In this dystopian post-COVID society, marketers and event organizers are struggling to connect with prospects and audiences. While many of us are still working — no one wants to be sold to. We’ll have to cautiously navigate this new “talk to me, don’t sell me” language for the foreseeable future.

While all industries have been hit hard, the events world has been decimated. How the hell do you sell to a group of people in a war zone? The simple answer: you don’t. We had a choice — we could sit idly by in a “wait and see” pattern, or we could speak up, stick our necks out there, and truly help. We chose the latter.

I’ve never been so proud of my team or the company — everyone threw themselves into service mode. Marketing researched like crazy and created content to help people make the most of a terrible situation. Our customer team jumped on the phone and sparked conversations to brainstorm and see what great ideas we could share with other clients. Sales followed suit and rather than calling for a demo, they shared all the great insights our marketing and customer success teams uncovered.

After hundreds of conversations, the team quickly realized we needed to do more for the event industry. First, we had to make product updates to help serve our customers’ new set of needs, and second, we needed to gather more information and help more people. The industry wanted someone to speak with, and somewhere they could find solutions for pivoting their live events to virtual. Note: 64 percent of event organizers have never touched anything virtual before.

Source: EventMB – Pivot to Virtual webinar

While we were making the shift in our product and gearing up to launch our Orange Glove Service offering (to help the 64 percent), we needed a way to get the message out so it didn’t feel opportunistic, but continued to provide thought leadership and validate our ideas for a virtual event suite. The challenge became communicating these changes in a time when nobody wants to be sold to. 

This is when our hackathon idea came to life. While a traditional hackathon (think coding) wasn’t going to accomplish our company goals, the format itself had all the elements we needed to pull the right pieces together.

If you take a step back and think about the biggest drivers of event attendance — it’s to see industry leaders discuss topics they’re passionate about. So, rather than having coders create a new tech product, what if we brought a bunch of industry leaders together to solve the biggest problem impacting the event industry? Producing engaging virtual events that go beyond a basic webinar remains the elusive unicorn we’re all hunting for.

In a hackathon setting, your thought leaders produce content and provide actionable solutions in a creative format that’s relevant to all non-coders. Part of the magic of a hackathon is that people are usually excited to participate, and will naturally network and bond with one another, creating memorable experiences. This moment of excitement also builds social momentum as your hackers and judges talk about the event on their social networks. Because, of course there’s an audience choice award!

What I like best about the hackathon idea is it’s truly a win-win for everyone. With high unemployment and a questionable economy, relevance is an invaluable currency for companies, and our careers. Influencers need to keep expanding their reach and their businesses, well-thought-of professionals need to maintain internal influence and industry clout, and our clients deserve a boost into the spotlight and recognition for their forward-thinking actions. The overriding theme should be fun and industry leadership. Just like an in-person event, you’re creating a memorable experience for everyone involved.

So, you’ve never been a part of a hackathon? No worries! Here’s our playbook that we hope will point you in the right direction.

1. Define Your Hack

What industry problem are you trying to solve? What problem is worth solving that isn’t too self-serving? Being authentic in your approach will define your hacking success. In the event space, organizers are still trying to define what constitutes a virtual event, and how to make it better than a webinar.

Hackers will need a clear framework that won’t impede their creative process. Taking a look at our ICP’s, we let the teams pick between four event types to hack: industry conference, internal all-hands meeting, user conference, or association conference. From there, we let them choose the target audience/industry. It could be fictitious like the Furry convention one of our teams chose, or a real-life example like the Pinterest user conference.

The next step in the process is to get the teams working on the core issue. Loosely using the ABCD strategic planning methodology, we set up our process so that teams were backcasting from success.

Awareness & Defining Success

This is where you define the judging criteria. It needs to be prolific enough to communicate what success looks like, but simple enough for the judges to whip through within the confines of a virtual event.

Baseline Current State

This is where teams assess the current reality of whatever problem you’re hacking. It should be a gap analysis where the teams define their problem hypothesis. We split it up into three sections: Pre-Event, During, and Post-Event. Each team revealed their problem hypothesis in their presentations.

Creative Solutions

This is where the magic happens. Our teams crafted solutions for the problems they uncovered in the previous step and presented them to the audience and judges.

