Prizes have been a hackathon staple for many years now, but this was not always the case.Originally, hackathons offered a way to build community and garner respect. No prizes necessary. As hackathons have entered the mainstream (sorry hipster hacker), prizes are now expected. At increasing levels of visibility, magnitude, and monetary value.

So it is important, as either an organizer or a sponsor, to seriously consider why you are giving a prize, what sort of behaviors that prize rewards, and how you can go about motivating those behaviors. No one wants to be seen as a stingy starfish, but prizes say a lot about who you are as a community, why you are there in the first place, and influence the vibe of your event big time.

What motivates you to stay up all night hacking?

Chances are there aren’t any scale models of some company’s mascot in your mad scientist lair…so instead let’s dig a bit deeper and look at the types of motivations that make or break communities before we go around offering prizes all willy-nilly.

When you do something because you love it, that is an intrinsic motivator. For example, when you decide to learn INTERCAL because you love esoteric programming languages, you are intrinsically motivated. It is unlikely that anyone else cares whether or not you can read, write, or are even aware of the existence of INTERCAL.

Extrinsic motivations are motivations that are driven by some external force or goal. To use the example above, when you compete in a INTERCAL app competition (do those exist?), you are extrinsically motivated. You are definitely not writing INTERCAL for personal enjoyment but instead to win something and beat the other competitors.

I’m Not Lazy, I’m Just Unmotivated!

When we consider intrinsic versus extrinsic motivations in the context of a hackathon, things become way more interesting. If someone is intrinsically motivated to build something, they feel ownership over it and are likely to continue pursuing it even if all extrinsic motivations (such as prizes) disappear. If someone is motivated purely by the competition or prizes involved with an activity (extrinsic motivation), they may be very effective and focused in the short-term but it is unlikely that they will continue work on their project or pursue a skill in the long-term because the motivating factor for them is suddenly gone. It’s not like any of us have ever done that..right?

As a hackathon organizer, it is your job to design for the right kind of behavior.

Large prizes, such as Salesforce’s $1,000,000 hackathon prize, may seem like great motivators but they are actually very ineffective at building communities and creating long-term engagement. In fact, after a point they even fail to inflate the number of participants in your event. Why are big prizes like this so ineffective? They say that our community is more about money than curiosity. Cheddar > respect. That gives us the creeps.

If a hackathon prize is too large, people who hack because of passion will likely be turned off. Focusing too much on prizes can make those who are there out of passion or to learn something new feel like their experience is not valued by their peers or the event organizers. Placing a higher value on extrinsic motivating factors can quite literally scare people away.

Who could possibly be scared away by hyper-competitive environments or cash prizes? Newbies, future community leaders who get the wrong vibe, and people who are not completely confident in their programming skills, to name a few.

In actuality, it is far more dangerous to lean too heavily on extrinsic motivations such as prizes than it is to lean too heavily on intrinsic motivations such as curiosity.

To be fair, though, many passionate hackers like prizes. They like to feel recognized and rewarded for investing their time in building something. If a prize is too small or nonexistent, people who are more extrinsically motivated or need that extra push to commit (git, haha) to something may not show up for your event. Intrinsic motivations aren’t really sexy, so it is up to you to use your immense prize-buying power with great responsibility to build your community rather than scare people away from it.

But What About Sponsor Prizes?!

Have you ever seen a company desperately offer a completely absurd prize at a hackathon?#facepalm

Often sponsors like to give out prizes for the best use of their API or product, but you may want to reconsider letting them.

Instead, urge your sponsors to be more directly engaged with your hackers – that will helpthem increase usage and help hackers get sharped. Engaging with hackers directly provides much higher quality hacks to the sponsors because people only integrate their service if it adds value to their hack rather than simply to be eligible for a prize. It also helps build a more personal, sustainable, and memorable relationship between hackers and your mentors/sponsors.

There are certainly companies that are aware of and comfortable with quantity of hacks over quality. If that is something that you as an organizer are comfortable with, it is your decision to pursue those types of sponsors.

Choose your sponsors carefully. This event is yours to design. And really, in our experience,prizes make no difference in product adoption if you provide high quality resources and mentors for your hackers.

The Perfect Prize

The best prizes do not involve ‘dolla, dolla bills yall’. Cash prizes tend to attract people who are primarily motivated by the competition and potential reward. But awesome hacker-focused prizes are a great opportunity to brand your community and make it more cohesive. What do your prizes say about your community?

An Oculus Rift, despite costing $350, has a much higher perceived value than the actual monetary value for most hackers because it provides additional enjoyment long after the event is over. It is also something that they would not go out of their way to buy with the same amount of cash on hand. These types of prizes create a positive association between their day-to-day usage and the event itself, which is a huge win for event organizers trying to differentiate their hackathons from many of the others out there. There is an additional opportunity here to create some great content showing off what people build with the prizes they won at your hackathon, which is a win-win for everybody.

Cash, on the other hand, is likely to get spent on day-to-day necessities and forgotten as quickly as it is received because it is not particularly novel or useful. Interesting and useful prizes provide an educational experience for hackers, which is a primary cause for people attending hackathons in the first place.

So before you go throwing around that wad of excess cash, talk with your fellow organizers and think long and hard about what types of behavior your prizes actually encourage and how you truly want to build your community long-term. This kind of debate will produce some useful design principles for your team, and a better experience for your hackers.

Ideas For Great Prizes

Gear – Cool items to use with future hacks

Experiences – Have a memorable, one-time adventure with your friends

  • Movie Tickets
  • Trip to Medieval Times or an amusement park
  • A trip somewhere (may cost $1000/person, but still less overall than many cash prizes)
  • Lunch with your hero
  • Laser tag tournament
  • Conference tickets
  • Company trip – visit and hang out with your favorite companies for a day

Novelty – Things you might love, but might not buy for yourself

Sign up below for updates and more hackathon pro-tips: