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Virtual hackathons: A complete guide

Talent Assessment | 8 Min Read

Virtual hackathons: A complete guide


A hackathon is a time-bound competition where teams or individuals try to find solutions to technology-related situations or problems. The event centers on one idea, theme, or problem, and participants try to develop and present a solution or product as a working prototype. Then, a panel of experts judges the solution to declare a winner based on specific parameters.

Initially, hackathons were conducted onsite and focused only on coders. However, with changing times, hackathons have gone virtual, increasing their accessibility and popularity. These events now focus on different issues and use cases related to technologies or programming languages.

This blog elaborates on the need and benefit of virtual hackathons and how to conduct one for your organization.

OpenBSD was the first to use the term “hackathon.” They used it for an internal cryptographic development event.


Types of hackathons

Depending on the objectives, you can organize a hackathon internally or keep it open to the public.


Virtual hackathons A complete guide_Infographic 1

Internal hackathons

A company conducts an internal hackathon for its employees. It aims to crowdsource ideas, promote collaboration, and increase employee engagement. Companies can involve employees from different backgrounds and give them the freedom to develop innovative ideas and pitch them to senior management.

External hackathons

External hackathons are open to the public. Anybody, both within and outside the organization, can participate. The participants are usually attracted by the theme and the prize on offer. Virtual external hackathons allow companies to crowdsource ideas from across the world.

Hackathons can also be categorized as:

  • Coding competition: The goal is to create software within the assigned time. These hackathons can last from one to three weeks.
  • Language-based hackathons: These hackathons aim to create an application based on a specific programming language.
  • Industry-based hackathons: Such hackathons are organized to drive innovation in specific industries. Examples include music hack day and science hack day.


Benefits of a virtual hackathon

There are several advantages of organizing a virtual hackathon, some of which are:


It is economical


Onsite hackathons are costly. The cost ranges from renting a place for the event to taking care of participants’ needs. There is also the cost of hiring extra staff to organize and run the event efficiently.

A virtual hackathon allows most people to participate from their homes, eliminating the need to rent space and arrange food and accommodation. You may need to hire extra staff to monitor the participants, but the number of temporary hires would still be less than onsite hackathons. This makes virtual hackathons economical.


It increases participation


Physical hackathons limit participation to those near the venue or who can afford to travel. This means contestants are primarily local, and you can miss out on great talent. With virtual hackathons, people from all over the world can join in. Only a stable internet connection and a device to work on are needed. With people joining from all over the world, you increase the chances of coming up with a good solution.


Considers participants’ comfort


Everybody has different conditions under which they work better. For example, some may work best with music or while listening to a podcast. On the other hand, some might prefer working from the comfort of their bed over a chair and desk. Virtual hackathons allow each participant to work in conditions where they are most comfortable working without causing discomfort to others. This directly contributes to increased productivity and improved results.


It helps break the monotony and boosts collaboration


The intensity of trying to find a solution in a set time frame breaks the monotony of day-to-day functions. Hackathons also encourage collaboration and creativity among the team members in a fun environment. This is especially true when members are connecting virtually. They will need to communicate and delegate tasks efficiently, which builds camaraderie.


Virtual hackathons A complete guide_Image 1


Reasons to organize a hackathon:

  • To crowdsource ideas from employees
  • Identify training needs and promote L&D
  • For high-potential recognition
  • To identify and attract top talent
  • To promote a new product


How to organize a virtual hackathon?

Despite being virtual, organizing a hackathon can be a difficult task. Here are the three essentials to host a successful hackathon.

The prize

Be it an onsite or virtual hackathon; prizes are essential for boosting participation. Rewards can range from cash and gift cards to an internship with the organization or a permanent position. Awards can also depend on the target audience. For example, software licenses help attract tech professionals.

The software

To host your hackathon, choose a platform with robust capabilities. It should have optimum features, the ability to handle the size of the event, and a platform for participants to engage with others. Also, the software provider should have excellent tech support in case of technical glitches.

The judges

A panel of qualified judges is necessary for the event’s credibility, as participants know they will be evaluated by experts in their field. Well-known judges will also attract top talents and help you boost your virtual hackathon's popularity.


Steps for hosting a virtual hackathon

After you have decided on the abovementioned, follow the steps to organize a successful event


Virtual hackathons A complete guide_Infographic 2

Decide a goal – the why of your hackathon

Before organizing a hackathon, you must decide the reasons behind holding the event. What do you want out of it? Do you intend to use it as a marketing campaign? Are you looking to check the security features of your upcoming app/software? The hackathon idea you decide on will set the tone for the planning process. It will also help you attract the right audience.

