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Develop Big Ideas Quickly with a Virtual Hackathon

9 strategies for running a successful brainstorming and solution-development event that can engage participants from around the world.

Hackathons are changing the world by bringing people together to create new solutions, using the benefits of technology to move forward on issues as large as social change, sustainability, global warming, and racism.

For example, a recent online hackathon titled “Build for Belarus” saw participants from the U.S., U.K., India, France, Norway, Estonia, Israel, Austria, and other nations brainstorm and build out tangible solutions addressing four key issues within Belarus: civil support, communication, health care, and safety. 

While this hackathon was continuous—the brainstorming and idea-ranking kept going as participants in some regions retired for the day and others were starting their day—other hackathons can have defined starting and ending times each day. 

Some other recent hackathons with global implications include the Sweden-India Mobility Hack that addressed safe and sustainable transportation options; the Spacetech Europe Hackathon developing the future of space for humans; and EU-Africa: The Post-Crisis Journey, which generated new solutions to socio-economic problems escalated by the coronavirus pandemic.

As large-scale as these examples are, the planning and execution of hackathons by companies and associations to address their own challenges does not have to be daunting. 

9 Tips for Building a Successful Hackathon
Often, planners focus too much effort on the event day itself, rather than the strategy needed to gather a wide variety people who can innovate and inspire meaningful change. These tips will help hackathon organizers put on an event that meets the host’s specific objectives.

1. Announce your hackathon at least six weeks in advance 
This allows potential participants to clear their schedule for the hackathon’s time frame. It also increases community engagement ahead of time and builds excitement. Lastly, it gives participants the option to join on their own and become part of a team later, right up to the start of the event.

2. Use hackathon-specific tools 
Videoconferencing and group-chat platforms can be used for hackathons. But if you're using a tool that’s specific to the purpose, it's easier to provide a simple and more productive experience for your participants and partners—and there’s less chance of the event getting slowed down by technical elements and errors. From the first point of contact to the critical post-event communications, a hackathon-management platform can help you manage the needs of thousands of participants in one place.

3. Create quick and simple forms
Give your hackathon its best shot of landing participants and placing them in the correct teams by creating straightforward forms to fill out about their backgrounds, expertise, and other details. One key: Optimize the forms for mobile devices because many hackathon participants are working that way on a regular basis—perhaps even participating in the hackathon itself on a mobile device.

4. Be clear about your purpose and audience
Don’t assume that everyone knows what’s involved in a hackathon. There could be lots of first-timers applying, which means you could end up leaving out information that could influence the number of sign-ups. Also, there’s a general misconception that hackathons are only for software coders and developers, and you might miss out on attracting quality talent unless you are clear about your event’s purpose and desired audience. Create a clear FAQ page explaining what roles are needed and who should apply to participate. If you don’t tell them, many potential attendees won’t know!

5. Make community engagement a priority
Successful hackathons have high community engagement, and it’s your job as the organizer to facilitate that. From the moment that someone registers, keep them engaged with your team and fellow participants in ways that inspire intellectual preparation ahead of the event and active participation during the event. Provide an environment where they can meet other participants and the planning team, and receive communications throughout the lead-up period.

6. Create themes that are specific
Do not run an open-ended event where everyone’s free to interpret the scope of the topic and the guidelines to participate as they see fit. Having a specific theme along with constraints related to its scope will lead to faster results and more focused thinking. In your announcements and messages across every channel you’re using to promote the hackathon, make sure to be clear about the theme and the process you’ll expect participants to follow.

7. Provide coaching and mentoring
Find a few skilled people in the hackathon’s industry of focus who will share their expertise where it’s needed and mentor participants. As a rule, have six mentors per 100 participants. Ahead of the event, have these folks lend something to your participant communications. Once the hackathon begins, have the mentors introduce themselves to their teams and be available for them from start to finish.

8. Promote your hackathon in the right places
Consider where potential attendees, sponsors, and mentors spend their time online and put details of your hackathon in front of them. Anywhere you can use a hashtag is a strong start: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other such channels are all great for promoting your event and then encouraging interaction.

One week before the hackathon, start a countdown on social media and, each day, write a short "spotlight” post introducing the judges or decision-makers on the panel. They’re also likely to share the post on their social channels, helping you reach more people.

Hackathon0621Aronov.png9. End the hackathon in a way that keeps interaction going
Hackathons are supposed to leave people feeling inspired, energized, and wanting more, which means how you end the event is just as important as how you start it. The end should be climactic and keep people buzzing for more. Were there teams that impressed the judges but didn’t make the winning list? Give them some recognition. And give special thanks to sponsors and mentors. Also, create a hashtag and encourage participants to share their experiences on social media to create a buzz after the hackathon, and to promote future events.

Edgar Aronov is co-founder and CEO at Eventornado, an all-in-one hackathon platform.

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