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Participation temptation: the irresistible appeal of social media challenges

5 min read
woman on phone

Photo by Leon on Unsplash

“Combine your face with Brad Pitt’s to see what your child would look like!” Um… sign me up! Posts like these always get me. Everyone else’s child with Brad Pitt is so cute. What will mine look like? This has all the core elements of a Participation Temptation tactic on social media. Doe-Anderson coined the term “participation temptation” to capture the essence of certain social media posts that offer personalization, are easily shareable and encourage bandwagon appeal. Here, we will dive into why each of these elements is so effective on social media and show how certain brands have utilized this tactic to their advantage.

Social media participation

The genius of participation temptation is that it accomplishes two goals: reach by way of engagement, the dream team of key performance indicators for social media. When we tempt users with a unique resolution tailored to their unique traits, they are encouraged to engage and share their results to prove they are indeed unique individuals. By sharing, users also prove they are in the know on trending topics that interest their friends. When they share their results, other friends see the post and are just as tempted to learn their results. This starts the cycle of reach by way of engagement and is the ultimate success of the participation temptation method.

Social media engagement tactics

The first element that truly lures users into participating in these online quizzes, photo merges or whatever clever idea your brand has come up with is the personalization element. Users want to feel as if they are unique. While one in 12 people share your zodiac sign, you still feel unique when reading what Schitt’s Creek character is your sign. (Clearly, I’m an Alexis as a Leo.)

During its Elf Yourself campaign, OfficeMax used this personalization element seamlessly. Do you remember the campaign? Elves with your face broke it down to some Christmas music. In fact, one in 10 Americans participated in Elf Yourself – people simply couldn’t resist personalizing their elves with Grandma’s face (Virgilio, Anthony. “Case study: OfficeMax Creates Powerful Tradition, Elf Yourself.” 5 May 2013). And now, 47% of users think of OfficeMax (EVBArchive. YouTube, YouTube, 4 Sept. 2008, when they think of Elf Yourself. When OfficeMax created this personal experience, it made engagement incredibly tempting for online users, and a link to the website at the end of the video made the campaign easily shareable.

This brings me to my next point: the ease of sharing. When there’s a simple button at the end of your personalized online element, users are encouraged to share their results with their networks. Spotify has mastered this concept with its end-of-the-year Wrapped playlists. Your feeds, for the entirety of December, are full of people sharing the artists, genres and albums they listened to during the year. I found it annoying and still went onto the site to see what my personal results were…and I shared it to Instagram Stories. The shiny button at the end made it so easy to show my friends that “Mamma Mia 1” and “Mamma Mia 2” were the only things I listened to this year. How could I not share how quirky I am? My unique results made me an interesting individual according to my social media pages. Clearly, other people thought they were interesting, too. Over 60 million website visits sought personal Spotify Wrapped results at the end of 2020 (“A Decade Wrapped.” Spotify, Jan. 2021, It was easy to do, and, quite frankly, you had FOMO if you didn’t share it. It’s the genius of the participation temptation. And man, does it work. Or should I say, that’s The Name of the Game – Abba?

FOMO is the fear of missing out. The final element that makes participation temptation so easy to get wrapped up in on social media. Let’s throw it back to old-school social media once more: The Ice Bucket Challenge. Oh yes, the year is 2014, and jeans are skinny as ever. Keep scrolling and all you see on your feeds is people dumping ice water on their heads. Technically, it was an activity to prove you cared about ALS, but that hardly was the reason people joined the internet challenge. It was the activity that created bandwagon appeal and drove over 2.4 million video entries online from social media pressure and ease of entry (Stampler, Laura. “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: 2.4 Million Videos on Facebook.” Time, Time, 15 Aug. 2014, This social media participation ultimately answers the question of why internet challenges are so popular: We post on social media to show others we are in the know and live an interesting life.

elf yourself

Social media envy

This perceived life, as projected on social media, creates social media envy and is why users continue to post pictures of themselves relaxing on their porches or participating in the latest trend. Seeing everyone else showcasing their relaxing moments is a mental trigger for us to do the same. And it’s these social media interactions that create participation temptation so users can let others know they too are in the know or they too are having a good time.

Brands should take advantage of these naturally occurring social media behaviors (the need to show off originality and showcase they are up to date on trends) by creating personalized experiences that make users feel special. If the experiences are easy to participate in and easy to share with their friends, then they will catch on with others, too. Creating personalized experiences can take advantage of participation temptation, which leads to brand awareness and ultimately leads to product consideration.

Interested in learning more or talking about how these trends may apply to your brand? Get in touch!

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