The events range in size and prestige, from small internal hackathons to competitions hosted by tech giants where there are big cash prizes on offer.

While they’re normally associated with techies and coders, the Econsultancy and IBM iX hackathon I attended was aimed at inspiring marketers to consider new customer experiences and ways of working.

It began with a discussion around the importance of Design Thinking, before the marketers broke into groups and were challenged to conceptualize product ideas that would ease existing customer pain points.

For those unfamiliar with design thinking, this series of posts is a perfect way to get to grips with the concept:

But aside from the lesson in design thinking, the event was a useful insight into how hackathons work and how they can be a worthwhile exercise for marketers.

Here are some of my takeaways on why hackathons aren’t just for coders. We’re also planning to run some more hackathons in partnership with IBM iX in 2017, so Econsultancy subscribers should look out for more information on how to apply.

Drags people out of their comfort zone

The most obvious benefit of a hackathon is that it gives people a day away from their regular tasks.

All jobs have a certain routine or rhythm to them, and it’s important to mix things up to provide some variety and inspiration.

Hackathons give people the opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and take on a new (and hopefully fun) challenge, if only for an afternoon.

Stepping away from the computer to a new location – ideally off-site, not just a meeting room – can be invigorating and provides relief from the day-to-day grind.

Helps you to see the bigger picture

In the rush to complete tasks and hit deadlines it’s understandable that people become focused on the priorities and goals specific to their business unit.

By challenging employees to consider customer pain points outside of their normal area of focus it forces them to take a broader view of the customer experience.

Ideally this will give them a fresh perspective on their own role and how it fits within the customer journey.

It might also encourage them to consider new solutions and ways of working when dealing with the familiar problems in their day job.

Puts the focus back on the customer

Design thinking is all about creating experiences that cater to the needs of the customer.

Econsultancy’s research into marketing budgets for 2016 found that nearly three-quarters (73%) of company respondents are ‘working towards delivering cohesive customer experiences, rather than standalone campaigns or interactions’.

But while customer experience has been an important trend within marketing for more than a year, many companies are still driven by business priorities rather than customer needs. 

At the IBM Hackathon attendees were asked to discuss pain points associated with a specific customer persona and then design a new product experience which solved that problem.

Most employees probably don’t often get the opportunity to dedicate an afternoon to thinking about how to improve the customer experience, so the exercise is extremely useful for jolting employees into thinking about the broader customer journey and how they can impact it. 

Work alongside new people

For the IBM hackathon we invited a select few of our subscribers, which gave attendees the opportunity to collaborate with new people from different businesses.

This provides a useful networking opportunity, but more importantly we’ve found that people are more willing to open up when they aren’t around their normal colleagues.

If you’re organising your own internal hackathon then it still gives people the chance to collaborate with new people, which will hopefully foster new relationships and help to break down those pesky silos.

New ideas

New ideas are the most obvious benefit, as it’s really the whole reason hackathons were invented. However, it’s not something we should overlook.

While our Design Thinking Hackathon was focused on creating new products and processes, you could just as easily ask attendees to design a new marketing campaign.

That’s exactly what Hubspot did back in 2012, hosting an event that gave its marketing team an evening to create an entire campaign from scratch in one evening.

I’m a bit concerned by Hubspot’s measure of success for the hackathon – ‘we cranked out over a couple hundred hours of work in one night’ – but it’s still a great way of generating loads of new marketing ideas, alongside the other benefits mentioned in this post.