Decide on Priorities

Ok, so we rolled this into creative solutions for the sake of time, but included “Realistic Execution” as one of the judging criteria to ensure prioritization was inherently happening.   

Once you define your hack, it’s time to send a well-thought-out communication inviting your hackers to join the competition.

2. Identify Your Hackers

We immediately started to make three lists. As marketers, think ICP, think ABM, think expansion opportunities. 

  1. Influencers: They’re people who are well known, have awesome social media followings, are well respected, and can potentially refer your product to their clients.
  2. Clients: We took a look at our client base and considered three factors when choosing who to invite:
    • Big company names that would draw attention and credibility 
    • Passionate about Socio
    • Expansion/upsell opportunities
  3. Tier 1 ABM prospects: These should be big logos that are active voices in the industry. With the right influencers and clients on board, it should help inspire these prospects to say “yes.”
EventHack team the CURE

It will take a few days to lock down your hackers so make sure things continue to progress in the background (communication plans, collateral, swag, promotions…). Once you’ve secured your hackers, ensure they understand that by agreeing to hack, you retain the right to:

  1. Share any ideas for blog and other content 
  2. Make final presentations available to the public 
  3. Tag companies/individuals on social (if social handles are provided)

3. Identify Your Hackathon Judges

Here’s where we found our best sources of judges:

  1. Industry media stars
  2. Huge industry leaders
  3. Big company logos — great for clients that don’t have the time to hack

If you have a high-priority hacker who can’t invest the time necessary to participate, invite them to be a judge. It’s a great way to keep them involved with a lower-level time commitment.

Eventhack judges

After securing your judges and hackers, send them a calendar blocker immediately. Things are moving fast and if you don’t keep up, you could miss their open windows. Don’t neglect to let them know that you’ll be tagging them on social media and using their photo, name, and bio on promotional materials as well.

4. Set Your Hackathon Date

Not only will you need a date for your official hack, you’ll also have to block off some time to sync with the judges and set expectations. You also need to allot time for the hackers to get together and start ideating.

In a typical hackathon, teams have enough time in person to work together and hit all the benchmarks. In a virtual setting, time moves differently. The typical storming and norming that teams naturally go through will be glitchy over video, and shortened due to external distractions and lower attention spans.

To solve this, we held a hacker kick-off meeting the Friday before our Wednesday event to introduce everyone, assign teams, and allow the teams to establish a few of the starting points. 

We pulled the judges together to work out details and expectations. We ran the judges through the run of show, and when we expected them to be logged on and present. We also used the time to validate our judging criteria and process, which was communicated back to the hackers.

Once you have an idea of who you’ll be inviting, set the date and get it on everyone’s calendars — ASAP. We all book up quickly and if you’re lucky enough to get the industry’s best, their calendars will be in high demand. Be sure to block enough time for the day of the event as well as the hacker kick-off session a few days prior. Make sure you do the same for the judges!

The Socio team pulled off EventHack in 11 business days. Although we had a lot of success, I suggest at least 20 days. You should also consider creating some urgency around the hack to get information to the masses quickly. (We’re all solving major issues at the moment).

5. Craft Your Hacker/Judge Communication Plan

Over-communication will go a long way toward ensuring everyone is comfortable and has enough mental bandwidth to creatively hack. While hackathons are common in tech circles, this will likely be the first time your industry leaders have been invited to hack an event. Here’s what we included in our comms plan.

  1. Invitation
  2. Follow-up call to secure hackers and judges
  3. Details to follow up with and confirm participation
  4. Thank you for joining us, here is what you need to know
    • Dates
    • Agendas
    • Expectations
    • Sharing instructions
  5. First hacker session (60 Min)
  6. Judging criteria
  7. Hacker check-in
  8. Day-of kick-off
  9. Check in on teams and give updates on timing
  10. Creating a space for hackers to communicate with your team, each other, and eventually the attendees
  11. Post-event thank you
  12. Send hacker swag!!

With each touchpoint, remind hackers and judges to share the event with their peers and make sure everything you do is branded for this particular event. 

