6 Tips for Hosting a Successful Online Auction

Experts share advice for using online auction platforms for fund-raising events.

By Jenny Berg August 26, 2015, 7:45 AM EDT

Photo: Matt Carasella

As event professionals know, ticket sales are just the beginning of fund-raising efforts for successful benefits. Silent and live auctions, as well as raffles, are all customary ways to add to the overall take; and now, planners are increasingly turning to online auction platforms to up the ante.

In order to maximize the benefits of using an online platform—where perks range from extended auction duration to a wider bidding audience—it’s important to develop a careful strategy that best suits an event’s individual needs. And of course, it’s crucial to hone in on the types of prizes that will get audiences bidding often and at higher price points. Auction pros representing a range of platforms offered their tips for taking bids online.

1. Go from online to live.
While standard silent and live auctions begin and end at a charity event, online auctions have a much more flexible timeline, and some don’t involve a live event component at all. Take the service model of Paddle8, where there are three main ways the auction house works with its nonprofit partners. First, Paddle8 can create online-only auctions, with no live event component. Alternatively, the site can offer advance online bidding for an upcoming live auction. And third, the company can provide its full-service option, which combines an online auction with a proprietary iPad app that bidders use at the actual event.

“We tailor our services to suit our clients’ needs,” says Samantha Krupnick, Paddle8’s business development director of benefit auctions. The online auction platform has created benefit auctions for organizations such as Planned Parenthood, MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation, and the Princes Trust, with lots that specialize in contemporary art and design, luxury collectibles, and rare experiences.

Other auction platforms host an auction leading up to an event, and then announce the winners live at the event. “People love public recognition,” says Trevor Traina, C.E.O. of IfOnly. Billed as an “experiential marketplace,” IfOnly handles the “Get Prepared, California” auction for the American Red Cross. The auction has raised $250,000 in the past two years, and prizes have included a meet and greet with Justin Bieber and a visit to the set of Days of Our Lives.

2. Know the audience.
To best determine which type of auction to use for a particular event, Krupnick suggests that her event planner clients analyze their guest lists and take careful consideration of the crowd’s size. “If you’re having an event, but are unsure if the crowd will include active bidders, an online auction that relies on Paddle8’s bidding community may be great,” Krupnick says. She adds that, on average, organizations exceed their fund-raising goals by 30 to 40 percent by opening an online auction up to Paddle8’s community, which has 500,000 members.

“If you’re just hosting a small live auction, we can showcase those items online before the event to generate bids before your auctioneer steps up to the podium,” she says. “And if you’re having a more traditional event, we can have the auction run online leading up to the event, and then utilize our mobile bidding solutions at the event to continue the competition in the room.”

Organizers should also keep in mind how tech-savvy the audience is and employ staffers accordingly. “We’ve found that everyone is happy with using a [digital bidding] platform when there are plenty of trained volunteers around, in addition to the Paddle8 team, to assist bidders during events,” says Liz Gilchrist, director of events and marketing at AIDS Community Research Initiative of America (Acria).

3. Expand the auction’s reach.
Most auction pros agree that one of the greatest perks of an online platform is the resultant sense of competition among bidders. “Using a digital platform … allows you [to] tap into a global network of supporters, extending your fund-raising base far beyond the audience in the room at an event,” Krupnick says.

“By using an online charity auction platform, we are able to reach a wider net of participants through our social media, digital marketing, and PR efforts, which helps us maximize the value of our prizes,” says Herve Larren, founder of BidKind. BidKind auctions off rare experiences for nonprofit organizations—think a private yoga session with a Victoria’s Secret supermodel—and also invites celebrities to host auctions. “At BidKind, we’ve been fortunate to have many of our partnering celebrities promote their auctions across their social media platforms,” Larren says. “We’ve partnered with [celebrities including] James Franco and Carrie Underwood … to offer unique experiences that benefit the nonprofit of their choice. Through the social media networks of these celebrities, we have been able to reach 179.4 million followers.”

