It's unusual for new fundraising methods to become the "go to" strategy overnight, but Virtual Events were born out of necessity and are rapidly evolving as fundraising teams try to figure out how to salvage a previously planned event and how to meet their future fundraising goals in an uncertain environment.
There are more questions than answers - and many, many ideas about what Virtual fundraising can and should look like - but we've elected to start by designing and creating a Virtual feature to emulate the atmosphere (and profitability) of a Live Auction.
We chose Virtual Live Auctions partly because your team - and your supporters - are already familiar with how a Live Auction (and paddle raise) works. We also chose to start with Virtual Live Auctions because we have watched many, many Virtual events since the start of the pandemic - and those that emulated a traditional Live Auction were consistently the most successful at reaching their fundraising goals.
You can watch a short demonstration of a Virtual Live Auction (using our software) here:
The tips below are specifically tailored to planning a Virtual Live Auction. You can find illustrated instructions for using our software for your virtual live auction here - and tips for the equipment needed to produce a high quality livestream here.
Tips for Format and Scheduling
Include a Pre-Function
Because it takes time for people to gather and settle in anywhere, it's a good idea to "open your doors" 15-30 minutes before your "program' (livestream) starts. A virtual "cocktail party" with shared chat. . .preview of items. . .a hype video. . .
Creating a pre-function allows you to welcome your supporters as they arrive, help them get comfortable with the platform and become active participants rather than passive viewers. When your livestream starts, the audience will already be in their seats - and primed for the show so your presenters can shout out a quick welcome and dive right into your Virtual Live Auction.
You can create a unique "Pre-Event Display" page for your pre-function.
Have the best host/hostess on your team act as the Chat Moderator
They should post early and often to warm up the crowd in the room while waiting for the livestream to start. Recruit a few more of your team or supporters to help "set the tone" for the event by chiming in on the Chat conversation early. Encourage participants to personalize their accounts by adding an image/avatar and choosing a bidding name. Comments that exude enthusiasm, inclusion and a sense of fun will help convert passive viewers into an engaged audience and community.
Pro tip: Instruct everyone to submit a keyword in the chat stream to enter a drawing for a nifty prize. This allows everyone to see who is "in the room" - and the shout-outs can help the chat conversations launch organically.
Limit your livestream to 1 hour or less!
The ideal livestream lasts only as long as your audience is engaged and participating: 30 minutes of fast paced fundraising activity will be more successful than the same items offered over 90 minutes amongst speeches and "now what can we talk about" banter. If in doubt - make it shorter - far better to leave your audience wanting more than to have viewers leave mid-stream or secretly vow to avoid all future livestream events.
At least One Month Prior: Save the Date Promotion, ask supporters to rsvp by signing up to participate.
Month prior: Promote, promote, promote
At least One Week prior: If you have not hired a professional team to produce your livestream, conduct a live test of your webcam(s), microphones, lighting, sound, and connectivity in the exact space you will be broadcasting from. The individual pieces of your plan may all be sound but only a comprehensive test can assure you that your combination of equipment works in the actual space. Do not wait until your "run-through" to test your equipment - finding different equipment solutions requires days, not hours.
One Day Before:
Conduct a run-through of your livestream - script, transitions, timing - making sure everyone knows their cues and assignments - and re-testing any changes to your equipment.
Send Invitations to Virtual Event: "Use this link to join our Virtual Event tomorrow . . . (Pre-function 6:30, Live Auction 7)"
One Hour Before: Send another Invitation to Virtual Event: "It's Time! Use this link. . ."
7:00pm Launch Livestream/Live Auction
By 8:00pm Thanks and Goodnight - be sure to set up your post-event screen to reiterate your acknowledgements and provide prompts for how to pay, arrange for item delivery etc.
Tips for an Engaging Livestream
Avoid Talking Heads!
Your supporters already know WHAT your organization does - focus on sharing WHY your mission is so important. Pictures are better than words. Emotions are better than words. Actions are better than words - ask your supporters to GIVE, not listen.
Prepare a Script!
