How to Hold a Virtual Hackathon

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September 24, 2020

As remote work increasingly becomes a workplace norm, more and more company events also turn digital. Virtual holiday parties unite remote workers for seasonal celebrations. Virtual conferences allow professionals from around the world to gather and learn with no travel arrangements or hotel reservations required.

Naturally, virtual hackathons, also known as “online hackathons”, also have a place in the world of online events.

This article covers:

  • What is a hackathon?
  • What are the benefits of a virtual hackathon?
  • What do you need for a virtual hackathon?
  • How do you host a virtual hackathon?
  • What are good ideas for a virtual hackathon?

Here is everything you need to know to run your own online innovation event.

What is a hackathon?

A hackathon is an event where teams come together to think up solutions to complex problems in limited periods of time. Traditionally, hackathons last 24-72 hours and span a single weekend, but you can also hold mini-hackathons that last for a few hours.

Some hackathons center around specific topics and present thematic challenges, while other competitions leave prompts open-ended. Typically, groups create workable prototypes and products to present at the end of the event. Judges assess the entries and reward teams that assemble the most creative, functional, and dynamic product or concept.

Hackathons originated in the tech world and tend to focus on coders. However, hackathons can also involve areas of product development such as graphic designers, project managers, and interface designers. Though hackathons generally revolve around computer programming, you can deviate from software development and think up improvements for a variety of departments.

Some non-coding hackathon ideas:

  • Conceive a customer satisfaction process
  • Design a social media campaign
  • Devise an advertising strategy
  • Concoct a financial literacy hack
  • Structure a community initiative
  • Build a better employee training program

Hackathons unite many minds to innovate and create in a short amount of time. As long as you keep the sprint-like nature of the hackathon intact, you will preserve the spirit of the event.

Speaking of shake-ups, you can revolutionize the hackathon even further by moving the entire event online.

What are the benefits of a virtual hackathon?

When you cram hundreds of bright and creative minds into a small space, you generate a ton of energy and excitement. Virtual hackathons may lack the buzz of the real-world counterparts, but these online events bring many benefits.

Cost: Traditional hackathons can cost upwards of six figures once you factor in meal costs for hundreds or thousands of attendees, venue rental space, utilities, and staffing. Even a modest internal hackathon will run the company a couple hundred or thousand dollars. Virtual hackathons require much less overhead. The bulk of your investment will likely be software, digital infrastructure, and equipment, but as a remote-friendly company you may already possess many of these necessary tools. Online hackathons need less manpower to run, fewer hours to plan, and less logistics.

Environment: Working from home means that every attendee gets to customize the conditions and create an optimal work environment. Buster can turn the heat up to 80 degrees and dream up solutions in a sauna, while Lucille can crank the air conditioner and brainstorm in an ice storm. George Michael might enter a soundproof room with noise-blocking earbuds, while Maeby blasts Finnish death metal. Participants can even work pantsless without creeping out any of the other guests. A work-from-home setup means fewer distractions for participants, which means more productivity and improved rest.

Diversity: Because virtual events involve no travel time or trip costs, you may be able to draw a more diverse crowd to your online hackathon. Since the internet is the venue, the audience can include teams from far-flung corners of the world. You can also attract teams of more modest means, since companies will only need to invest time and not transportation costs.

Training: Virtual hackathon participation has significant workplace applications. During digital hackathons, teams collaborate remotely. Employees need to delegate, communicate, demonstrate, and compromise all from behind a computer screen. Developing and mastering these team building skills will serve employees long beyond the event’s end. By challenging colleagues to collaborate from afar in a time-sensitive environment, you prime teams to work from home effectively. Post-hackathon, computer-based cooperation will be second nature to your teams.

Though online hackathons cannot replicate the in-person affair, these versions offer many attractive features that can actually improve the experience.

What do you need for a virtual hackathon?

Online hackathons do not need the same equipment as offline hackathons, but you still need to gather tools to make your event a success.

Software

Because virtual hackathons happen entirely online, software is one of the most important components of the event. We list the types of programs you will need to host the competition below.

Video chatting: Video conferencing software is an essential remote work tool. Sometimes, written communication is not efficient to effectively communicate an idea. Your teams will need to chat face to face on occasion. You should provide access to an appropriate video meeting platform so that attendees can interact with teammates and other guests.

Zoom is one of the most popular choices for online meetings, but keep paid tier participant limits in mind. Zoom’s top plan currently tops out at 1,000 participants, while GoToWebinar’s ultimate plan allows for a staggering 3,000 meeting attendees. GoToWebinar is a ringer for expansive events with big audiences (think the presentation portions and awards ceremony.) Lifesize is another good option for web hackathons, as you can create video chat rooms that participants can enter or leave at will.

Text-based chatting: During web-based hackathons, participants cannot turn to a teammate to ask a question or share an opinion. Due to the distance, a simple and streamlined text-based online communication tool is critical for productivity. Whether you create a Slack channel, encourage inter team Gchats, or build dedicated chat rooms, you should enable a way for participants to quickly and easily exchange information. Collaboration is an integral part of the hackathon, and you will need to overcome the physical distance and find new ways for teams to swap ideas.

