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A yellow staircase missing a section in the middle, presenting a challenge to anyone who would dare try to get to the other side. This image is being used as the thumbnail for a blog post explaining the top social media challenges of the past several years.

How Social Media Challenges Become Wildly Successful

Wesley Mathew

May 18, 2021

The #DontRushChallenge made global internet waves in the first quarter of 2020, garnering more than 50,000 hashtag mentions during this time period as social media users shared short video clips of themselves seamlessly changing looks before passing on a makeup brush to someone else to changes their look too.

It was one of the first social media challenges of the year that not only went viral but encouraged activity as strict lockdown restrictions were put into place in countries across the globe.

However, like the usual pattern of most online challenges, it spread on social media in a classic wave pattern before fading away, as expected. But what’s really going on when a challenge on TikTok, Twitter, or Instagram blows up? Why do we respond so enthusiastically to some concepts, but not to others? And why do so many challenges seem to skirt the bounds of rational behaviour?

We gathered the collective insights of marketers, academics, and journalists to identify seven principles that define the success of social media challenges so you can integrate them into your social media management strategy.

Table of Contents

What Is a Social Media Challenge? 

Challenges on social media have gained much momentum over the past several year as a means of getting rid of indoor boredom that resulted from the coronavirus pandemic. With physical and social distancing measures in place, many people sought online methods of connecting with others, and challenging each other on social media became a way to do just that. 

Take the Facebook challenge that swept the internet in January 2019, for example. The #tenyearchallenge, which clocked up 2.5 million hashtag mentions over the month, saw celebrities and ordinary users posting current and past pictures of themselves online.

Journalists initially explored how the challenge reached back to the dawn of social media, smartphones, and the selfie. Then the media coverage evolved to include a controversial suggestion that the '10 Year Challenge' was actually engineered by Facebook in an effort to sharpen up its facial recognition technology (which Facebook denied).

From creating content that was made to entertain, to uplifting others in times of need, a number of social media feeds were inundated with online challenges that made the global lockdown a little more bearable. Social media challenges have since become a staple marketing method for generating content, engaging users, and growing one's follower count.  

Examples of Social Media Challenges

Some of the most popular social media challenges that trended during lockdown across social media include:

  1. #PillowChallenge 
  2. #FlipTheSwitch 
  3. 'Patience Challenge'
  4. #DalgonaCoffeeChallenge
  5. #MeAt20
  6. #WipeItDownChallenge
  7. #VogueChallenge
  8. 'Who is more...' Couples Challenge
  9. #EmojiChallenge
  10. 'It's Tricky' (This or That)

Should Brands Participate in Social Media Challenges?

Trending challenges on social media are one of the best ways for brands to engage with their audience and further build their online community. 

Remember that online engagement is about much more than just likes, comments, and retweets. It also about building relationships with your audience that are long-lasting and have the potential to create advocates for your brand. It's for this reason that Instagram challenges, like the 'December Instagram Challenge' or 'Instagram Photo Challenge', are so successful. With the consistent stream of content shared on the platform over 30 days, the challenge gives you 30 days to encourage engagement from your followers. This consistency also boosts your audience reach, opening the doors for new followers and potential customers to find you. 

For brands that especially appeal to Generation Z, participating in online challenges will be well worth the effort. This is a generation that grew up with the internet and knows how to create trends that go viral on social media. As a brand, use this to your advantage by "trend jacking" to gain new followers and potential customers. 

7 Principles of Successful Social Media Challenges

1. Successful challenges naturally accommodate incremental change

The viral 'Flip the Switch' dance challenge began in early 2020 where people filmed themselves switching outfits to "Nonstop", a song by Canadian musician, Drake. The challenge, which started on TikTok, spread quickly to other social media platforms, like Instagram and Twitter, and became a global video trend. 

Each participant was able to add a personal, innovative touch by exchanging the outfit that the other person was wearing. The concept was consistent, yet open to incremental personalisation, which is one of the most important structural features required for a social media challenge to trend. It's no wonder that this challenge has, to date, acquired 6.9 billion views on TikTok. 

