How Tos

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. With the loss of in-person events, it’s become trickier to communicate with teams, to hire new talent, and to keep focused on your mission. But there’s no need to let the events of the world interfere with your ability to innovate. Enter the virtual hackathon. Whether you want to connect with new development talent, create collaboration opportunities, or simply improve engagement among your current team members, hosting a virtual event centered on problem-solving can help you continue moving forward, even when times are tough.

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, online 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. To start, be sure to choose your virtual events hosting platform wisely. 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 as part of your hackathon plan. Make sure your projects are fully-fleshed out and engaging. 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 giving attendees a solid welcome experience. Instead, reserve live video for interactive sessions.

Make it easy for participants to navigate the event, too. Schedule sessions and projects in interactive spaces like event booths and share the details in advance so participants and audience members 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, tools development, and creating content. 

You also want to ensure your helpers and audience members are feeling confident and comfortable on the day of the online event. Conduct training sessions to orient your virtual teams, helpers, and guests to the event’s theme as well as the collaboration 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 remote 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 traditional hackathon events because of the networking opportunities, and the same goes for online hackathons since they are a lot more accessible than in-person events. If your virtual events platform supports it, 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 an engaging experience. Consider advertising the prizes when you promote the event (via social media posts, official event channels, or other electronic methods), to lure in hackathon 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. Fostering collaboration and innovation may seem like a daunting challenge amid a global pandemic, but virtual hackathon events make it easy to connect with a community of professionals who can solve problems and develop your organization’s next big idea. Preparing ahead of time and 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.