How to host a virtual hackathon

Your Guide to Host a Successful Virtual Hackathon

Hackathons can jumpstart innovation and create solutions quickly. Here’s why and how you should host one online.
September 21, 2022

What is a virtual hackathon? 

Let’s start with the basics. What the heck is a hackathon? It’s a high-energy, high-speed, time-limited event where industry pros come together to tackle a problem. It often includes an element of competition and prizes for winners, incentivizing participants to engage quick, outside-the-box thinking skills. Virtual hackathons are–you guessed it—hackathons that take place online rather than at an in-person venue. 

Every virtual hackathon’s rules of engagement are a bit different, but the general structure is  a competition between several self-organized teams that, once they declare their participation, have about a week to prepare for the event, assigning team members different parts of the project during this time. There are also plenty of individuals who come together to form teams just before or in the early hours of the event. They don’t have much time to  decide who’s doing what, but working with new people with different perspectives can inspire the creativity that every hackathon participant seeks. 

How long does a virtual hackathon last? 

Hackathons often last somewhere between 24-72 hours, but 48 hours or less is most typical. That’s because the event is non-stop during that time- . Teams can literally be working for 48 hours straight! But for those of us who don’t like chugging three energy drinks at a time for hours on end, there are also “mini hackathons” that can be as short as a few hours. 

The transition from live to virtual hackathons

For a long time, hackathons, which began in Canada in 1999,  were limited to physical spaces and to the tech industry, especially computer programmers. By bringing hackathons online, the concept spread and became more accessible. Two decades later, a variety of industries, from healthcare to music and more, have used virtual hackathons to collaborate and innovate in new ways.

Why should you host a virtual hackathon? 

Any hackathon has the potential to drive unique solutions to a problem and spark creativity. They can also be opportunities to build community, find fresh talent, or just have fun. But hosting your hackathon virtually provides lots of additional benefits.

1. It won’t break the bank.

As online events, virtual hackathons are far more cost-effective than traditional hackathons that take place in physical spaces. While you need to make sure your digital infrastructure and support are sound, investing in a solid virtual event platform to host your virtual hackathon is still more cost-effective than a physical event.

2. It’s eco-friendly.

There are no planes, trains, or automobiles needed for attendees to get to a virtual hackathon, significantly lowering the carbon footprint that an in-person hackathon would have. 

3. It can facilitate diversity. 

Because virtual hackathons are online and not limited by geography or physical venues, participants can be located anywhere. This means that far more people can join, adding perspectives, experiences, and brain power from across the globe. Plus, by bringing in a culturally diverse group of participants, you're also welcoming diverse ways of thinking, which are essential to the hackathon concept itself.

4. It accommodates different work styles and preferences. 

Everyone has their own preferred way of work. Claire likes to blast 80s classics while she works, but Jamie needs absolute silence. Whatever helps someone do their best work can be accommodated far more easily if a hackathon is virtual.

5. It won’t spread those nasty germs.  

While physical events are back in the zeitgeist, COVID-19 is still out there and can be easily transmitted from person to person. So can other illnesses like the common cold and influenza. Virtual hackathons are held entirely online, so they eliminate the risk of getting sick that can come with large in-person gatherings.

6. It can bring your company’s employees together.

Virtual hackathons are a great internal tool, too, especially with the rise of remote work. No matter what city or country each employee is in, they can participate in an online hackathon with colleagues, fostering communication and collaboration on a different level.

What do you need to host a virtual hackathon?

Hosting a hackathon online can be a big undertaking, but if you plan ahead to secure the essentials, you won’t have to worry. Here are the most important tools to help make your virtual hackathon a success.

The right software.

There’s no getting around it – great virtual hackathons need a great platform. Make sure the one you choose has what you need, including robust capabilities for handling the size of your hackathon, ways for your participants to engage with one another,  and tech support from real people who are dedicated to giving you tech support from real people who are dedicated to giving you  a top-tier client experience.

The right judges.

