A virtual hackathon taking place

Virtual hackathons: An A-Z guide for organizers

Virgil Wadhwa
• December 4, 2022

(5 min read)

What do Zapier, Talkdesk, and Facebook’s like button have in common? They all emerged from hackathons—or high-energy, time-limited creative explosions. Want to run your own virtual hackathon? Let’s talk.

Table of Content

Virtual hackathons are amazing tools for innovation, team-building, and growth. But running a virtual hackathon isn’t easy. You have to set a clear vision, unite diverse attendees, and facilitate a high-energy explosion of creativity.

In this article, we’ll explore everything you need to run your own virtual hackathon.

You’ll learn:

  • What is a virtual hackathon?
  • How to host a successful virtual hackathon?
  • What are good ideas for a virtual hackathon?
  • What tools do you need for a virtual hackathon?
  • What are the best virtual hackathon platforms?

Let’s get started!

What is a virtual hackathon?

Virtual hackathons are online events where people come together to explore challenges, design solutions, and build solutions. Normally, hackathons share a common theme or goal. Often, they have cash prizes for the best projects.

In the past, hackathons took place in person, but new collaboration tech has enabled virtual or online hackathons. Now, teams can collaborate regardless of physical distance.

Virtual hackathon have a bunch of benefits compared to in-person:

In-person hackathon Virtual hackathon
Limited to employees near your office. Employees can join from anywhere in the world.
Excludes employees with inflexible schedules or caring responsibilities. Greater inclusivity drives cross-functional mixing and collaboration.
Physical event spaces are costly to rent, outfit, and maintain. Virtual hackathons rely on affordable digital event technology.
Flying for a short event isn’t environmentally friendly. Distributed teams can collaborate without increasing their carbon footprint.
In-person limits an event’s reach to attendees. Virtual hackathons can reach a worldwide audience.

How to host a successful virtual hackathon?

Virtual hackathons often look chaotic—like a bunch of teams came together spontaneously to work on a shared problem. But the best online hackathons are carefully planned events.

If you want to learn how to host hackathons, let’s explore the most important steps.

Three months out…

  • Decide on your theme: Most hackathons focus on a theme like a common problem, technology, or demographic (Check our ideas section for some inspiration). Your theme influences how you structure a hackathon—so don’t rush your decision.
  • Recruit a judging panel: In most hackathons, a panel of judges assesses finished projects and awards prizes to the best teams. A virtual hackathon’s best practice is to recruit judges with the subject matter expertise related to your theme.
  • Select prizes: Prizes can engage participants and attract talent. However, when you’re running a virtual hackathon, the prizes are entirely up to you. Popular prizes include cash, cryptocurrencies, and products.
  • Launch a hackathon website: Wondering how to organize a virtual hackathon? Launch a simple landing page or wiki early and add information like dates, hackathon tracks, judges, and prizes.
  • Invite participants: Some events are external hackathons open to anyone who wants to register, while others are internal hackathons for an entire company. Whatever you decide, hosting a virtual hackathon only works when talented people decide to attend. Create your guest list and send your invites early to maximize attendance.

One month out…

  • Design your agenda: This is where you decide how to structure your hackathon. You should already know the big details, like how long it’ll last and what theme you’ll focus on, but now you can dig into the details. Create a timetable for each day and map out key presentations and working sessions. If you’re expecting a worldwide target audience, consider how your agenda can accommodate different time zones.
  • Team formation: Some people will register as pre-agreed teams. Others will sign up as individuals. Sort through your registration list, confirming pre-existing groups and grouping lone hackathon participants into new teams. Consider talent sourcing and make sure each team has a good variety of skill sets—designers, engineers, project managers, and so on.

One week out…

  • Keep communicating: Most online hackathons only last a few hours or days so you want attendees to hit the ground running. In the run-up to the virtual hackathon event, keep communicating important information like the date, theme, and hackathon agenda.
  • Test your technology: You might be wondering how to run a virtual hackathon compared to in-person. The biggest change is swapping out a physical location for technology. You don’t want your technology going down during the online event. Organize a dry run in advance to test out your video conferencing, collaboration tools, and presentation tech.
  • Prepare your facilitators: Great tech teams make or break hackathons. Run training sessions to prepare them for the actual event, including onboarding sessions for your tech.