Digital collaboration tools: Speaking of exchanging ideas, sometimes teammates need to show, not tell. Online participants cannot scribble on the back of a napkin or scrawl across a chalkboard to help teammates more clearly visualize an idea or process. Remote attendees will need access to digital collaboration tools. Online whiteboard tools like Miro, Sketchpad, and Google Jamboard are extremely useful. Project management software like Asana and Trello are also helpful, as the tools help teams understand duties and stay on task.

Presentation: The climax of any hackathon is the presentation portion. One of the most important elements to consider for a virtual hackathon is how participants will present finished products. The nature of the product may determine the media of the technology. For instance, a software product may require a user demonstration, while physical technology might need video demonstration. Social media or cloud sharing may suit art-based products. A sales pitch may require a live audience.

You will want to consider what technologies might be necessary to best display the fruits of your participants’ efforts. Will Zoom screen-sharing be efficient and aesthetically pleasing, or should you use supplemental programs? You may also weigh whether you want to go the traditional method of live presentation, or experiment with a gallery style exhibition. You could ask presenters to upload short videos, slideshows, or pictures that attendees can peruse in no particular order. This route loses the thrill of a captive audience, but on the flip side the approach makes it easier to quantify interest and buzz. Either way, one perk to the online presentation is that judges can easily revisit the display to clarify confusion and make a more informed decision.

Centralized resource hub: An often overlooked aspect of any virtual event is a centralized resource hub. Ideally, attendees should be able to easily access event-specific information such as rules, schedules, FAQ’s, and contact information. You can create and give attendees access to an informative GoogleDoc or DropBox folder so that answers are never more than a few clicks away. You can even include extra resources such as tutorials and academic references, in besides promotional materials such as brand videos and event interviews.

Judges

As with traditional hackathons, digital hackathons need qualified judges to evaluate contestants’ efforts. One of the perks to hosting your hackathon online is that you may be able to entice geographically diverse or higher-tier judges due to the ease of involvement and more minimal time commitment.

Judges are both the deciding factor of the competition’s winner and an event draw. Selecting exciting judges can help draw buzz to your event. Advertising the judges pre-event can generate interest and promote registration. You can ask judges to mention the hackathon on professional social media channels, or even invite judges to man a social media takeover of your platform.

When selecting judges for your competition, you should consider who the innovators and influencers are in your industry or company. For criteria on how to judge a hackathon, you can check out this guide from The Tech Advocate.

Prizes

While some participants enter a hackathon for the sheer thrill of innovation and industry disruption, prizes are a huge incentive. Offering enviable rewards for your competition can help legitimize your event.

Popular virtual hackathon prizes:

  • Wearable technology, such as smartwatches or fitness trackers
  • GoPro camera
  • Drones
  • Tablets or smartphones
  • Software
  • Paid vacations or experiences
  • Online gift certificates
  • Game consoles or gaming memberships
  • Online memberships or subscriptions

As with the judges, you can advertise your prizes pre-event to entice registrants. In the future you can recall past judges and prizes to draw more attention to future events.

There will likely be some periphery needs as well. Of course, you need a talented marketing team to promote your event, as online events do not draw the same kind of attention as location-based events. You may want your IT team on standby to help resolve any glitches. You may also want to consult your legal team if you plan to host an external online hackathon, to ensure you respect intellectual property laws post-event.

How do you host a virtual hackathon?

Though online hackathons involve less logistics than in-person competitions, you should still leave ample time to plan and organize your event. Here are the steps to hosting an effective virtual hackathon.

1. Concoct a theme

Chances are, your industry will decide the general theme of the event such as finance, medicine, or entertainment. You can narrow down the options by targeting a particular area such as app development or advertising, or by posing a specific question such as “how do we improve patients’ waiting room experience?” or “how do we attract business from Generation Z?” You may decide on a playful theme such as “the great outdoors,” or “time traveller tools.”

While you should advertise the general theme to interest potential participants, you should not reveal all details of the prompt before the event. Revealing particulars at the start of the online hackathon ensures that teams must work in real time and cannot present a pre-made product. Since the nature of the virtual event limits your monitoring abilities, this approach helps you ensure fairness.

2. Decide who can participate

Choose whether you will host an internal hackathon, meaning only members of your own organization will participate, or an external hackathon, meaning teams from other companies can join. If you do host internally, then you must decide which teams to involve or offer the challenge.

Also, since your event will take place online, you may want to consider whether you open the challenge exclusively to citizens of your own country or city, or whether you will encourage global participation.

3. Choose a date

After you work out the initial details you can nail down a date. As mentioned, hackathons typically take place over a weekend, but you can potentially hold the event during a weekday as well. The latter may be a better option for internal events, while the former accommodates outside companies. You will want to select a date that is convenient for your company and industry. Keep in mind that you will need to block time away from regular work responsibilities so that participants can focus fully on the competition.

4. Select judges and pick prizes

Before advertising the event you should confirm your judges and decide on prizes. Give yourself at least a few weeks prior to the announcement date to correspond with potential judges so that you do not find yourself scrambling at the last minute.