A panel of qualified judges is essential to ensuring your virtual hackathon has credibility because participants are being evaluated by individuals who can assess their projects accurately. Bonus points if at least one of your judges is a well-known figure in your industry; this can help add legitimacy, boost signups, and generate useful publicity and marketing materials.

The right prizes.

Prizes are an important virtual hackathon tool for incentivizing participation. There are plenty of options that are appealing to a general audience like cash and gift cards, but you can also choose prizes that appeal to a specific target audience like software licenses for tech professionals. Platforms like Hubilo offer a number of gamification options, such as contests and quizzes that get everyone involved! Don’t forget to promote the prizes in your advertising materials!

What are the steps involved in hosting a virtual hackathon? 

1. Establish a goal: decide your why.

The first step to organize a hackathon is establishing your goal: why are you holding your virtual hackathon? What do you hope to get out of it? A product? A marketing campaign? Multi-industry solutions to improve a city? Let these goals inform the rest of the virtual hackathon planning process, including your theme.

2. Pick your theme.

Themes are key to attracting the right teams, sponsors, and partners to your virtual hackathon–it's the story you’re telling the world through your event. So, keep in mind what stories click with your particular audience while, of course, keeping your overall hackathon goal in mind. With Hubilo's event platform, event marketers and hackathon hosts can very easily select your brand's color and HEX codes to match your style guide, change the platform background colors, upload videos and logos, banner ads and more. 

3. Decide your other W’s: who, what, where, when.

By defining your virtual hackathon goal, you’ve got your “why” down. But we know there are four other W’s that are important to any story: who, what, where, and when. (Shout out to our first grade teachers for that lesson!) Let’s make sure you cover these need-to-knows, too.

Who: Zero in on your target participants, choose your virtual hackathon judges, and choose guest speakers. Be sure to be selective with whom you invite to judge or speak at your hackathon to maximize appeal to your target audience.

What: Choose the prizes/incentives you’ll offer to winners of the virtual hackathon.

Where: Since your hackathon will be online, your “where” is really about choosing a virtual event platform that will meet your needs and the needs of your participants.

When: Choose a date for your event that avoids major holidays in countries or regions where you have significant communities and/or colleagues essential to planning the event. And don’t forget to factor in time zones as you plan. 

Scheduling a virtual hackathon kickoff call for your Friday afternoon in New York, for example, actually means your colleague in Shanghai will have to participate very early on a Saturday morning. Yikes!

4. Get the word out.

You’re planning an amazing online hackathon–an event that’s sure to create something amazing and inspire your entire industry! But that can’t happen if no one knows about it, so deciding and scheduling your promotion activities is important. It’s no surprise that, especially since this is a virtual hackathon, online event promotion channels are the best way to get the word out and create buzz. 

Start by being your own champion: promote the virtual hackathon on your website and in email marketing campaigns. Social media, posting in relevant online communities, and working with influencers are other great avenues for promoting your virtual hackathon. 

5. Keep tabs on registration data.

Organization is key to any event’s success, and with the potential for exponentially more participants in a virtual hackathon over an in-person one, streamlining registration and check-in is a must. 

Having firm registration cutoff dates and attendance caps are also helpful, both for planning and to help create a sense of urgency around the virtual hackathon — something you can capitalize on when promoting it. Messages like “Only 50 more spots available!” or “We already have 200 participants! Register today!” can move potential participants to sign up as soon as possible.

6. Build in time for fun activities.

We all know that interacting online, even with live video chat, isn’t quite the same as doing so in person. That’s why it’s extra important to provide opportunities for your virtual hackathon participants to interact in fun, casual ways. A great way to do this is gamification; trivia, meme contests, and more can be presented in an entertaining, game-like way to encourage connection and elevate your participants’ overall virtual hackathon experience. 