The day of… 

  • Welcome your attendees: Start your event with a bang. Welcome everyone to your hackathon and reintroduce the theme. You can explain why you selected the theme and discuss its impact on your organization or society.
  • (Optional) Solution ideation: Some traditional hackathons include a dedicated ideation stage. Attendees split into their teams, explore the theme, and create innovative solutions. Often, mentors or facilitators will offer advice and guidance to refine solutions. This stage is helpful if your attendees lack business acumen, as you can focus their efforts on viable solutions.
  • Project execution: When teams have landed on a solution, they can begin building. This stage is frenetic as individual teams execute special projects under tight deadlines. Use your facilitators (and mentors if you have them) to clear logjams and keep teams moving forward.
  • Team presentations: Time for the best part of your hackathon: presentations. Each team should have an opportunity to present their final project on the main stage, detailing how their solution works and its benefits. If your virtual hackathon has a lot of teams, put a time limit on presentations—five or 10 minutes is usually enough.
  • Awards ceremony: After the presentations, your judges will deliberate and score each project. Once scored, you can announce the winners and present the winning teams with their prizes.

Virtual hackathon ideas and examples

Virtual hackathons can focus on almost anything.

This year’s HackMIT hackathon challenged computer science students to create new entertainment products. NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge focused on using apps to eliminate barriers to access to space and science opportunities. And HackZurich kept things wide open, asking teams to “create a web, mobile, or desktop application.”

Usually, your industry or category will narrow things down. For example, healthcare companies tend to organize health-focused hackathons. But beyond that, it’s totally up to you.

Here are some of our favorite virtual hackathon ideas to get you started.

Edu-tech virtual hackathon ideas

These past few years, the education world’s reinvented itself several times over—all virtual, back to in-person, hybrid, flipped classroom. There’s been an immense shift in how schools, colleges, and universities deliver education.

You could host ed-tech hackathons on:

  • Student learning experiences
  • Course and university finders
  • Project management for teachers/students
  • Document management for educational institutions
  • Tutoring aids

Healthcare hackathon ideas

There is a huge scope when it comes to technology and healthcare.

Here are some ideas for your next virtual hackathon:

  • Data management in clinics and hospitals
  • Virtual health assistants
  • GPS monitoring of ambulances
  • Medical emergency triage management
  • Health management in rural areas

Consumer-tech hackathon ideas

AI and machine learning are poised to revolutionize our home lives and communities.

Here are some brilliant ideas for your next consumer tech hackathon:

  • Autonomous drones
  • IoT for homes
  • Automated workspaces

General hackathon ideas

While every hackathon comes with its niches and sub-categories, don’t pigeon hole yourself. Here are some generic ideas for your next online hackathon:

  • Use of AI in recruitment
  • Chatbots for employee management
  • Apps that fine-tune your music recordings
  • Automating agriculture
  • Energy-saving ideas
  • AR/VR in retail
  • Subscription management solutions

What tools do you need for a virtual hackathon?

In-person hackathons threw people into a room and let them sort out collaboration. For a virtual hackathon event, teams need a bit more support.

Let’s take a look at some of the tools teams need to turn ideas into finished products.

Hackathon landing page or wiki

Although you’ll have facilitators on-hand to help teams, they won’t always be available. Build out a self-serve landing page or wiki so attendees can find answers on their own. Include important information like agendas, points of contact, and prize information.

Video and text chat

Teams need a friction-free way to communicate with each other. Give them a text chat and video option. That way, they can communicate however they prefer. Common solutions include Slack channels, Teams, and Skype.

Digital collaboration tools

Traditional hackathons are all about challenging problem-solving and ambitious projects. Participants need a shared space to share designs, plan prototypes, and more.

