Running a marketing hackathon

Hackathons were invented by the software development community and are actively used by teams the world over.  Imagine a mad race where everyone, at the same time, tries to invent something to solve a problem (although they can take many forms).  At the end (generally a day), teams present what they’ve made and there is usually a winner.  Smart companies set time aside for this frequently, usually about once a quarter.  It’s invigorating for the teams – inventing rather than order taking.  And it is hyper-valuable for the companies or organizations that run them – think crowd sourcing solutions.

A few months ago I was faced with a difficult marketing question.  What could I do to move the revenue needle in a meaningful way?  Rather than owning the question in a silo, I decided to share the question with every customer facing organization in the company – marketing, sales, customer support, product management and community engagement.  By sharing the question, I could also share the solution.  To do this, we decided to run a marketing hackathon.

Who did we invite

In addition to myself and the 2 scrum masters/facilitators, we invited 29 subject matter experts from around the company.

(4) executives

(2) graphic designers

(5) marketers

(2) customer support SMEs

(1) community engagement SME

(2) data scientists

(1) salesforce administrator

(1) sales operations person

(6) international salespeople

(5) domestic salespeople

Did everyone show up?  No, but 90% did.  They were happy to take a day out of their schedule to solve a pressing business problem in a creative way.

Exercise Design

With the ample help of two fabulous scrum masters, we designed a day built on design thinking.  Design thinking allows you to flex that divergent thought muscle you never get to use.  If you are unfamiliar with the idea of convergent versus divergent thought, here is my favorite video that covers the topic.

The day began with a brief introduction of the problem and some context so everyone in the room spoke the same language.  For our marketing hackathon, this meant covering the buyer committee, the buyer journey and an introduction to how we segment audiences.  By setting this shared context at the beginning, multiple organizations can participate in the activity with a common language as well as ask common questions.  These questions often highlighted a different viewpoint of the problem or the market as a whole – which is kind of the point of a hackathon.  I’ll note, some of the feedback I got early in the day was from people outside the sales and marketing organization.  It was the first time anyone had reviewed these concepts with them directly and much of the information was net new.  They immensely enjoyed the context setting and said it gave them a new perspective on our business.

After we discussed the problem as a large group, we broke into smaller ones and discussed is further.  Could you restate the problem?  Did you need more information to answer it?  It was in this section that my knowledge was put to the test.  I was asked questions that challenged everything from data to long-held assumptions.  Pro-tip: If you are the one running the hackathon, expect to have your worldview altered and have your data systems up and ready to work.

Then individually on index cards, people wrote their solutions to the problem in as much detail as they could fit without including their name.  They then chose their favorite and the fun began.

Each person took their index card and handed it to someone else.  This index card played musical chairs until it was told to stop.  Then, whichever person ended up with it, read the description and gave the solution a score from 1-5, 5 being the most impactful.  This process was repeated 5 times.  At the end of the activity, each idea had 5 completely different scores from 5 different people.  The scores were added together and the five ideas with the highest score were selected to be worked on.

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Each owner stood up and described their solution in more detail, along with the background that lead to the idea.  Each participant selected an idea on which they wanted to work and five groups were organically created.

Then, once in groups, each team discussed the solution in even more detail, knowing that they had 3.5 hours to design and actually present their solution to the entire room.  This created the second opportunity to diverge.  The original inventor of the idea may have had a vision, but now multiple people interpreted and leant their own viewpoint.  Ideas went from vague & conceptual to concrete & actionable in just a few hours.

data_cleanupMany solutions morphed as they began the design process.  One team moved from “we have a serious market problem” to “we have no data to validate if we have a market problem” to “let’s augment our systems to begin acquiring necessary data to make informed decisions.”  At the end of the day, they had actually designed what the new data flow would be, identified dependencies around the company and built a business case.

One team designed an interactive infographic that helps new partners find the materials they need to get started more easily.

One team invented a new way of segmenting our customers to give them more targeted messaging and support.  PS: that new segmentation system is already being used company-wide.



Honestly, all the ideas were amazing and I didn’t come up with any of them. Crowdsourcing genius.  I highly recommend it.


Feedback from the event was amazing!  People were really excited to share their ideas and work on something completely different.  They also mentioned that they liked that they had to have something to present by the end of the day, which forced them to create, rather than sit around talking about creating.

Have you run a successful marketing or sales hackathon?  Tell me about it in the comments below.

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