Online auction case study

Howard Lake | 22 November 1998 | News

UK Fundraising reported last month on an online celebrity book auction being held by a consortium of three Canadian educational charities. Celebrities were asked to donate books that had inspired them or were important to them. The event raised $3713. In a welcome move, Anne Leslie of the National Adult Literacy Database Inc has kindly shared her experiences with the online auction with UK Fundraising.

Virtual Celebrity Book Auction: a case study
An online celebrity book auction last month has raised $3713 for a consortium of three Canadian educational charities. Celebrities were asked to donate books that had inspired them or were important to them. In a welcome move, Anne Leslie of the National Adult Literacy Database Inc has kindly shared her experiences with the online auction with UK Fundraising.

The Virtual Celebrity Book Auction was a collaboration between the National Adult Literacy Database Inc. (NALD), the Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women (CCLOW) and Literacy Link Niagara. The auction was held in support of these organisations’ scholarships and bursaries for adult learners in literacy and high school programs.

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The auction was virtual in more ways than one. The three non-profits are all geographically disparate. NALD is in Fredericton, New Brunswick, while CCLOW is in Toronto, Ontario and LLN is in St. Catherines, Ontario. As a result, the whole event was managed by phone, fax and e-mail, and without physical meetings.
Background
Anne Leslie explains how the idea of an Internet book auction was developed. “In 1996, when NALD’s Executive Director Charles Ramsey was giving a presentation about NALD’s facilities to Literacy Link Niagara, he was approached by LLN Executive Director Gay Douglas with an idea for a fund-raiser – a book auction on the Internet. Since CCLOW had recently done a celebrity book auction to raise funds for their Marie St. John Macdonald scholarship, the three organizations got together and decided to pool their resources and collaborate on conducting a virtual celebrity book auction.”
Planning the auction

The three non-profits contacted more than 2,000 celebrities from a range of fields including sports, arts, entertainment, literary and public service. They were asked to send a copy of their favourite book. This had to be a book that was important to them because it had helped, influenced or inspired them. It didn’t matter what type of book it was: it could be fiction, non-fiction, and of any genre, including a children’s book.

Of the 2,000 celebrities contacted, 86 responded. These were then asked to send a photograph of themselves so that it could appear on the Web site next to a picture of the front cover of their chosen book and alongside any inscription they might choose to write in the book. “Most celebrities complied by sending both a book and a publicity still,” said Anne Leslie. “But some celebrity agents sent only autographed photos, or books only, or items such as sports team programs, collector cards, canvas tote bag, and magazines. Not expecting this, the partners had to decide to create categories of donated items and to price them accordingly.”

The partner non-profits were fortunate in that NALD’s Systems Administrator Michael Vincent had the skills to create the auction Web site, including writing most of the programme for the NALD Web server on which the auction would run. The non-profits had searched the Internet for other examples of Internet auctions but initially found very few. However, as the launch approached more and more of them appeared, and proved useful models from which to adapt useful features.
Working out the details

There were a number of issues that needed consideration. How long would the auction last? How would bidders be registered? How would people pay for their purchases? Could the last bidder on an item be contacted and informed when another participant had outbid them? “We decided to have the auction on-line for one month”, says Leslie. “Information from an Internet auction entrepreneur suggested that 80 per cent of the bidding would be done during the last day or hours of the auction.”

Leslie explains how the auction site worked. Bidder confidentiality was a key consideration, and the silent auction approach was adopted. “The bidding portion of this site worked like a silent auction. Registered visitors could browse the books and leave a bid on one or more celebrity donations. The highest registered bid on each celebrity donation would be automatically posted: no other information except a user name and the amount of the bid would be displayed.” It was decided “for security purposes” that payment transactions would be not be carried out online. Bidders who registered would be asked only “for the method of payment to be most likely used.” The non-profits would then contact all successful bidders when the auction had finished to make arrangements for payment. Successful bidders would have to pay a shipping and handling charge.
Promoting the auction

Since it was an online auction NALD focused on promoting the event on the Internet. Leslie explains: “Internet search engines like Yahoo, Infoseek, and Excite were contacted, and given about nineteen key words describing the auction: celebrity, books, autograph and so on. These were submitted to the search engines so our auction site would be picked up when people made search enquiries using any of these key words.”

NALD then researched appropriate newsgroups that dealt with entertainment, sports, television, literature and music. Newsgroups for fan clubs of participating celebrities were also researched. Announcements were sent to the fans via the appropriate newsgroups to let them know that their celebrity had donated to the auction. NALD staff members joined various literacy and educational e-mail discussion lists and sent messages about the auction to subscribers on a regular basis.

Given the focus on books, promotional work was also undertaken with the publshing industry, with messages sent to Canadian book publishers and a national authors’ association. “Hundreds of media releases were e-mailed to community and daily newspapers and to broadcasting wire services”, reports Leslie. “Each partner distributed the media release in their own geographic region to newspapers, radio and television stations and other networking vehicles such as electronic bulletin boards of professional associations, Charity Village and so on. One ad was purchased in a national weekly news magazine. Bookmarks were made up by CCLOW and distributed at the opening night of Word on the Street in Toronto.”

The publicity paid off in unexpected ways. “As a result of getting the media release, one publisher donated 23 books, unautographed and they were sold as bargain books, beginning with reserve bids of $5. Autographed books donated by celebrities had a reserve bid of $20 on them.”
The auction goes live

A visit to the site lead you through a library of books, magazines, photographs, and art work, donated by celebrity politicians, authors, TV, film and sports stars, artists, and academics. Many of the works were personalised, telling you, with the click of a button, how the book inspired the donor in their childhood, through their own education or current work.

The auction offered 113 items of which 105 items drew bids. A total of 174 visitors registered to take part in the auction. When it closed on 30 October 1998 it had raised $3713. “At this time,” acknowledges Leslie, “we are unable to tell you if any of the bidders reneged on their bids. E-mails are being sent to all the bidders containing invoices for the items they were successful in purchasing. Many Internet auctions require that you give your credit card number in order to become a registered bidder. We decided against this. The bidders who registered with our auction and indicated that they would be paying with credit card, will be contacted by phone to complete the transaction.”
Was it successful?

NALD’s Executive Director Charles Ramsey is frank about the amount of work involved in the auction. “From NALD’s perspective the auction was more work in both technical development and in contacting donors than the dollar value of the response.” On the other hand, this was the first time they had tried this type of event, so they are better prepared to do this another time. “The experience was fun, interesting and a good learning experience. Yes we would do it again, and we would generate a better response the next time. It was extremely gratifying to see the very positive response from both donors and bidders and fun to work with both the Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women and Literacy Link Niagara, the two organizations with which we partnered on this.”

Leslie has some tips to pass on. What would she do differently next time?
Contact more Canadian celebrities.
Put a tag line about the auction on all staff outgoing e-mails.
Print up special letterhead promoting the auction – so that every outgoing letter promoted it.
Try to work with publishers, agents etc. to arrange things like chats with celebrities on-line.
Create cross-promotion opportunities with book store chains, libraries, and publishers.

Leslie points out that there is some useful further information on Internet-based fundraising auctions in the following two articles:
How Can We Use the Internet for Fundraising? by Eric Mercer
Sold, to the Man at the Mouse by Marilyn Dickey, Chronicle of Philanthropy, 22 October 1998.