Presentation tech

Hackathons culminate in project presentations. Don’t rely on an uninspiring Zoom screen share. Instead, use a virtual hackathon platform that supports engaging presentations.

What are the best virtual hackathon platforms?

Exceptional event tech elevates everything about your hackathon. It creates new engagement opportunities. It makes interactions easy and inviting. It turns your hackathon into a growth driver.

But a mediocre platform does the opposite. It kills your attendee experience, stymies creativity, and reduces your impact.

So how do you separate the good vendors from the bad ones?

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Keep reading for a list of the leading virtual hackathon platforms along with a quick review.

Airmeet

Trusted by top brands like Comcast and PwC, Airmeet powers the world’s best virtual events and hybrid events.

Backed by its event experience cloud, you can elevate every moment of a virtual hackathon, turning an event into an event experience.

  • Eye-catching landing pages: Build buzz from day one with an attractive landing page and custom registration form.
  • Branding and design: Make your event feel like your organization by customizing the virtual venue for the entire event.
  • Booth showcases and sponsorships: Bigger hackathons tend to attract sponsorships. Offer captivating booths for sponsors to showcase their offerings.
  • Breakout rooms: Hackathons are high-energy and fast-paced. Often, there are a bunch of different conversations going on at once. With most virtual event platforms, that creates a chaotic communication space. On Airmeet’s platform? Not so much. Use breakout rooms to split conversations and keep conversations on track. 
  • Fluid Space: Hackathons bring diverse people and ideas together. Replicate casual in-person conversations with Airmeet’s fluid spaces. This feature allows participants to move around a virtual environment, joining informal meeting sessions as they go.
  • Social Lounge: Drive engagement throughout your event with a social lounge. Attendees can join tables, chat with other people, and share ideas.
  • Multi-track events: Large hackathons often have multiple tracks or themes. Keep your event organized with Airmeet’s multi-track feature.
  • Interactive main stage: Hackathons culminate with presentations. It’s an opportunity for hackathon teams to show off their hard work. But let’s face it, a simple Zoom screen share is uninspiring. Airmeet’s interactive main stage takes presentations up a level and creates a real celebration around teams’ presentations.

vFairs

vFairs is a popular all-in-one events platform. While it has some nice features like 3D virtual venues, the basics are lacking. For example, it doesn’t offer a free trial, meaning you can’t take it for a road test. Also, the platform’s chat rooms are text-only so networking isn’t particularly engaging.

Webex Events

Webex is one of the biggest names in online communication, although it’s perhaps best known for video conferencing and cloud calling. Webex Events, formerly Socio, is a solid choice for a virtual hackathon event, but it’s not the best for hackathons. It lacks an event landing page and doesn’t support speed networking, both of which make organization and engagement a drag.

Hubilio

Another popular platform, Hubilio prioritizes engagement and attendee experience (we like that). However, it has some drawbacks. Not being able to stream to social platforms limits your reach, and a lack of speed networking stops attendees from mixing.

Unleash growth with a hackathon

We’ve covered a lot in this article.

You’ve seen the essential hackathon structure:

  • Three months out: Decide on your theme, recruit a judging panel, select prizes, launch a website, and invite participants.
  • One month out: Design your agenda and form hackathon teams.
  • One week out: Keep communicating, prepare your facilitators, and test your technology.
  • The day of your hackathon: Welcome your attendees, execute projects, present ideas, and award prizes.

We’ve covered the most popular hackathon themes:

  • Application Types
  • Technologies
  • Causes
  • Innovations

And you’ve learned what technology is non-negotiable to run a virtual hackathon without a hitch:

  • Website, wiki, or landing page
  • Video and text chat
  • Digital collaboration tools
  • Virtual event platform

Congratulations! You’re now ready to host your own hackathon online and harness the creativity of your community. When you’re ready to launch your virtual hackathon, we’re waiting to help you. Boost engagement, enhance creativity, and ship ideas with Airmeet as your virtual hackathon platform.

Elevate Your Engagement Levels, Make Every Event Memorable

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