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Promoting an Online Auction: 4 Ways to Reach More Donors

Event PlanningFundraising

By: Kelly Velasquez-Hague, Director of Content Marketing for OneCause

Now that we’re over halfway through 2020, it’s clear that unpredictability is one of the few things the nonprofit sector can count on going forward. The challenges of responding to a global pandemic and its broader economic impacts have certainly been unprecedented. 

Adapting your existing event plans (or starting from scratch) for the virtual sphere was likely the first necessary step your team took towards adjusting for the new COVID-19 reality. Since early in 2020, a lot of expertise and advice has been shared about virtual events and how to plan them. 

However, while virtual fundraising is essential for stabilizing and growing your support, new virtual events won’t return the kind of value you need without strong engagement and high attendance numbers. There’s a lot of competition for your donors’ attention online, probably more today than ever before! 

This means that strong marketing tactics are more important than ever for nonprofits and must be actively incorporated into your broader virtual engagement strategies. 

At OneCause, we’ve helped hundreds of nonprofit organizations pivot their events to hold them online with the right tools and strategies. Our own area of expertise is a type of event that translates especially well to the virtual sphere — charity auctions. Let’s walk through a few core strategies we recommend to any organization to strengthen its marketing strategies for a virtual auction:

  1. Prepare your auction’s digital materials in advance.
  2. Recruit ambassadors to promote your virtual auction.
  3. Take a multichannel digital marketing approach.
  4. Target specific segments of your donor base.

Many of the examples we’ll discuss pertain specifically to virtual auctions, but these tips apply to any type of virtual engagement or fundraising event you’re planning. Driving higher attendance and engagement (and ultimately revenue) with your events is the goal. Smarter marketing is the best way to protect all the time and resources you’ve invested in planning them. Let’s dive in.

1. Prepare your auction’s digital materials in advance.

A thorough planning process is always a smart investment when you depend on events to drive donor engagement and revenue over time. This is especially true for online events like virtual auctions. 

Rather than devote time planning for in-person logistics like venues and food, you’ll instead need to invest in creating the right digital materials needed for your event. For a virtual auction, this includes things like a dedicated website for the event, an online auction catalog, and explainer materials for how the event will work. Once you create these materials, leverage them!

Incorporating the digital materials that you prepare for your auction into your marketing strategy is a great way to save time and make the event more real for prospective attendees. Plus, it helps get supporters more excited for your auction, proactively fighting one of the biggest challenges of virtual events, disengagement. Consider these tactics:

  • Anchor your strategies with a dedicated auction website. Creating a centralized location for all information and necessary tools related to your virtual auction serves two purposes. It drastically simplifies the attendee experience, and it gives you a centralized place to point supporters to when promoting the event. Your auction’s website should include an easy-to-use registration form, information about the event’s purpose and goals, your online auction catalog, explanations of your mobile bidding tools, and anything else that attendees will find valuable.
  • Use your online auction item catalog to generate buzz. As your team procures items and packages for your auction, actively add them to your online item catalog. Having your catalog ready (or mostly ready) well in advance is extremely helpful for getting donors excited to register and start bidding. Give followers a sneak peek of your top items on social media, or offer your first registrants early access to explore your catalog and start picking out their must-haves. Check out the OneCause guide to auction items and procurement for more guidance
  • Explain your virtual auction tools when promoting the event. Charity auctions require dedicated software, like mobile bidding tools, to run smoothly and facilitate bids. To host a virtual auction, you’ll most likely invest in new software. These tools will be brand new to your supporters, too, so take the time to explain how they’ll work. In addition to investing in intuitive software, creating an explainer video to share online lessens the learning curve when the auction starts and can get attendees excited to engage with your organization in a new way.

Leveraging the existing digital materials and resources that your virtual auction already requires is an efficient way to streamline the marketing process. However, the key is to make sure you create them early. Your auction item catalog might take a longer time to fully come together, but your event’s website and materials about your bidding tools will be useful from the start.

2. Recruit ambassadors to promote your virtual auction.

This is our favorite marketing tactic for virtual auctions by far. Ambassador campaigns are similar to peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns because both tactics empower your supporters to take action and raise donations on your organization’s behalf. 

However, ambassador campaigns take a much more focused approach and can be used to secure more event registrations, as well. Here’s how a basic ambassador campaign works:

  1. Your organization recruits ambassadors from among your most dedicated and well-connected supporters.
  2. You train your ambassadors, giving them an overview of your virtual auction plans, its goals, and how the event will work. 
  3. Empower your ambassadors with the resources they’ll need, like individual registration pages and templates for emails and social media posts.
  4. Set specific registration goals for your ambassadors, then let them loose to begin promoting your online auction to their own networks of friends and family.
  5. Periodically check in with your ambassadors in the lead-up to the auction to review progress and provide additional support. 
  6. During your virtual auction, recognize and reward your ambassadors for their help.

Well-planned ambassador campaigns can be extremely effective for boosting engagement with virtual events, especially auctions. There are a few major benefits, including:

  • Higher visibility for your event and organization. Tapping into the social networks of your ambassadors gets your virtual auction in front of a much wider audience than you’d reach on your own. 
  • More registrations overall. The personal connections between your ambassadors and their social networks can be a powerful motivator for registrants. This is called social proof, and it’s an effective way to engage with brand new supporters for the first time.
  • Strengthened relationships with your ambassadors. Helping your organization so directly will reinforce your relationships with ambassadors. Focus on those relationships to retain their valuable support over the long-run.

