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The Power of Hackathons: Strategies for Planning & Execution

When someone mentions “hackathons”, images of caffeine-fueled developers in hoodies evoking the next big tech innovation might come to mind. But in reality, hackathons can be powerful tools for businesses in today’s developer-driven world. They bring together talented minds to collaborate, experiment, and create something awesome (not just in the Silicon Valley show sense!), often using your very own tools.

So, should your company host a hackathon? And if so, how do you make it a success?

Recently, we kicked off our new monthly webinar series at Draft.dev with a focus on hackathons. 


Our CEO, Karl Hughes, and Brandon Kessler, CEO of Devpost, dived deep into what makes hackathons tick, their benefits, and key strategies for organizing one. This blog post takes you through the essential questions you might have, like what hackathons are good for, how to plan them right, and more.

Why Hackathons Matter for Everyone

For developer marketing professionals with no technical background, organizing a hackathon might sound like a confusing, expensive event that feels more like a game than a serious business strategy. But the benefits go far beyond that surface.

For Participants

  • Creative Fuel: Hackathons spark inspiration with new challenges and unexpected collaborations. It’s not just about coding; it’s about brainstorming and finding innovative solutions.
  • Learning Opportunity: Devtools evolve quickly, and developers are lifelong learners. Hackathons provide a dedicated space to explore new technologies and upskill in a collaborative environment. This isn’t just for junior devs – seasoned professionals benefit too!
  • Excitement Breeds Great Ideas: While blogs and technical content are valuable, hackathons offer a fun and engaging way to learn. Deadlines, prizes, collaboration, and networking add an exciting twist, motivating participants to build something truly incredible.

For Organizers

  • Community Building: You tap into a pool of developers eager to build with your product. Brandon Kessler mentioned that they have seen a 5-35% conversion rate from registration to submission, showing a very strong ROI in terms of engaged user acquisition.
  • Talent Magnet: Attract both college students seeking early career opportunities and experienced professionals looking to learn something new.

What are Hackathons Not Good For?

Regardless of the multiple benefits and reasons why both participants, as well as organizers, can benefit from hackathons, there are situations where organizing them might just not be right for your company. 

1. Cheap Procurement Disguised as Innovation:

If your sole goal is acquiring a finished product on the cheap, don’t frame it as a hackathon. Brandon Kessler aptly calls it “cheap procurement,” undermining the collaborative spirit and devaluing participants’ contributions.

2. Early-Stage Start-Ups with High Expectations:

Can early-stage start-ups host hackathons? Sure! But it’s important to manage expectations because you might not attract big companies to partner up with, or established developers just yet. Instead, focus on building community and engagement instead of immediate product solutions.

3. One-Shot Marketing Tactic:

Think beyond a single event and don’t view hackathons as a standalone marketing campaign. Integrate them into your ongoing developer outreach strategy. Use them to complement technical content, inspire your community, and foster long-term connections.

4. Hackathons as the Only Marketing Strategy:

Hackathons are powerful, but they’re not your entire developer marketing strategy. Think of them as an umbrella providing shade alongside other channels like tutorials, forums, and community events. Use them to drive engagement and support broader initiatives.

In essence, hackathons are catalysts for innovation, community building, and learning. By acknowledging their limitations and integrating them strategically, you can create win-win situations for both you and your developer community.

Ingredients for a Winning Hackathon

So, hackathons seem like a promising addition to your developer marketing strategy. Now, how do you build a truly successful one? Here are the four fundamental pillars Brandon pointed out:

1. Marketing & Promotion

This might seem obvious, but if developers don’t know about your event, it’s doomed to be a ghost town. While we’ll dig deeper into specific tactics in the below “Promoting Your Hackathon” section, promotion is a must-have ingredient for an impactful hackathon.

2. A Valuable Product

The competition itself is the heart of the hackathon, so make sure it has the “wow” factor.

Choose a challenge that leverages your product’s strengths and offers genuine value to participants. Consider real-world problems or opportunities to innovate with your tools.

3. Existing Tech Support

Imagine developers hitting a technical problem - frustration rising, motivation dwindling. To prevent this, ensure readily available, knowledgeable tech support. This could be internal developers, volunteers, or partners familiar with your tools.

4. Fair Prizes

Cash prizes are considered the standard, but it’s also a good idea to explore creative additions to cash prices which we’ll go more into detail in the “Incentives for Developers” section. 

Creative Challenges for Specific Products

While your product might seem like a “one-trick pony” at first glance, remember that creativity knows no bounds. Brandon mentioned the success they had with one of their clients Okta which can serve as an example:

Example - Authentication

  • Build the most secure and user-friendly authentication experience for a specific user group (gamers, healthcare professionals, etc.).
  • Integrate AI to personalize authentication based on user behavior or risk factors.