5. Promote the event

Promotion is an important part of online event planning. You should definitely capitalize on social media to generate buzz for the event. You can post in relevant online communities to spread the word. Also consider whether you would like to use ads and industry influencers to spread awareness of your event. Of course, you should shout out the event in your own website content and utilize email marketing campaigns as well.

6. Track registrations

Online events offer more flexibility than in-person events, however organization is still crucial. You should employ a formal registration process with a firm cutoff to encourage attendees to regard the event seriously. Ideally you should cap attendance so that you can plan effectively.

You can monitor the registration process to project attendance and can even use sign-ups to boost excitement. Consider posting sentiments like “up to one hundred applicants as of this morning!” to drive more traffic.

You can use sign-up time to organize by forming teams (if attendees sign up as single participants instead of group,) corresponding with participants, and performing technology tests.

7. Plan time for fun

One of the drawbacks to online events is the lack of face-to-face interaction and networking opportunities. You can compensate for a deficit of human interaction by including virtual social events on your event schedule. Online social activities such as virtual happy hours and remote trivia can elevate your event by facilitating human contact. We have a list of Zoom games you can reference as well.

8. Host your virtual hackathon

The time will come to host your online hackathon. Typically, digital hackathons follow the following format:

  • Welcome
  • Introduction of prompt
  • Work time
  • Presentations
  • Awards
  • Closing

You may also include some social or education events in the lineup.

Essentially, however, hackathons are about the work, meaning you have minimal hosting duties as the event unfolds. You should still make yourself available throughout the event and check-in with teams periodically.

9. Recap post-event

Once the event ends, take time to reflect and recap. You can highlight the most creative and well-executed ideas and ask attendees to share experiences.

After the event, you should send out a survey to the attendees. You can further recap the event in your newsletters, blog, and social media post. Remember that you can use these musings to help promote future events.

What are good ideas for a virtual hackathon?

Run a dress rehearsal: Technology is one of the biggest wildcards of virtual hackathons. Malfunctioning tech can put a real damper on your event. Hackathon participants have limited time, and technical issues can take time to resolve. To eliminate potential disadvantages and frustrations, you can run a dress rehearsal prior to the event.

To run a virtual hackathon dress rehearsal, give teams early access to software used during the event, and ask participants to test the tech and confirm functionality. You should keep your IT team on standby to assist attendees via live chat, and ensure all participants receive contact information for the help team.

You may also want to build some buffer time into your schedule in case of malfunctions. For instance, you can add an hour into your agenda between the end of work time and the beginning of presentations to online social activities, just in case one of your teams needs extra work time due to a glitch.

Provide a food stipend: Hackathons run on a marathon mentality where participants stop for nothing, meals included. You can often spot the intrepid hackathon competitor clutching a slice of pepperoni with one hand while coding or scribbling with the other. Preparing food can interrupt your attendees’ momentum, and nixing the grub altogether can detract from the experience. You may not be able to coordinate a pizza delivery to every one of your participants’ houses, but you can provide a meal stipend so that registrants can order takeout with minimal workflow disruption. You can offer virtual attendees credits on platforms such as GrubHub, UberEats, and DoorDash so that guests can order brain fuel.

Send out a goodie bag: Attendees may not attend an event solely for the swag, but goodies are a definite plus. Just because your attendees cannot pick up goodies in person, does not mean you should forget about the gifts. You can send out promotional presents before the event to round out the experience for your participants.

Goodie bag ideas:

  • T-shirt
  • Backpack or bags
  • Headphones
  • Blue light glasses
  • USB stick
  • Portable charger
  • Mugs and/or mug warmers
  • Notebooks
  • Pens

This gesture could earn your event organic hype, as recipients may post pictures of the haul on social media when the package arrives. If your guest list is too large to send gifts to attendees directly, then you might consider creating a digital swag bag instead. In place of mailing physical objects, you can send electronic gifts via email.

Digital swag bag ideas:

  • Temporary subscriptions to services like Audible, Pandora, or Peacock
  • Access to digital media such as online newspapers or industry journals
  • Cloud storage
  • Phone and desktop wallpapers
  • Credit towards app, video game, or music downloads on sites like iTunes and Steam

If you want to combine the digital and in-person gifting concept, then you could set up an online “swag store,” for your event and allot each attendee a certain amount of credits to spend on promotional items. This approach is a nice touch because attendees can select preferred presents, which adds a touch of personalization and autonomy to the free gift.

Final Thoughts

While virtual hackathons may not provide the exact same experience as single-location hackathons, the online versions of these events still encourage radical innovation, creativity, work ethic, and collaboration.

The trick to evaluating the success of digital hackathons, and any online industry event, is not to compare the event endlessly to the physical counterpart, but rather to utilize and appreciate the merits of the web-based platform.

With careful planning and online engagement strategies, you can make your online event a hit. For more information, check out our article on virtual engagement ideas.

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Author: Angela Robinson

Team building content expert. Angela has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and worked as a community manager with Yelp to plan events for businesses.

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