Inspire your next hackathon with these 25 creative hackathon ideas. Featuring examples from TechCrunch, IBM and other leading brands.
Hackathons are a great way to increase brand awareness, engage with your community and source top tech talent. They can also serve as drivers of innovation within your own company.
What’s a hackathon?
A hackathon is traditionally a live, in-person event where teams of computer programmers compete to solve challenges over the course of one or more days. Today, hackathons teams may includes contributors with a background in marketing, operations, or even HR.
Hackathons often occur over a limited period of time and include a prize for winning teams. Hackathons can be internal or external events. Regardless, hosts often incorporate ideas produced during the event in their own products or services.
Creative Hackathon Ideas
1. Include all departments in the competition
Who said all the fun had to be limited to the programmers? Incorporating departments like HR, marketing, and payroll in the competition makes for a more collaborative and holistic experience. Without even creating a line of code, each team gets an opportunity to create a proof of concept, judged on its business value, innovation, and team collaboration.
Engage Namely is a great example of this event idea. They used this hackathon concept while encouraging attendees to network across departments that otherwise wouldn’t have even met. In doing so, Namely found great success, which they attribute to providing opportunities that empower their teams.
2. Offer a diverse set of platforms to choose from
Hackathons that run for multiple days can offer an array of final products that teams will choose from. From web to mobile to hardware, there’s no limit to how many options hackathons can offer. This is especially important for hackathons where originality and creativity are held in high regard.
HackIDC currently has three main categories teams can choose for their solution. Because they are still limited in their choices, the competition is still fierce and inspired. You can apply their event marketing strategy to your hackathon simply by including more than one solution type.
3. Get the whole company involved
Internal hackathons are traditionally for the developers and programmers at your company. It’s the time for them to hunker down and geek out. However, incorporating personnel from other departments is a great way to make your hackathon projects more well-rounded and to guarantee company-wide engagement.
Bizzabo’s three-day BizzaHack featured representatives from Product, R&D, Marketing, Finance, Customer Success, Data, HR, and Support. The result were several projects that the dev team likely would not have discovered or created as holistically without the guidance of the whole team.
4. Go all out with your theme
Even if you choose to do a hackathon in its traditional format, there are plenty of opportunities to encourage event engagement through a unifying theme. This is especially useful if you’re hosting multiple events or seminars that relate to your hackathon. Create resources and extras (like access to talks given by subject matter experts) branded with this theme to enhance the overall experience.
HackGT: Dare to Venture is a great example of themes paying off. Their wilderness/camping themes hackathons take place in venues large and small across the country. They encourage coders to unleash their inner trailblazer and provide additional value with Campsites, a series of planned office hours with specialized mentors.
5. Add mini-competitions
Hackathons aren’t limited to a single challenge. Consider including extended coding subjects or mini-sprints for extra points. Not only will these bonus competitions fuel friendly rivalry it will also help get more participants actively engaged. You can even send notifications to event app users for surprise lightning rounds.
NEO Blockchain hosts smaller competitions under their hackathon umbrella that require very specific skill sets for their more advanced hackers. In addition to normal rankings, they even have a special mystery prize for high scorers.
6. Host a virtual event
Although in-person events have added networking value, hosting a virtual event is just one of the many event marketing examples in which planners can successfully embrace the digital sphere. Hosting online events, of any kind, are a great way to provide access to more people in more locations who otherwise couldn’t travel for the live version.
TechCrunch’s Disrupt SF is a prime example of this. Their hackathon projects bring in thousands of developers, designers, hackers and marketers worldwide. If you’re looking to host a virtual hackathon, follow TechCrunch’s lead and continue to offer valuable prizes.
7. Create a valuable community
One of the best parts of being in a hackathon is the people you get to meet. That’s why creating an environment in which teams can socialize and bond is incredibly important at these events. Use experiential marketing tactics to make the event even more interactive.
HackSI was founded by Dav Glass, a software architect and engineer who sought to make a tech community in southern Illinois, a location where technology isn’t a focused area of study. To his surprise, there were ten times the amount of expected participants in their first iteration. In the years that have followed they’ve continued to grow.
