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Say goodbye to paper bid sheets. With mobile bidding, silent auction attendees can place a bid by sending a text message.

by Joanna Nesbit


If you’ve ever really wanted to win an item in a silent auction, you probably hovered near the bid sheet, ready to raise your bid if someone tried to outbid you. While most silent auctions still rely upon pen and paper, mobile auction bidding services allow participants to bid by sending a text message. The method often results in more bidding and streamlines the checkout process.

What Is Mobile Bidding?

Mobile bidding software tracks auction data online and lets guests bid directly from their phones while they’re at the live event. Guests bid on and receive real-time updates about their items with a text message or through an app. Attendees preregister their credit cards, which are charged for winning bids when they complete the checkout process on their phones. At the end of the night, they simply show proof that they paid and pick up their items.

Why Use Mobile Bidding?

Because it’s portable, in-room mobile bidding allows guests to mingle and socialize at the event—then bid from wherever they are via text. When someone is outbid, she receives an instant notification so she can bid again without rushing off to write on a bid sheet. This encourages people to stay involved. Experienced organizers say mobile bidding results in more bids per item—and more money raised.

The biggest perks, say leaders who have used it, are the simplified check-in and checkout processes with preregistered credit card information. Attendees can pay for their items on their phone, eliminating the need to wait in line to write a check or swipe a credit card. Auction attendees will still need to wait to pick up their items, but the wait time is much shorter than with a traditional paper system.

148 silent auction ideas for items to sell (plus 7 to skip)

Points To Consider First

Technology requirements: A key consideration is whether your school has a reliable wireless network or supports good cellular data access. Not all buildings offer great signals for all carriers. Also consider whether the network can handle heavy traffic at one time, such as during checkout.

Ask your mobile auction service provider for its technology requirements and do a test run to see whether you encounter any problems. Have several parents with different cellular service providers walk around the venue and use their phones to make a call and stream a video. If the phone calls work, the location should be able to support mobile bidding. And if you can stream video without a hitch, that’s a good sign that checkout will go well for auction attendees.

If your school doesn’t offer good coverage, one workaround is to rent or buy a cellular booster system. Representatives from your software provider should be able to answer questions about the technology requirements for a cellular booster.

The Jacobs Road Elementary PTA in Chesterfield, Va., considered mobile bidding for its auction but found that they were limited by the school building’s cellphone reception. Organizers considered taking advantage of the wireless network in the school computer lab (no food, drinks, or kids allowed) or using a set of school Chromebooks (same limitations). They opted for an online auction instead, says PTA president Amanda Kirby.

Volunteer requirements: Mobile auction bidding can reduce the need for volunteers during the bidding period, but you’ll still need people to help with setup before the event and delivering auction items at the end. You’ll also want to have volunteers on hand to answer questions about the mobile bidding system and offer help, if needed.

Your auction will still require the same amount of up-front effort to secure donations and track items. One or more people will also need to set up the online auction catalog in advance with photographs and written descriptions that correspond with the physical items at the event. Because this process takes time, it makes mobile bidding a better fit for larger silent auctions rather than smaller ones.

Learning curve: You’ll need to sort through the features, pricing, and ease of use for different service providers. Pricier auction software offers more features, such as in-depth tracking. Consider your event’s needs, the vendor’s level of customer support, and whether that support is free or costs extra. Auction organizers also recommend that groups enlist a technologically strong volunteer as either the auction chair or a right-hand helper. “They don’t have to know the software inside and out, but they should know enough to find answers quickly,” says Renee Zau, silent auction chair for the Sycamore Ridge Elementary PTA in San Diego, Calif.

There’s a learning curve for attendees, too. Zau suggests posting instructions about mobile bidding throughout your auction venue. “Be sure to have lots of signage around—perhaps on auction tables, in restrooms, and where bidders could be waiting—that explains in simple steps how to sign on to the platform and start bidding,” she says.

Effect on social interaction: Some parent groups have found that mobile bidding cuts down on socializing because attendees are glued to their phones. Others say they noticed that mobile bidding frees up people to engage socially, checking only periodically on an item’s status. An auction will always include interruptions, whether it’s checking a phone or returning to a table to increase a bid, organizers say.

First Steps for a Successful Mobile Auction

Advertise mobile bidding in advance. Promote the event—and the mobile bidding option—well ahead of time through flyers and social media channels. Let everyone know you’ll have a kiosk for those without a device.

Encourage preregistration. For a smoother event, promote preregistration so attendees receive the dedicated link to the auction’s mobile site in advance. Some mobile auction services provide email templates to walk people through the preregistration process.

Consider payment options. If you want to be able to accept check or cash payments from guests, make sure your auction software allows for this. Self-checkout with a credit card will be a more streamlined process for everyone, though, so encourage attendees to use that option.

Event Setup

Consider when to open the catalog for preview. Experienced organizers recommend allowing participants to view the mobile auction early so that when they arrive at the event, they know which items they want to bid on. Decide whether you’ll allow bidding in advance or at the event only.

Label auction items clearly. To minimize mistaken bidding, label or number the auction items clearly to match the mobile version of the auction. You might have several similar packages, for example, and you want winners to be happy with what they take home rather than disappointed because they thought they were bidding on something different.

Provide a kiosk. Have tablets or laptops available at an event kiosk for attendees who didn’t bring a phone, or set up a charging station for people whose phone battery has run down.

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