For the 2014 Global Citizen Festival in New York, a fund-raising concert that aims to end global poverty, BidKind partnered with Underwood and auctioned off a meet and greet with the country singer that went for $25,000.

Gilchrist worked with Paddle8 on a 2014 auction dubbed “Unframed,” which raised nearly $1 million; she’s also used the platform for smaller-scale auctions that have brought in anywhere from $150 to $300,000.

“By using an online charity auction platform, we are able to reach a wider net of participants... which helps us maximize the value of our prizes.”

Gilchrist also points out that using an online auction platform gives “the ability to achieve much higher auction prices, and hence raise more money for [a charity] because of the global reach of the platform. Suddenly we’re engaging with hundreds and thousands of supporters instead of the hundred in the room—without a heavy lift from our internal team, [who are working] on other event needs in the days and weeks leading up to our big evenings.”

4. Engage bidders with rare items and experiences.
At an event with an auction, Traina says it’s crucial to develop an engagement plan that keeps audiences interested in bidding. “Have an announcer go up onstage every hour and remind people to bid, what the bids are for, whom they will benefit, and show them some slides … to get [the audience] excited,” he suggests.

Of course, it’s hard to inspire spirited bidding for lackluster prizes. “If people perceive that they can get the [auction prize] experience elsewhere for less, they will not be as interested,” Traina says. “Even if the package is simple to get, but more creative, the perceived value of it goes up. We typically will not offer items or experiences that you can go ‘buy now’ anywhere else on the Web because they don’t seem rare enough for the bidder.”

The most popular package for the “Get Prepared, California” auction, Traina says, was the set visit to Days of Our Lives, which went for $9,000—and that was unexpected. But in general, IfOnly’s most profitable lots are tickets to rare or sold-out events or autographed items.

Krupnick echoes the sentiment. “With both collectibles and experiences, items that are easily found online or in stores don’t elicit the ‘wow factor’ that an online collector is seeking,” she says. “So for instance, we’d be unlikely to offer a gift certificate for a restaurant, but have offered the opportunity for [celebrated chef] Jean-Georges Vongerichten to cook dinner at your home for you and 20 of your friends.”

Paddle8’s bidders respond best to lots that have a “unique backstory, exceptional quality, and ultimate scarcity,” she adds. Examples from recent auctions include a “Spin” painting by pop artist Damien Hirst, which fetched $100,000.

5. Offer a range of price points.
Gilchrist suggests paying close attention to the variety of lots on offer. “Our supporters have a wide range in income, and we have found that auctions with a very wide range of high- to low-priced works are the most successful,” she says. “Everyone in the room should be able to bid on something, and that means having at least a few works in the $1,000-and-below range.”

6. Think about the presentation.
Strong visuals are also important factors in an auction lot’s perceived value. “High-resolution images and descriptions that tell the story of each individual item make a big difference,” she says.

Online bidding website Artsy, which has assisted with select auctions for nonprofit and museum partners such as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, goes beyond photos and written descriptions to include videos that offer pertinent information. For example, in the weeks leading up to the Two by Two Auction in Dallas, the site created an online video that provided context on the importance of the auction to the arts community as a whole.

During live events, the Artsy team employs special technology to heighten the sense of competition between those guests bidding online and in person. For example, big on-site projection screens show all of the lots and bids coming in from around the world in real time, says Michelle Finocchi, Artsy’s head of communications and director of media and brand partnerships. “It amplifies the excitement of the auction because you can see if the bidder is in the room, in Oslo, or in Santa Monica.” Though the company cannot release exact figures on funds raised through the online component of individual auctions, Finocchi says: “In 2014, benefit auctions on Artsy helped raise more than $10.8 million for the arts, AIDS research, and more.”

Seeing real-time bids pour in may not be for every event audience, though. “Think about your audience and how they would prefer to bid,” Traina says. “We have sealed-bid auctions, which is more like a silent auction. Bidders put in their highest bids and won’t know ... if they won until the final rounds.”

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