A Strategy for Selling Tickets to Your Auction

When you decide to hold a gala auction fundraiser, you know you have to have to have auction items, and you have to have guests to buy them.  Most of the time, the second requirement means selling tickets to the event.

And much of the time, the strategic planning around ticket sales stops with: “how many tables can we fit in to the room? Let’s sell that many tickets.”

Which is a strategy with no downside at all – as long as you never sell out of tickets and as long as the people who buy them spend money at the auction.  But there are some auctions which do struggle with that first condition, and many who struggle with the second. So let’s talk about some ways to think about how you might want to plan out the ticket sales to your event a bit further. My suggestion? Think about the eventual group of auction attendees as belonging to 1 of 3 segments, and make a plan for filling each segment.

The first segment is the Big Spenders. Auctions obey the 80/20 rule – 20% of your guests will spend 80% of the money raised at the event.  Who is going to make up that 20%?

The best data you can get to help figure this out are the sales records from past auctions.  Log into your SchoolAuction.net or Tofino Auctions database from last year’s auction, and look up the top spenders.  Maybe go back 2-3 years. If you are planning a middle school or high school auction, check in with the people who chaired the most recent auctions at your feeder elementary schools – you don’t need sensitive details, just a few names of the people who you absolutely want to make sure know about your event.

How many? Let’s set a target, based on some assumptions and a little math. You can change the numbers to match your situation.  

Let’s say capacity for the auction is 250 attendees.  That’s roughly 125 bid numbers if couples share a number; let’s say there are a few singles, and thus we anticipate 130 bid numbers.  20% of 130 is 26 – so who are the 26 couples you should target for this segment?

Give one person on your team the task of making sure these VIPs know about the auction, and how welcome they are.  You might want to offer some incentive to get them to buy tickets – but remember that simply asking (in person!) is often enough.  Ask them early and often, and track your progress.

For the next segment, let’s consider the other end of the spectrum.  There will be important and valuable members of your community who you want to have at the event, but probably won’t spend much money, if any.  You want them at your event, but they may not realize this – they might think that if they can’t spend a lot, then auctions aren’t for them. So they, too, need some personal outreach.

So this step is to set aside an appropriate number of tickets, and figure out how you want to make them available.   How many tickets do you want to offer for free?  In exchange for volunteer help? At a discount? Do you want to solicit sponsor for teacher tickets?  Make the appropriate development of this segment a primary responsibility for one of your volunteers and again, track your progress.

The third segment is everyone in the middle – the bulk of your audience, who are going to spend some money, but won’t necessarily rise to the level of your Big Spenders.  When targeting this group, your goal is to fill out the rest of the room, with people who will preferably pay full price for their tickets.

This is also a segment where you should feel free to get creative with incentives.  I chaired an auction for my Rotary Club for many years, and as part of that offered a special ticket package to our members.  It had two full-priced tickets (for the club member and their spouse/date), but it also had two half-price tickets. The trick was that the two half-priced tickets could only be used by people who were not members of the club – we wanted to expand the reach of our auction, and this was an effective way to incent our members to do so.  It also helped fill the tables quickly.

This group is one where you can more easily deploy ticket-sales campaigns by email, or phone trees, or posters and flyers. But it’s also worthwhile to designate one of your high-level team members to track your progress and be responsible for this segment.

In the end, it’s important to remember that auctions are community-based fundraisers. They can (and, I believe, should) reflect the community they are supporting – and that means that when you go to invite that community to your fundraiser, you should have multiple approaches, to match the diversity of that community.

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