How to host a virtual hackathon

Sep 14, 2020 - Cat DiStasio

This year has been full of challenges your business must navigate to remain competitive. It’s become trickier to communicate with teams, to hire new talent, and to keep focused on your mission. There’s no need to let the events of the world interfere with your ability to innovate as well. Enter the virtual hackathon. Whether you want to connect with new development talent or simply improve engagement among your current team members, hosting a virtual event centered on problem-solving can help you continue moving forward.

Virtual events allow business leaders to keep up with the competition and stay focused on mission critical objectives, while maintaining safe distance to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Additionally, virtual hackathons are convenient and cost effective, and make it easier to leverage talent across different geographic locations. Like other types of virtual events, a successful virtual hackathon relies on a few basic best practices. Let’s take a look at what’s involved.

An ounce of preparation

All successful virtual events depend on careful planning. When planning your virtual hackathon, spend time on branding to come up with an exciting event name, a clear purpose statement, and consider incorporating other team-building assets like matching t-shirts you can ship out in advance for people to wear during the event. 

You’ll also want to prepare some of the content in advance. Create pre-recorded video messages to welcome participants to the event, explain the format of the event, and outline your goals. You can also opt to do a live video broadcast at the beginning of the event, but shooting a video message in advance can take some of the pressure off on event day while accomplishing the same result. Instead, reserve live video for interactive sessions.

Make it easy for participants to navigate the event, too. Schedule sessions in event booths and share the details in advance so participants can plan which sessions they want to join. 

Look for helpers for your virtual hackathon

A hackathon may be owned by one small team in your organization, but you don’t have to do all the work yourself. Identify other people within your organization who can help make the event a success, whether that’s team leaders and SMEs, department heads, or other staff with specialized knowledge related to your hackathon theme. Invite them early in your planning process, and involve them in brainstorming session topics and creating content. 

You also want to ensure your helpers are feeling confident and comfortable on the day of the event. Conduct training sessions to orient your helpers to the event’s theme as well as the virtual event platform. Events work best when everyone is comfortable navigating the tools.

Include social time and entertainment

Hackathons can be pretty mentally taxing for all involved, and brainstorming and problem-solving can’t be performed in a vacuum. Schedule in time during your hackathon for socializing and other breaks. Some companies add magicians and musical acts to their hackathon agendas to help participants relax and have fun in between sessions.

Many professionals are drawn to hackathon events because of the networking potential. You could add a session for networking to help participants connect with one another. This could be a free flow session, like an open group chat, or a more formal program like professional ‘speed dating,’ especially if you’ve collected basic info from your participants before the event and have time to organize matches.

Prizes are another tactic for building engagement. Consider advertising the prizes when you promote the event, to lure in participants. You can host a random raffle drawing for winners or award prizes based on accomplishments during the event, or a mix of the two. Just make sure the prizes you select are appropriate for all your event participants (i.e. nothing location- or gender-specific). 

Hacking a brighter future

Continued innovation is crucial to any sustainable business. Collaboration and innovation may seem like daunting prospects amid a global pandemic, but virtual hackathon events make it easy to connect with professionals who can solve problems and develop your organization’s next big idea. Preparing ahead of time, following the advice above, will set you up for a successful, productive, fun hackathon event. Once you host your first successful virtual hackathon, it won’t be long before you’ll be eager to solve more problems with the next event.

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