6. Hackathon Branding

Since a hackathon is designed to be an industry thought-leader event, come up with a cool name and differentiated branding. It’s okay to call out that the event is “powered by” your company, but having a different look will go a long way toward keeping the conversations neutral, and also create some great limited-edition swag too.

Here are a few assets you should have ready to rock with your hackathon branding:

  • Landing page
  • Email template
  • Community
  • Social media
  • PPC
  • Presentation slides
  • Slide templates for your hackers
  • Swag
  • #Hashtag for social media

Of course, you can go much bigger with your branding! We had a limited timeframe to get everything ready, so we kept things simple.

7. Hacker Swag & Awards

The hacker swag is very important for a few reasons. 

1. EVERY hackathon has swag — it’s just part of the experience. (Think tech bro hoodie or backpack) 

2. It gives you a great excuse to send very cool branded things to your largest clients, prospects, and influencers, so make it good. This is a package they’ll be excited to receive (especially at the moment). If your swag is worthy enough, your hackers and judges will likely post photos on social media to say “thanks.”

For our hackers and judges, we gave them all COVID survival kits that included funny stickers (this is a MUST and is part of all traditional hackathons), sweatpants with the Socio logo, and a custom deck of playing cards with the #EventHack20 branding as a keepsake. When thinking about subsequent years, these will become collector’s items.

eventhack swag

For our winning teams, we gave out hand sanitizer, hand lotion, pedicure kits, custom socks, and would have sent toilet paper if we could have gotten our hands on any. (And yes, we did think about raiding the stash we had in the office but our office manager quickly shot that down).

Order these items ASAP to make sure your hackers and judges receive them in a timely manner.

8. Assigning Hackathon Teams

Let’s first discuss team size. Teams should be kept to four to five participants, with some thought put into alternates should a hacker back out. The number of teams will depend on how much time you allocate. EventHack presentations were slated for an hour so we gave each team 10 to 15 minutes to deliver their findings to the audience and judges.

eventhack team cool cats and kittens

If you go back to your hacker demographics, you’ll want to create teams that have at least one of your client evangelists, an influencer, and one big-logo prospect. This blend is part of the secret sauce. Your evangelists already love you and will likely incorporate your company into their hack. Their excitement about your product and ability to show the influencer and your big prospect allows for an incredibly authentic transfer of information.

9. Community Building

After assigning your teams, it’s important to give them a platform to communicate with each other and you. A community will also be an important part of your promotions and can serve as the launching point for continued engagement with your target audience, long after the event wraps.

We used Socio Communities (of course) and unveiled special team chat rooms to get started. From there, we invited our attendees to join the conversation, seed the Q&A forum, meet the hackers, and network with others in the industry.

As soon as our event registration opened, the community lit up! This added to the excitement on the day of the event, and our hackers were great about jumping into the community to answer questions. Our Client Success Team was also in there lightly answering questions and offering ideas they’d gleaned from our clients.

I had to fight to keep sales out of the community since we didn’t have an official communication protocol laid out. If anyone gets a whiff of a sales pitch, kiss your community goodbye. The community should be a safe space where peers come together for thought leadership, not for a sales pitch.

That said, it’s ok to seed a community with helpful resources, like your thought leadership content. Your community should also include a list of the judges and their bios, parameters of the hackathon, criteria the judges and hackers will use to vote, and a link to audience voting.

Inside the community, you can send updates about the hackers, and reminders about the live event with links to the presentation stream. Housing all of the assets in one place is convenient for the attendees — and as mentioned earlier — can be used to keep the conversation going.

10. Craft Your Hackathon Promotion

This is similar to any webinar or event you’ll promote. However, I’d avoid “selling” your brand, and remember to use the differentiated branding.

Something that most teams overlook is the post-event communications. It’s easy to host an amazing event, pat yourselves on the back, and move on to the next thing. The reality is the event itself is only the halfway point of the project. Your registered attendees have already identified they have a problem, which puts them lower in the funnel. That means they’re waiting for more answers. Seize this opportunity!

Immediately after the event, send out the recorded version along with a reminder to join the community. As a P.S., ask them to share the link with their peers. If they’re looking for solutions, there’s a high likelihood they’ve been having multiple conversations with others in search of answers as well.

