There is a common misconception that huge prize pools equate to hugely successful hackathon results; a successful hackathon is not solely dependent on prizes as there are other factors that affect results.
On one hand, very low cash prizes can negatively impact participation. On the other hand, you don’t need to offer a million dollars to see good results. A general range to shoot for online hackathons is $15,000 - $100,000 USD + in-kind/non-cash prizes to boost the pool.
We find that splitting up the pool into many chances to win is the best method. Developers want to have a reasonable chance of winning before spending the time to build a project.
Before you offer too many separate prizes, consider this important factor: there is no guarantee that you will receive high-quality submissions.
In general, sponsors have to distribute prizes if there are eligible submissions for the prize. This means if there are eligible submissions that you don’t love, we will always recommend awarding the prizes anyway. It’s worse for your reputation with the developer community to deny an eligible prize because of quality than it is for your budget to pay it.
The simplest way to structure a prize setup is just by using a 1st Place, 2nd Place, 3rd Place layout. This can be good if there are limited cash funds and it helps avoid the problem of an uneven distribution of submissions in multiple categories - remember, we want to incentivize people to work for free for a small chance at prizes. We like to add Honorable Mentions as a way to spread the prizes out without splitting the budget too much. Here’s a common example for a $20,000 prize budget that still provides 8 chances to win cash:
- First Place: $7,500 USD
- Second Place: $5,000 USD
- Third Place: $2,500 USD
- Honorable Mentions x 5: $1,000 USD each
Depending on how you want to encourage people, you may also want to consider adding category tracks or bonus prizes, such as best healthcare app, best app that does x, y, z, etc. HOWEVER, there is a danger to having too many prizes or too many specific prize categories. Categories are often uneven in popularity.
Participation prizes are a really great way to engage participants. There are a lot of factors to consider: who will distribute the prizes? How many prizes? Is there a maximum? Do they require shipping costs? Digital swag like badges or coupon codes for t-shirts are easier to distribute. Our advice: offer these prizes only to eligible submitters so that you encourage submissions over registration.
Non-cash or In-kind Prizes
These non-monetary prizes can really enhance your prize pool without hurting your budget. Get creative with what you have available. Some of our favorites include:
- 30-minute virtual meetings with your company’s developers or product managers to discuss the winning project
- Social promotion of the winning project (blog, social media, etc.)
- Tickets to virtual or in-person developer events
- Access to premium developer tool features
Remember, prizes are important, but they are not the only aspect of a successful hackathon. Engaging with participants, offering quality tech support, marketing heavily, and avoiding overly complicated requirements all play equal roles.