8. Combine various industries
If your audience has special interests, combining your hackathon with another type of event or field is a great way to stand out. For example, you can choose to make your event environmentally friendly and invite thought leaders to give keynotes alongside the competition. Finding creative intersections between disciplines might even spark the winning idea.
HUBweek combines art and science with technology. Through a variety of small, curated experiences to large-scale open gatherings, HUBweek brought in artists, entrepreneurs, and many other experts in their fields to interact with participants.
9. Showcase diversity
There’s no shortage of opinions or data that prove women are underrepresented in technology. Although they are not the only marginalized group in this field, choosing to make inclusion the focus of your event is a great idea.
USC Annenberg’s International Women’s Hackathon is, as the name implies, a chance for those who identify as female all over the world to participate in hackathon of their own. The hackathon organizers also chose socially conscious contest themes like women’s health & safety, economic freedom, and innovation with an emphasis on positive global impact.
Source: USC Annenberg
10. Start a movement
Although this is a large ask for any hackathon planner, it’s good to keep your end goals in mind when you create your first event. Where you hope to end up in the future will inform your marketing choices now.
Climathon originated as a regular 24-hour hackathon but soon took on a life of its own. Today, Climathon has become a global movement, engaging citizens to find creative solutions to climate change in urban environments. Their dedication to sustainability and environmentally conscious hackathon challenges at the beginning helped grow their popularity over time.
Source: Creative Climate Cities
11. Have a strong mission statement
If choosing a theme seems a daunting or cheesy, why not base your hackathon on a purpose? Strong mission statements help brands establish authority and directly communicate values. Base your challenges, choices for judges, and awards based on your mission statement to continue to align your event branding.
Sandoz’s powerful mission statement for their hackathon is “to discover new ways to improve and extend people’s lives.” In support of that, they focus their hackathon challenges on solutions within the healthcare industry with special attention on medical access on a global scale.
12. Mash up your teams
Although there are many examples of hackathons that focus on college participants or industry experts, you can find ways to expand yours by including people with a diverse representation of age, expertise, and specialization. Doing so can expand your event brand reach and get more people involved.
For example, Metsa Wood’s hackathon brought together architects, researchers, students, and key industry representatives. With a greater selection of experiences to pull from, these diverse teams brought more creative and varied solutions to challenges. Pulling from their large network helped Meta Wood continue to provide valuable experiences for their entire audience rather than one specific set.
Source: Metsa Wood
13. Welcome all experience levels
One of the more daunting aspects of hackathons for those interested in trying it out for the first time is the perceived level of expertise they assume others will have. If you’re interested in making your competition less cutthroat and more prospect-friendly, consider advertising it as something people with no coding experience can participate in.
Anita’s Moonshot Codeathon does exactly that. Their event website proudly displays a message that says, “you are 100% qualified” even if you’ve never written a single line of code before. As a result, their event attracts participants like women transitioning into tech, retired women, students, and even non-U.S. citizens so everyone gets to join in the fun at this low pressure event.
14. Make the world a better place
Recognizing the potential of your hackathon is the first step towards this goal. Acknowledge your strengths as a brand, as a company, and as a leader of your industry. If you had all the resources you needed, what would you like to accomplish with this event? Brainstorm ways to do that and keep those ideas in mind as you plan your next hackathon.
IBM’s Challenge Accepted blockchain hackathon uses their competition to work towards solutions for extreme poverty around the globe. Their latest challenge centered around creating a donation tracking platform on the blockchain platform.
Source: Elizabeth City State University
15. Go big
Sometimes the sheer size of an event is enough to draw additional crowds. While this might not be feasible for the very first hackathon it can be something to shoot for later down the road.
PenApps is the original student-run hackathon. They invite college students from all over the country to participate in their event which is located at the massive Wells Fargo Center. The number of participants fuels excitement and continues to push the envelope year after year thanks to the high quantity of talented young minds who choose to compete.
16. Highlight your geographical location
Chances are you’re already located in a place with lots of cool quirks and desirable attractions. You can use your location to your advantage by centering the activities around regional themes or choosing to do off-site excursions as well.
HackTech is located in Southern California and markets itself as a hackathon on the beach. While the competition took place down the street from the beach itself but it was still within walking distance. Compared to other collegiate hackathons, which take place in auditoriums and dining halls, this event locale was exotic and exciting.
17. Offer a variety of tracks
If you’re interested in testing out a variety of event KPIs, offer different competition options for you hackathon participants.
BitCamp separates their hackathon into four main categories: Hacker, Design, Venture (for entrepreneurs), and Scout (a special beginner-oriented session). Separating their tracks allowed their team to analyze and assess their event strategy across a variety of group types. This helped to isolate and extract their most successful actions for each track and duplicate it in future marketing efforts.
18. Host keynotes for non-participants to enjoy
There are lots of opportunities to incorporate higher education into your hackathon. Bringing in all-star speakers is certainly one of them.
Hack Zurich brings an exciting mix of keynote speakers from all over Europe to their yearly event. Sessions take place before, during, and after the event, so those interested in just observing the competition have additional incentive to attend.
Source: Digital Festival Zurich
19. Cater to underrepresented groups
Representation is an important aspect of any field and hackathons are no exception. Choose to only offer your hackathon to a group of individuals with limited access or connection to this field.
Tech, Rebalanced hosts a day for women, non binary, and trans individuals to get together and create code. Their emphasize a friendly learning environment with supported exploration so even newbies can join in the fun. In a field where this group is severely underrepresented, Tech, Rebalanced makes a real difference.
— Tech, Rebalanced (@Tech_Rebalanced) October 20, 2018
20. Try the prototype challenge
Most hackathons focus on concepts and code. Yours, on the other hand, can emphasize product by asking attendees to create a tangible prototype for testing.
Fhacktory has been using this combination of code and hardware challenges in their hackathons. To further up the ante, they also made it a rule that teams without a functioning prototype by the end of 24 hours are automatically disqualified.
21. Make it musical
Tech and performing arts can be combined in your hackathon for a more well-rounded experience. Whether it’s opera, theatre, or orchestra related, there are many ways to incorporate arts into your hackathon.
Anvil Hack focuses their hackathon on the use of creative computing research to enhance music although their overall mission is to empower individuals through technology.
22. Have a mentor station
Who says you have to leave your participants to fend for themselves? For attendees of all experience levels, having an active group of mentors onsite adds even more excitement to the event.
At ConUHacks, coders have the option to ask questions from real tech mentors as they create their projects. This levels the playing field a touch for beginners and ensures that everyone can walk away having learned something.
23. Invite High Schoolers
The adults shouldn’t get to have all the fun. Including high schoolers into your hackathon is another easy and effective way to expand event reach while doing good for the community at large.
Hackinit, China’s pioneer hackathon for high school aged coders, promotes both inclusivity and diversity. They even offer a multitude of educational workshops attendees can participate in before the start of the competition. Each workshop skill can then be directly applied to the hackathon challenge for real world application.
24. Give participants a free pass
As you continue to plan your hackathon, consider the possibility of allowing participants to join completely for free. This can be done with the help of grants or additional sponsorships and provides a fantastic opportunity for hackers who might not have otherwise afforded the entry fee.
nwHacks is Western Canada’s largest hackathon and leaves it entirely free for attendees. Their mission is to create opportunities for the brightest minds in tech to meet and collaborate, which is fitting for their choice to make sign ups highly accessible.
25. Focus on sustainability
Although counterintuitive, technology and the environment go hand in hand. Asking talented young minds how they would like to change the future of the planet they live on through the power of code is a surefire way to impress attendees.
Hack the Wind is centered around open energy data to solve questions around consumer devices, energy distribution, and diverse production pathways.
Source: Hack the Wind
Key Takeaways: Building Your Hackathon
No matter what kind of hackathon you end up doing, keep these main ideas in mind:
- Choose a theme your brand is passionate about.
- Provide opportunities for people who might not normally attend a hackathon to get involved in the action.
- Consider new ways to expand reach by providing additional activities or widening your participant qualification pool.
Looking for more hackathon inspiration? Check out our Tech Events Directory.
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