Crafting a solid post-event plan in conjunction with your SDR/BDR teams will help push attendees through the pipeline and convert those that are ready to bust a move — which is exactly what we’re all looking for.

Have some middle-funnel assets ready in an email drip, reinforced with retargeting and SDR outreach sequences.

We are keeping the conversation going by hosting “Coffee and Answer” sessions with the teams each Friday for the next four weeks. This will be an open forum where people can network, ask questions, share ideas, and keep the conversation going. For us, it’s an additional touchpoint and excuse to keep the Socio name top of mind. We are pushing this in email as well as the community — it’s a great addition to the community agenda that we are continuing to build out.

11. Judges Coordination & Expectations

The judges are VIPs and should be treated as such. A comprehensive document outlining time commitments and expectations will be imperative.

Hold an alignment meeting with your judges before your hackers get together, and have a first draft of your judging principles ready to present. Anticipate tweaks from your judges to improve the hackathon criteria.

When it comes to judging criteria, remember, this is not a live event and judges will have minimal time to make notes during or after the presentations. Keep it meaningful but simple — no more than three major points.

Make sure to share the judging criteria with your attendees via your community, in your email reminders, and during the presentation. They’ll be voting for the people’s choice award, which will be a highly important part of the program. This will light up social media with the hackers, judges, and attendees. Ensure your event #Hashtag is on all slides and promotions so people know how to properly follow the conversation.

Create a spreadsheet of the judging criteria that feeds into a master list your team can access. This will be important because as your emcee tabulates the people’s choice award, you can pivot quickly if it looks like there will be a tie with the judges’ pick.

Have a team member sit in on the deliberation to get the slides ready, organize the judges’ thoughts for the presentation, and keep an eye on time to get the judges back over to the main event.

This is a dicey moment — definitely come up with a few contingency plans and make sure the team is in sync.

12. Hackathon Run of Show/Timing

Rather than reinvent the wheel, here’s a look at the run of show for our hacker meetings. The first is the Friday hacker intro where we announce the teams and give them the opportunity to meet and start formulating their hack. 

This was an important point of differentiation from a traditional hack. We wanted to send the hackers into the weekend thinking about the event so they could come back to the table collectively with creative ideas. We also wanted to give them enough time to collaborate before the day of the hack so we could better accommodate busy schedules.

Here is how we set up the first hacker meeting:

Timing on the day of the hackathon will be very important. It’s still a webinar and attention spans are short, so keeping teams on time throughout the day and during the presentation session will be critical to your success. Here’s a more detailed look at our day-of run of show:

13. Après Hack

So, you’ve just created a great moment with all the feels — now what? Keep the conversation going and invite the community to join the hacker teams for a series of Q&A coffee talks (or happy hours), where the hackers and attendees can connect and network.

You can promote the Q&A coffee talks with blogs that share findings from the week’s highlighted team along with their presentation. Email the blog and presentation along with the invitation to meet with that team. Remember, you have an influencer, a big logo, and a customer evangelist. This should be enough of a draw for attendance, and require little work for your team since customers usually sell better than any AE. Do have some AE’s along with your client success team on hand to answer specific questions.

Depending on the number of teams, you’ll have content and touchpoints for weeks! Should all go well, you can continue the coffee talk series and keep your community engagement going. 

And if you played your cards right, you now have a community that you can continue to nurture. Voila!

14. EventHack ROI

Want to know the best part? We spent $1,100 on swag, $500 on Zoom, and generated a total of 2500 registrants. Please note: We are a Series A company with a marketing team of four — including me. This was our first webinar and we produced it in 11 working days.

Because of this effort, our SQL’s have been at record highs for two, going on three weeks in a row, and sales are starting to convert… #winning.

I can’t tell you how exhilarating this experience was for the Socio marketing team, and the energy it created within the organization at a time when we all needed some optimism. If you see any of the Socio team running around in the wild, give them a socially distanced elbow bump — they did an amazing job.

I hope you’re able to find inspiration from this effort and I’d love to hear how you iterate on this idea. 

Stay safe, and let’s keep sharing ideas about how marketing can make a positive impact on our industries during this time of need.

Corey McCarthy
CMO, Socio