Community hackathon how-to: 5 keys to success, 5 examples

googleglassA growing number of companies — from Google to Coca-Cola — are hosting hackathons that invite outsiders to build something related to their businesses. They can supply an infusion of fresh thinking or new directions for the sponsoring organization; they can be a way to attract talent, or get people energized about participating in a “big vision”; or they can be a way to get people creating things your customers might want, or that might plug into a product or service that you are planning to offer.

We divide hackathons into two categories: company hackathons, which bring together employees and perhaps business partners, and community hackathons, which are geared primarily to participants outside of the organization. (Here’s a guide to running company hackathons, from The Game Show Network.) In talking to hackathon organizers, they emphasize five keys to success:

  1. Strong pre-event promotion, using company resources and outside partners, to ensure that participation meets expectations.
  2. Ensuring that the company is clear about what it wants from the hackathon, and that it communicates clearly about what participants will get out of it (whether or not they win prizes.)
  3. Organizing the hackathon space and agenda so that participants can form teams quickly and work efficiently.
  4. Being crystal clear about who owns the ideas developed. Typically, this is the participants, but in some cases, prize-winners must agree to grant future development rights to their idea to the sponsoring company.
  5. Making sure employees and in-house experts on relevant product lines or technology sets are present at the event, both to learn from what happens, and to provide their expertise.

Here are five examples of community hackathons held recently, at Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and non-profits, along with a look at their goals and how they were run.

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