Decide the other four w’s

Deciding the goal takes care of the “why” of your hackathon. But the other four: who, what, where and when, are also important. Here is everything you need to know about them:

  • Who: “Who” defines your target audience. These are the people who will be participating in the virtual hackathon. To increase participation and maximize the audience, select judges and guest speakers that appeal to the target audience.
  • What: It refers to the prizes and incentives offered to winners and participants.
  • Where: In the case of onsite hackathons, this is the place where the event will take place. But in the case of online hackathons, it is choosing a platform that meets your and the contestant’s needs.
  • When: Choosing a date for a virtual event is vital to ensure maximum participation. Avoid major holidays or events in the region or countries where you wish to attract people from. Also, do factor in different time zones when planning for the event.

Promote the event

You have decided on your virtual hackathon’s theme, prize, judges, and guest speaker. Now, it is essential to spread the word about the hackathon and generate a buzz around it to encourage your target audience to register for the event. Start promoting it on your site and social media pages and include it in your email marketing campaigns. Additionally, posting about it in relevant online communities is another excellent way to promote your hackathon.

Streamline registration

Virtual hackathons tend to attract more participants than onsite ones, which makes it essential that the registration process is easy and streamlined. It would be best to clarify cutoff dates for registration and put a cap on the number of participants. All of this will help you manage the event effectively.

Include some fun activities

Online interactions are different from offline ones. This makes it vital for you to provide opportunities for participant engagement in a fun and casual way. You can incorporate trivia or meme contests for this. Such events will encourage connection and improve participants’ experience.

Take stock post-event

Post-event analysis is critical to capitalize on things that worked in your favor and find the things that didn’t. Ask participants to provide feedback through a survey form or informally ask them about their experience. This will help you get better insights for event hosting the next time.

Finally, remember to promote the success of your hackathon through post-event promotions. Share images and videos from the event with your key audiences via social media posts, newsletters, and blogs.


Things to avoid when hosting a hackathon

Organizing a hackathon is a challenging task. As it is, the chances of making mistakes are high. Here are three mistakes you need to avoid when organizing a hackathon.


Miscommunication in your promotion


From the beginning, any promotional posts about the hackathon must be clear and concise. If the hackathon’s ad or newsletter is not clear, it will put off your target audience, bringing down the number of participants.

The easiest way to avoid such a situation is to have a clear goal before communications begin. You can also have a separate events page for FAQs that address common questions.


Not choosing the right platform


As said before, organizing a hackathon is a challenging task. The hackathon platform you choose for your event can make or break it. ‍Choose a platform that works well for your business, and participants can easily understand and use it.

Select a platform that offers tools for collaboration among participants, easy access to attendees’ information, and the ability to assign scores for the organizers.


No incentives or prizes for participants


A hackathon is a competition, and the winning team/person is rightly entitled to an award that is decided in advance. However, what about the other participants? Lack of recognition can turn things sour among the attendees and may cause participation to drop the next time you organize an event.

To avoid this scenario, deciding on a participation prize or a goody bag is ideal. The goodies could be your organization’s promotional items or limited access to your software’s full features. Remember to communicate the same when you promote your hackathon to draw more people.


How Mercer | Mettl can help

Mercer | Mettl Online Hackathon platform is an all-in-one solution for organizing a hackathon. The end-to-end platform lets you seamlessly organize hackathons for hiring or engaging with your employees.

Some of the features that you get from the Mercer | Mettl platform are:

  • Personalization: Create a custom event page for your hackathon to increase awareness and engagement and streamline participation.
  • Single dashboard: Easily schedule tasks or access information through a single dashboard.
  • Collaborate with ease: Be it organizers, participants or judges, the Mercer | Mettl platform allows you to collaborate with other members easily.

Apart from these features, you also get access to a 24×7 support team that helps ensure seamless execution, making your hackathon a success.



Whether you are looking for talented individuals to hire or want to generate ideas and engage your employees, hackathons are your finest bet. Organizing an event may sound difficult with the planning involved, but the rewards are just as high. It helps you engage the community, find talent, boost morale and create a buzz around your company.



What is a virtual hackathon?

How to create a successful virtual hackathon?

How tough is it to get a job through online hackathons?

What is the purpose of a hackathon?

Originally published December 14 2022, Updated December 14 2022

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About This Topic

A hackathon or ideathon is an event where people with different skill sets come together to solve predefined challenges within a specified time frame. Ideathons and hackathons are increasingly being used for corporate branding, hiring at speed, innovating and engaging employees.

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