Auctioneers, news anchors, talk show hosts, politicians make their jobs look easy - but you know what? They are ALL using a script - and most have a TEAM of writers preparing those scripts. Don't expect, or rely on, your presenters to "wing it" - even professionals don't attempt that.
It seems counter-intuitive (no one wants to air a stiffly scripted speech) - but having a well-constructed message prepared in advance actually makes it easier for most presenters to relax and interact with their audience. It's not necessary to follow the script word for word - but having the "must-have messaging" prepared in advance allows them to intersperse their real-time observations and reactions with your essential messaging.
Preparing a script is also the only reliable way to gauge how much quality content you have to deliver and you'll need that to schedule and plan your event appropriately.
Keep it Brief!
Your audience hasn't dressed up or hired a sitter for your event. They aren't enjoying a catered meal and open bar while you speak. They aren't here because their company bought a table and had to fill it. They're watching because they care about your mission and want to support your organization. Let them! Make it as fun and painless as possible. The fun part takes effort. The painless part is easy - keep it brief: Ask, Accept, Thank, End.
What to Sell and How to Sell it
Limit to 5-7 of your best "Live" auction items plus a Special Appeal
Allow 3-5 minutes per live item and up to 10 minutes for your paddle raise (including the "ask").
If you are also planning an online auction - either have it conclude BEFORE your livestream begins or launch it AFTER your livestream concludes. While it may seem tempting to use your livestream to promote an online auction, we've only seen that to be effective at diverting viewers from the livestream. . .
Make things easy on your auctioneer
Bulk edit the minimum bids and minimum raises for your virtual items to multiples of $50 or $100, so that your auctioneer doesn't have to decipher and call out elaborate bids. Professionals can and will call out unusual bids, but why make them have to?
Launch with a fun/funny, low value/low risk item to illustrate how the bidding will work
This can serve as both tutorial and ice-breaker. One of our customers used this strategy to great effect early in the pandemic by offering an "emergency kit" of hand sanitizer and toilet paper. They started the bidding at $5 to give everyone a chance to place a bid (even if it was just to see a message that someone else beat them to the punch) and had a lot of fun with the irony of the current allure of household staples. Much laughter and $1000(!) later - their supporters were all comfortable with the platform and had experienced how much fun bidding high and often could be.
Begin and End with the Special Appeal:
Traditionally, auctioneers at a Gala ask the audience to raise their paddles to donate cash just after the midpoint of the live auction, when the energy of the audience is peaking - and before folks start eyeing the doors.
Because it's even easier to sneak out of a virtual shindig, most auctioneers are choosing to ask for cash donation early in the event - when they know they have maximum viewers. It never hurts to make a last call for donations at the end of your event as well - often you can score some additional donations from supporters who didn't win the live item they wanted, or ended up spending less than they expected. . .
Be strategic when choosing your Suggested Donation Levels
The software supports creating suggested donation levels and/or allowing supporters to enter the amount they wish to donate. The advantage of suggesting amounts: it sets expectations and lets your supporters know whether this is a $250 or $2500 type of ask.
Pro-tip: If you plan to ask for donations at each donation level ("Who can contribute at the $2500 level?"), it's always a good idea to pre-arrange a commitment to donate at the highest level with at least one of your most reliable supporters. Starting too high and only hearing crickets is awkward for everyone - better to confirm (or adjust) the level of your highest ask in a private conversation prior to your event.
Set up a separate Cash Donation option for your livestream "ask"
The software allows you to offer the same cash donation option everywhere - but includes messaging if the user has previously donated. For example, a supporter sees the "Special Appeal" tile in the online catalog and donates $25. If the same cash donation is used for the Virtual event - instead of a Donate $XXX button, that supporter will see a message "You've already donated - would you like to donate again?" Give everyone a clean slate for your big ask by creating a new option for your Virtual event.
Auctioneers need an Assistant
Auctioneers focus on leading the bidding/donations, offering shout-outs for incoming bids/pledges and interacting with the viewers - and prefer to use the "read only" auctioneer view. An assistant manages items within the software: displaying each item as it opens for bidding, then awarding them to the winner when the auctioneer ends the bidding.