Marketing the eBay Way

A couple years ago, eBay stopped being the place to sell your unwanted trinkets and started being the place to sell anything. Looking for a $169,000 Ferrari 550? Someone’s selling one right now on eBay. Want to buy a single-engine Cessna airplane, sight unseen? Yours for $28,000. Think you’d make a great NASCAR columnist for FOX Sports? For a bid of about $300, you can write for the network.

Yes, FOX Sports has run several auctions on eBay, offering the opportunity to write a column for its Web site about an upcoming NASCAR race (the most recent auction is here). The more I thought about it, the more intrigued I became. Several questions come to mind:

  • Will people really pay for the opportunity to get a job? A job that, by the way, doesn’t pay anything? Answer: Yes. They will pay about $300 for the opportunity.

  • Can I make a joke in this column about the capacity of NASCAR fans to write a column? No, I cannot.
  • Is Fox doing this as a means to stop paying all its staff? No. Not yet, anyway. Presently, it’s just a great marketing tool.

FOX Sports is not the first company to use eBay as a marketing platform. Television and movies studios have auctioned off props and memorabilia to drum up buzz about their productions. In fact, an unnamed Jupiter analyst spent an embarrassing amount of money to purchase a vase once featured on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” When he received it, he was horrified to find a $10 price sticker from Pier 1 Imports still attached. Ouch.

Continental Airlines has been auctioning off unique travel experiences in conjunction with eBay, including tickets to the Grammy Awards and opportunities to meet sports figures. Continental’s twist is you can use frequent flier miles to pay for these auctions.

As you’ve noticed, none of these corporate auctions are about generating revenue; rather, they’re about raising awareness.

Corporations have been slow to twig eBay’s benefits, both as a means of liquidating inventory and as a promotional mechanism. Despite the company’s sky-high stock price and consistent profits, eBay still carries a stigma of Beanie Babies and PEZ dispensers in some circles. This ignorance causes many marketers to miss out on the marketing opportunities provided by eBay’s community.

Typically, small businesses only use eBay as a selling platform. Yet there’s no reason why a small business cannot use eBay for unique marketing campaigns. Listing costs are dirt cheap. Marketing an auction can be done in newsletters or via a public relations campaign. FOX Sports’ auction was written up in the Los Angeles Times. If an auction is even slightly out of the ordinary, it’s worth pitching a story to the local paper.

Here are three ways to use eBay to drum up some buzz about your small business:

  • Charity events. eBay is a great way to auction your services for a charity event. You certainly don’t need eBay to do this, but the buzz around the auction will help drum up excitement for your business. Even though eBay is a national site, it works well for local auctions. Include a link to the auction in the footer of your email so everyone with whom you communicate during the 10-day auction is aware of it. Don’t hesitate to tell your local newspapers about it; they love local angles on national stories, including unique uses of eBay.

  • Personalized services. Do you run a business where a personal touch is what sets you apart? Offering occasional specials on eBay brings an interesting twist to marketing your services. Caterers can offer an auction for a dinner party for six, for example. Obviously, myriad services can be provided. The key to driving traffic to an auction is making it ubiquitous. Use newsletters, in-store signs, and email to repeatedly mention the auction. Clients (and potential clients) must be reminded the auction exists.
  • The FOX Sports method. If you produce a newsletter, why not auction off the opportunity to write a column for it? Present it as an opportunity to include an advertorial (make sure potential writers understand it will be labeled as advertorial copy), and give advertisers a chance to include more than just a banner in a future issue.

If anyone uses eBay as a marketing tool, please let me know. I’ll be happy to share success stories in a future column.

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