Check out Okta’s past hackathons and their case study on DevPost for inspiration. See how they broadened their authentication-focused challenges to encourage creative solutions.

Engaging Customers with Private Hackathons

Private hackathons with key accounts can also be a powerful tool for fostering engagement and showcasing your product’s potential. Your customers might have questions about your product’s suitability for specific scenarios. A hackathon allows them to experiment and discover new possibilities firsthand.

Also, consider real-time collaboration: Imagine showcasing how your database tool works for e-commerce through a live hackathon demonstration. This interactive experience can be far more impactful than traditional presentations.

Promoting a Hackathon

One of the easiest ways to promote your hackathon is to work with a company like Devpost to take the burden as they already have an existing community of developers which makes it easier to attract developers with matching skills to attend your hackathon. But if you have been assigned to promote your webinar on your own, here are some main tips for achieving success with your hackathon promotional plan. In short, Brandon recommends doing “Everything!” when it comes to the promotion.

  • Tap into your community: Encourage developers to spread the word, participate, and mentor/judge.
  • Partner strategically: Join forces with complementary products, universities, or developer organizations.
  • Create a dedicated landing page with clear details and easy access.
  • Spread the word online: Share engaging content on social media and consider targeted ads/press outreach.
  • Engage and support participants: Keep them informed, foster a community, and offer technical assistance.

Motivating Developers Beyond Cash

While cash is a traditional prize, developers may find it more attractive if you can offer something they may usually not have access to. Here are some additional incentives you could consider:

Experiences & Access:

  • Meeting inspiring figures: Arrange meetings with industry leaders or experts they admire.
  • Opportunities for networking: Facilitate connections with peers or potential employers.
  • Unique experiences: Offer tickets to tech conferences, events, or workshops.

Professional Development:

  • Product credits: Provide access to your product or tools to enhance their skills.
  • Personal branding support: Offer resources or workshops to amplify their online presence.
  • Tools and subscriptions: Equip them with valuable tools to accelerate their work.

Tailoring prizes to your audience can also be a good idea. For example, consider the type of developers you’re trying to attract and their motivations. While junior developers might appreciate career development incentives, senior developers may find recognition and their personal brand awareness more important. 

Also, transparency is key, so communicate prize details and eligibility criteria clearly, and don’t forget to research local regulations for any specific prize restrictions or guidelines in the country of your organized hackathon.

Measuring Your Hackathon’s Impact

Attendance figures offer an overview of participation, but to understand your hackathon’s success you have to dig deeper. Success can also mean many things, so make sure you define what are your goals for the event. Is it amplifying brand awareness, gathering feedback, inspiring innovation, or perhaps even attracting talent?

Let’s take a look at some key metrics:


  • Project Submissions: Did participants actively participate by creating projects?
  • Community Interaction: Did they engage in online forums, discussions, or social media groups?
  • Technical Activity: Was there active development and code completion throughout the event?

Product Impact

  • Direct Feedback: Did participants provide valuable feedback on your product or tools?
  • Feature Adoption: Did any submitted projects showcase innovative uses of your product?
  • Brand Awareness: Did the hackathon increase brand awareness and interest among developers?

Talent Acquisition

  • Leads Generated: Did you connect with potential hires through the event?
  • Applications Received: Did the hackathon attract qualified candidates for open positions?
  • Hiring Success: Did you successfully hire talented developers through the hackathon?


So, are hackathons right for your company? While they offer exciting possibilities for innovation, community building, and learning, it’s crucial to approach them strategically and acknowledge their limitations. Hackathons are not about acquiring cheap solutions or short-term marketing gains but instead, a chance to build genuine value for participants.

Remember, successful hackathons go beyond caffeine-fueled coding sprints, building a vibrant community, and fostering genuine connections with developers. When planning a hackathon, it might be worth seeking help from platforms like Devpost which offer various packages to help you organize one. These packages can include essential features like project management, an online platform, and even marketing and promotion assistance.

Looking towards the future, advancements in AI are poised to streamline the entire experience, from logistics and team formation to project management and innovation cycles. As Brandon Kessler mentioned, “Every dev tool has now AI implemented, and AI is also helping to save much time, improving team building and project management side.” This means smoother operations, better collaboration, and ultimately, faster innovation.

Ready to dive into more DevRel and Developer Marketing insights? Join our upcoming webinars for expert insights and live sessions packed with knowledge from industry leaders.

Annika Puura

By Annika Puura

Annika is an Operations Manager here at Draft. With a background in international business, finance, and education, she is fluent in Estonian, English, and Spanish. When not at work, she enjoys running, dancing, and doing HIIT workouts.