Conspiracy Santa: A Better Secret Santa for Teams

Bryan Helmig
Bryan Helmig

Christmas is that magical time of the year when you change up your playlist, spend more time with family and friends, eat meal after meal of delicious food and, without fail, purchase an Amazon Prime subscription December 22. It's also the time of the year when companies buy ridiculous "employee gifts"—just Google that for a hilarious yet depressing sampling.

Last December, we decided to do things a little different here at Zapier and conducted a gift-giving experiment of our own. Since it turned out to be a success and we're now preparing for our second year of it, we thought it would be fun to share what we did, why we did it, what worked and what didn't work. And, of course, we'll provide you with the instructions and tools to do it yourself if you'd like!

The Inspiration: Secret Santa

One well-known alternative to soulless-bulk-gift-giving in your office is Secret Santa. In this tradition, every member of the group is randomly and anonymously assigned to give a gift to another member of the group. Variations include small gifts leading up to December 25 and guessing the name of your "Secret Santa" before receiving the final item.

Since we're a remote team, however, Secret Santa turns out to be a tricky endeavor! We're often hundreds or thousands of miles away from each other, making it difficult to pick up on the important little personal clues that inform solid gift giving. So you're left to choose a gift for another teammate all on your own, emphasizing a solitary aspect for everyone involved—not at all in the spirit of the event. For those reasons, we didn't want to do your vanilla Secret Santa.

The Experiment: Conspiracy Santa

We specifically looked for a way to involve everyone when deciding each team member's gift, so we came up with "Conspiracy Santa" to do just that.

Conspiracy Santa is a twist on Secret Santa where instead of an individual, the entire group works together to "conspire" to get a gift for someone. That means for a team of 10, nine people are in a secret email thread that discusses gift ideas for the one person left out of the thread. After a couple dozen emails, a gift is decided, someone purchases it and before long a team gift-opening party is held.

How We Did It

To properly get Conspiracy Santa started, we hit an obstacle: one of us couldn't be solely responsible for sending out every initial email. In order for this to work, someone needed to always be left out of the email thread, including the organizer.

The first option was to split the responsibility between two of us, but that sounded like unneeded complexity. Instead, I opted for spinning up an email script—now found as a standalone Conspiracy Santa email generator app—that sent out the kickoff email to everyone on the team, each with a unique subject line.

Conspiracy Santa kick off email

The kickoff email read:

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to select the most awesome of gift(s) for Danny Schreiber. The details of the mission are simple:

  • Reply-all to share information or cool stories about Danny
  • Synthesize information and begin discussion of awesome gift ideas
  • Gift ideas should fall under any of the following: Relevant to their interests; thoughtful or meaningful; funny or cutesy; or just plain cool
  • Sum value of gift(s) shouldn't be more than ~$100
  • Once a consensus is met, a founder will arrange to get said gift(s)
  • Be careful not to leak the information to Danny, check which thread you are replying to and the To/Cc/Bcc addresses before sending!

Good luck!
- Conspiracy Santa

Then I personally kicked off each thread—except my own, of course—with a few basic facts.

Things I know about Danny:

  • Has a long-term significant other
  • Went to Creighton University
  • Might like basketball/sports? I recall hearing him talk up college basketball before
  • Likes to exercise

Then other team members chipped in facts. This was, unexpectedly, a great way to get to know team members. At around the five-email mark, gift ideas started to be tossed out based on the characteristics we shared.

So for Danny, for example, someone suggested a Fitbit. Then debate ensued. Would Danny like a Fitbit, Jawbone UP or some other exercise tracking device? Until finally, it was put to a vote and decided. At which point, I or another founder stepped in and said, "OK, I'll order it."

Danny Conspiracy Santa emails

We then waited until we came together for our Christmas party in January to exchange these gifts. Before people opened them, they made hilarious guesses and then were often surprised but always pleased. The especially cool part: everyone had a hand in the gift person was excited about receiving. We also then shared the email threads with the target person, which is when more laughs broke out!

What Worked

Bryan Helmig's gift
My gift turned out to be kinetic sand, a completely unexpected and delightful surprise.

The days following the gift opening, we kept talking about the fun we had around Conspiracy Santa and about how we were looking forward to it this year. We'll definitely be doing it again, and here's why.

  • It's collaborative: Everyone gets involved, with great ideas coming from all over the place.
  • It's insightful: You learn a lot about your teammates.
  • It's rewarding: You play a part in everyone's gift and you yourself receive a meaningful gift at the end.
  • People receive awesome gifts: Seriously, everyone enjoyed their gifts.

What Didn't Work

Sure, there were plenty of things that luckily went right the first time, but we took notes on what we need to improve this year, too.

  • People who received non-physical gifts, like concert tickets via email, couldn't take part in the package opening. So now this year, we're placing orders for those farther out so we can wrap them up in time for the present opening.
  • The email threads became dangerously complicated and sometimes you might post in the wrong thread. We're going to be sure to keep reminding one another to double-check the subject line of the thread before pressing "Send".
  • Do they already have that gift? We went digging for significant other details to ask this question, so this time everyone is going to supply a friend, family or significant other contact for extra help. Though a rule will be added, too: the team can only email a participant's provided contact one time during the conspiring.

How to Play Conspiracy Santa with Your Team

Conspiracy Santa

If you dig this idea, here's a quick guide to getting started with Conspiracy Santa at your company.

  1. Set a spending limit. We did $100 per person, which was provided by the company, though you can set any amount and have everyone chip in for this, too.
  2. Collect the names and emails of each participant along with the name and email of one friend, family member or significant other per participant (just in case they need to be referenced to confirm a gift idea).
  3. Use email threads to coordinate, dedicating one thread per person that's CC'd to everyone but the target person. To make this easy, we've created ConspiracySanta.com to kick off the email threads for you.
  4. Begin by throwing out facts about the target person to get the gift ideas percolating. At some point, start suggesting gifts for the target person.
  5. Narrow down gift ideas to the most-suggested and call a vote to select a gift for the target person. Tally up the votes and order the gifts.
  6. Gather as a team to handout all the gifts and then finally, share the threads with the target person. It's fun to read! :-)

Start Setting Up Conspiracy Santa!

Remember, this is a new tradition, so variables are welcome!

Let us know in the comments if you give Conspiracy Santa a try, what tweaks you make or what other unique gift exchange traditions you have in your company.

Credits: Santa image courtesy WallpaperDetails.com.

Photo of Lawrence Watkins

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