Make a virtual hackathon more fun

7. Make it happen: Actually host your virtual hackathon!

It’s the big day(s)! Your virtual hackathon is finally ready to go live. While hackathons are deliberately loose in a lot of ways such as how teams actually work together, where participants work from, etc. But there still needs to be some structure. Typically, a virtual hackathon will go something like this:

  1. Welcome 
  2. Introducing the challenge/problem to solve
  3. Work time
  4. Teams present their work
  5. Award presentation
  6. Closing 

That being said, remember the above point to include some fun time! Trivia break, anyone?

8. Don't forget the post-event recap

As any sportscaster or coach will tell you, post-game analysis is critical to capitalizing on what worked and what didn’t quite get there. You and your colleagues should take time to reflect and sum up your thoughts and observations from the event. Feedback is also key; sending your virtual hackathon participants a survey or even informally asking them about their experience can provide valuable insights and tips for next time. 

Don’t forget to tell the world how awesome your virtual hackathon was through a little post-event promotion! Share recap material with your key audiences via your newsletter, blogs, social media posts, or other channels as appropriate. Interviews and quotes from participants can also generate material you can use to promote your next virtual hackathon.

Post event recaps for virtual hackathons

3 cool ideas for your next virtual hackathon 

You’ve got all the steps to creating your virtual hackathon, but what are some ways you can really make it stand out? Here are a few ideas:

1. Welcome all experience levels.

With your very first virtual hackathon, it’s great to be as inclusive as possible by including participants who are newer to your field or have not been part of a hackathon before. Rather than focusing on creating an intense competitive element, prioritizing teamwork and learning will help everyone, including the organizers, get a feel for participating in hackathons. And you never know–the newbie’s idea just might be the winning one for their team.

2. Have mentors readily available to help.

At some point during any creation process, most people get stuck even if they’ve got an amazing plan for  executing their idea. That’s why it’s important to include some expert help at your virtual hackathon. Advice from a mentor might be the ticket to a team’s next “eureka” moment.

3. Create a virtual hackathon app.

Everyone loves a handy app. Given the team nature of virtual hackathons, creating an app where participants can talk to each other, rather than having a million chats or groups on different platforms like Slack or WhatsApp, streamlining communication in a single app just for your virtual hackathon will make it easier for everyone to collaborate. As the organizer, you can post event details there, too, such as the hackathon rules, time, etc.

Find even more unique ideas for your virtual hackathon.

Tips for organizing a virtual hackathon

Here are a few quick things to keep in mind as you’re planning your virtual hackathon:

  • A versatile platform with seamless integrations with apps you use all the time, great support, and lots of engagement tools. (See the section below for more on why engagement is important.)
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate! Make sure you and your team are on the same page every step of the way, and be extra responsive to your hackathon attendees from ticketing through post-event comms.
  • Planning is of course critical to your virtual hackathon’s success, but be careful not to over-structure the event; it could potentially inhibit the natural creative flow that’s central to the whole concept of hackathons. 

Don’t forget: community engagement is essential to virtual hackathon success

A vibrant community is an essential part of a virtual hackathon because interaction between teams and individuals fosters additional innovation, provides networking opportunities, and more. Be sure to define what “engagement” means for your particular hackathon. (Remember, it should support your overall event goal.) There are plenty of ways to facilitate engagement in your virtual hackathon participants such as providing Q&A opportunities, polls, an ongoing chat feature, and mini contests.  Consider how you’d like people to interact on your virtual event platform for your hackathon and go from there with what engagement capabilities you need from your virtual event platform

Ready to run your first virtual hackathon?

Awesome! From early planning stages to your post-event analysis, Hubilo has what you need for pulling off an amazing hackathon online. Get in touch with our team of event experts today and let’s start planning your next virtual hackathon!

No items found.

Stay connected with us.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Ready for the Next Level of Webinars?

Discover how Hubilo's Webinar+ can help you 2X your pipeline

Registration and attendance expansion
Addictive engagement features
Gen-AI Snackable Content Hub to make repurposing a breeze
Revenue Impact Dashboard
and more....
Get a personalized free demo today