auction is item procurement. Form a team to help in the charge, since brainstorming and soliciting the right items can be quite an undertaking. 

Here are a few pro tips for item procurement:

  • Create a “wishlist” of ideal items and packages with your team. It can be difficult to start soliciting items blindly without an idea of where to start.
  • Reach out to existing donors and partners. Well-connected individuals and local businesses may not be able to make substantial financial donations right now, but many may be more likely to offer in-kind gifts of goods or services to offer in your auction.
  • Target your items to your particular audience. What are your donors interested in? What can they afford to bid? In addition, remember that classic auction packages like vacations might not be the best move amid today’s current events.
  • Avoid procuring too many items. You’ll want to create a seller’s market for your auction, meaning there should be more competition than there are available items. Focus on one or two main-attraction items with some additional packages and standalone items.

For ideas to kickstart your item wish list, explore the OneCause guide to the top charity auction item ideas. We recommend starting to procure items several months in advance of your event.

As your collection of auction items grows, you’ll need to properly price them. Getting this step right will directly impact your ability to reach your event’s revenue goals. Start by determining the fair market value of the item or package, and then choose a starting bid, typically between 30-50% of the fair market value. For online auctions, a higher “buy-it-now” price can also be a smart move. 

Determining the prices and minimum bids for your items as you collect them and organizing your catalog will save a lot of time as the event approaches. Plus, it gives you time to double- or triple-check everything before your auction goes live.

4. Set up your auction website.

Working with your online auction software, you’ll need to set up a dedicated website for the event. Think of this as your auction’s digital venue. At the very minimum, your auction website should allow you to create a catalog of items, register bidders in advance, facilitate their bids, and process transactions. 

However, there are a number of important additional features that can make a huge difference in the ultimate results of your auction:

  • Customization options. The ability to customize the appearance of your site to match your nonprofit’s branding can greatly improve the user experience and reinforces your relationship with donors. Plus, you’ll want plenty of flexibility in adding photos and descriptions to your items in the catalog.
  • Flexibility. Use the full capabilities of your auction site to create an online advantage. Leverage auction categories, Featured items and Fixed Priced items (raffles, sign-up parties, wine-pulls) to create robust and engaging online offerings.
  • Built-In Communication. You’ll need new ways to communicate with your virtual supporters. Text communications with click links to your auction items are key to driving remote bidding. Also be sure to use your auction website to set scrolling phone or “ticker” messages, plus built-in social icons to quickly post items and updates to your social channels.
  • Mobile optimization. Being able to easily access and use your auction site from a smartphone is a must. That’s how a huge proportion of your donors will likely engage with your event, and you don’t want to risk driving them away.
  • Reporting and analytics. Ideally, your auction site will be created and hosted via your auction management platform. This will ensure complete access to engagement data after the auction ends. If you’re using a more piecemeal approach and building an auction site manually, make sure you have a way to effectively collect and analyze the data that your website generates. 

Above all, make sure that your auction site is both easy and safe to use. Complete PCI-compliant payment processing is a must. Make sure your item catalog makes an appealing pitch for each item with high-quality photos and descriptions, but avoid overloading the site with too much media or jumbled layouts.

5. Promote your event and register your bidders.

With the core infrastructure for your online auction – including your guidelines, items, and website – it’s time to begin promoting the event to your online supporters. 

This is where a robust CRM will definitely come in handy. Using your database of existing supporters and contacts, begin segmenting your audience into groups you want to specifically target with your online auction. Mid-range donors or donors whose engagement with your work has dropped off recently might be segments you focus on. 

The idea isn’t to only promote your auction to just one group but rather to target your messaging to different groups in different ways. For instance, recently lapsed donors will require different messages than extremely active donors in order to get them interested in your auction. 

In addition, if your CRM is integrated with your website, social media, and email platforms, you can then configure and automate your marketing efforts to target those segments of contacts without eating up all of your team’s time. For instance, set up an email campaign to keep recipients engaged with your upcoming auction and tease your big-ticket items, attach the campaign to specific segments in your CRM, and then launch it.

Responsive automation workflows are particularly effective because they direct supporters into particular messaging campaigns based on how they interact with your initial outreach or post.

When promoting an online auction, focus your marketing efforts first on simply announcing and explaining your event to drum up interest and excitement. Then, as the auction draws nearer, focus heavily on pre-registering bidders on your auction site. Direct readers straight to your registration page on your auction site, then encourage them to explore your catalog. Pre-bidding strategies can be an effective and relatively easy way to boost revenue.

Securing their registration and payment information now removes a major potential roadblock once the auction is actually underway. Eliminating the friction of needing to register makes it much easier for donors to get involved quickly, and it gives you a good sense of who in your community is most interested in online auctions.

6. Host the auction and follow up.

Once you’ve gathered your items, got your site up and running, promoted your event, and registered plenty of bidders, it’s time to launch your online auction! Once the auction is underway, follow this general schedule of tasks:

  • Open the bidding with an official announcement via an email blast or by text message, if supported by your auction software.
  • Start each item at the initial bid amount. 
  • Raise each bid by the minimum raise amount you’ve determined for that item. This is usually 10-15% of the item’s fair market value. This can be pre-set in your auction software to automatically occur.
  • Jump in with periodic messages to keep the energy up. This is especially important for online auctions that take place over a week or longer. Emails, social media posts, text messages, online leaderboards, and more are all effective at keeping participants engaged. Your auction software should be able to automatically notify bidders when they’ve been out-bid on their favorite items.
  • Close the bidding. Be sure to make several announcements before officially closing bidding. Then, notify the winners.
  • Process payments. Pre-registering bidders during the marketing process makes this step a breeze.
  • Package and ship the items to the winners! 

After the auction ends, it’s essential to conduct some follow-up. Donor retention is more important than ever amid disruptions and economic uncertainty, so personally thanking winning bidders, highly-engaged participants, and other donors is the least you can do! Consider sending out post-event donor surveys or questionnaires, and then use the responses to improve your strategies for your next auction.

With a strong digital infrastructure in place, consisting of online auction software, an integrated CRM, and digital marketing outlets, the data generated by your online auction can become just as valuable for your nonprofit as the money it raised! As online engagement and virtual events become increasingly crucial for nonprofits of all sizes, building out a solid toolkit is a smart move.

Online auctions are a great way to engage your community with a fully-digital, lower-pressure alternative to the classic, high-ROI charity auction. By following the process outlined here and learning more online, you’ll be prepared to start planning your auction. Best of luck!

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