Serving as an ambassador is an extremely impactful way that supporters can volunteer virtually. Even more importantly, ambassador campaigns will boost your virtual auction’s visibility and garner the excitement it needs to succeed. If an ambassador campaign sounds like the right move for your virtual auction or another event, incorporate it into your strategy and planning from the start.

3. Take a multichannel digital marketing approach.

With every other business and organization seeking to catch your donors’ attention online, your auction has to stand out to secure their registrations. For online-only events like a virtual auction, this means developing a multichannel marketing campaign. With a multichannel campaign, your various marketing outlets work together to first engage potential attendees and then funnel them towards registering for your virtual auction. 

Your own campaign will likely incorporate communication channels like your auction’s website, your organization’s blog, emails, newsletters, and social media posts. If you’ve recruited ambassadors to promote your event, their social media posts and emails are critical channels to consider, as well.

Start by defining the target action you want readers to take, in this case registering for your virtual auction. The registration form on your auction’s website will serve as the main landing page or anchor for your marketing campaign. Then, outline a campaign that uses content on each of the communication outlets to funnel readers towards your other marketing content and, ultimately, your registration page.

Encouraging readers to learn more about your auction with a variety of content keeps potential attendees engaged, making it more likely that they’ll actually register when you ask them to. If you’re familiar with the marketing concept of conversion funnels, think about how your marketing content fits into each stage. For instance, a potential attendee might follow this path:

  • Stage 1: Awareness. A reader sees their friend (your ambassador) post about your virtual auction on social media. This post links to a blog article that your team wrote about the auction’s purpose and the exciting range of items you’ve procured.
  • Stage 2: Interest. The reader is interested in your blog post and wants to learn more about your organization. They explore your website to learn about your mission and sign up for email updates.
  • Stage 3: Desire. Your emails reiterate how your virtual auction will impact your mission and tease more of the items and packages that will be on offer. Each email links directly to your auction registration page.
  • Stage 4: Action. The reader feels connected to your mission and wants to get involved. They follow the link on an email and register for your virtual auction.

Your own auction attendees might follow a wide range of marketing paths to ultimately land on your registration form. The main idea is to actively cultivate their engagement and interest every step of the way. Creating engaging content is easier than ever with social media, easy video editing software, and free graphic design tools like Canva

For a major online event, like a virtual gala paired with an online auction, investing in nonprofit marketing consulting might be a smart strategy to boost your event promotion. Working with an expert can save your team’s time and teach them new strategies to continue using for future events and campaigns.

4. Target specific segments of your donor base.

Like multichannel campaigns, audience segmentation is another fundamental part of modern digital marketing. Many nonprofits are already very familiar with this tactic, as it’s extremely useful for promoting fundraising campaigns and events, conducting prospect research, and effectively stewarding donor relationships. 

The main idea is that not every contact, donor, or potential attendee should be communicated with using the exact same strategies. Some readers will respond much more positively to certain types of appeals, while others won’t. Taking the time to understand who you’re targeting with each message and what will motivate them to engage with your virtual auction can make a huge difference in final attendance numbers.

You might segment your donor base or contact list in a number of different ways to promote your auction. Try sorting your donors into groups based on characteristics like:

  • Length of engagement history with your organization
  • Past event attendance or non-attendance
  • Size of their average donation to your organization
  • Demographics, like age and parental or marital status

Think about what will most motivate different segments of your base as you ask them to register for your virtual auction. 

For instance, let’s say a school is hosting a fundraising auction to raise money for new tech needed amid the shift to virtual learning. The marketing team should target different segments with different strategies. Longtime community supporters will be motivated by appeals that tap into their dedication to the school they love. Families that are brand new to the school might be better motivated by messages welcoming them to the community and inviting them to engage with a virtual event for the first time.

This best practice applies even after you’ve secured registrations from attendees. Donors who haven’t yet registered and those who already have should receive different messages to keep your auction on their minds during the lead-up to the event. Once you’ve secured their registration, an attendee should receive a separate series of email reminders and teasers rather than continuing to receive your more general invitations and promos.

As the nonprofit sector continues adapting to the reality of digital-only engagement, events like virtual auctions will play larger and larger roles in strengthening their communities and bases of support. However, unless backed up by solid marketing and promotions strategies, even the best event plans can deliver disappointing results. And during a time when many organizations’ resources are stretched thinner than ever, generating a positive ROI in both revenue and engagement is critical.

If digital marketing is new for your team, take some time to study up on modern tactics like multichannel campaigns and audience segmentation. Coupled with effective planning, engaging digital resources for the event, and the support of ambassadors, you’re sure to develop an effective marketing strategy for your virtual auction. Best of luck!


About the Author

Kelly Velasquez-Hague brings over 20 years of fundraising, nonprofit management, and sales/marketing experience to her role as the Director of Content Marketing for OneCause. As a member of the OneCause sales and marketing team, Kelly manages all of the company’s content strategy and execution. She is passionate about empowering great missions and loves that her current role allows her to continue to help nonprofits reach new donors raise more funds for their cause.