2. Celebrity involvement drives uptake

The ALS Ice Bucket challenge saw a stunning 19 million hashtag mentions from the beginning of July to the end of August 2014. The ALS part of the name refers to an organisation that supports research into and support services for people affected by Motor Neuron Disease. Donations resulting from the challenge are reported to have reached as much as $115 million.

In 2019, British singer and songwriter, Ed Sheeran, launched his own global hashtag challenge on TikTok called '#BeautifulPeople' which references his hit song that features Khalid. The song inspired the challenge, which asked TikTok users to share a moment with the most beautiful people in their lives as a way of spreading love and positivity. To date, the challenge has more than 1 billion views on TikTok, highlighting how online challenges involving celebrities often gain momentum towards virality and add rocket fuel to the challenge fire. 

screenshot of ed sheeran's tiktok for #beautifulpeople challenge on social media

Sometimes a charitable structure can push celebrities to become involved, and sometimes they’ll participate off their own bat. Regardless, when the influencers accept a nomination or are involved in the concept, conditions are good for viral spread and the challenge to become widely popular.

3. No one wants to join a challenge late

Social science researchers at the University of Kent explored the social media challenge phenomenon in a 2017 paper, Prestige, Performance and Social Pressure in Viral Challenge Memes, which included a survey of the opinions of social media challenge participators. One of the paper’s more intriguing propositions is that once a viral challenge meem (VCM) has hit full steam its popularity means nominees increasingly feel they might actually lose social credibility by participating.

Take the infamous Instagram challenge, the 'Kiki Challenge' for example. It saw 6.2 million hashtag mentions from 1 June – 31 August 2018, at an average of roughly 2 million mentions per month. Also known as the In My Feelings Challenge, Kiki involved jumping from a moving vehicle and dancing in the road to the tune of Drake’s “In My Feelings”. It all started when American comedian Shiggy posted an Instagram video (which didn’t actually involve a car – this only became a feature of the challenge after his friend, Odell Beckham Jr, danced in front of a vehicle). With celebrity participation and the ability to add incremental changes pretty much baked into the format, this Instagram challenge was destined to outperform 2013’s The Harlem Shake (5.5 million mentions in February / March 2013). By October 2018, however, 'Kiki' mentions were still all the way down to 500,000 and falling.

The rule is simple: as a challenge hits peak popularity we start to see participation in it as merely following the crowd – the opposite of cool. And so the wave breaks, the challenge is no longer as popular and it loses power

4. Social groups are excited by risky behaviour

Many challenges on social media involve stunts that can cause physical harm. One such example is the "Cinnamon Challenge", a viral YouTube challenge where users were required to film themselves eating a spoonful of ground cinnamon in less than 60 seconds. While creating a video like this may sound like fun, the risk this challenge presented was far from favourable. Given that cinnamon is made from tree bark and contains cellulose, a substance that is difficult to break down, the challenge can get dangerous for participants. 

Many social media challenges involve stunts that can cause physical harm. Wired Magazine examined why physical risk can be so compelling in a 2018 article that cites Damon Centola, associate professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of How Behaviour Spreads.

“Adopting dangerous behaviours is usually triggered by emotional excitement, which is amplified in crowds,” he says. On social media, mass comments, likes, and shares easily trigger this state of group excitement, encouraging participation in order to join the trend or become viral. Thus, if a challenge has just enough risk to create emotional excitement and participation, but not enough danger to make it implausible, it is likely to tap into our group instinct to be a little thrilled by danger.

It’s no accident, then (pun intended), that many of the biggest challenges on social media, as of late, test the bounds of human safety. In fact, the risk is part of what makes a challenge appealing and popular to inherently excitable online groups.

5. Self-identity matters more than fame

Somewhat counter-intuitively, most online challenge participants don’t actually want to break the Internet with incredible Harlem Shake or Kiki dance moves. Instead, our priority is more on connecting with peers by demonstrating a touch of personal style.

Prestige, Performance and Social Pressure in Viral Challenge Memes raises the idea that VCM participants feel some pressure to show their ‘skills’ by posting something ‘good enough’. This is an important notion that suggests most participants don’t want to stand out too much. Rather, they enjoy following the rules to communicate aspects of their personal identity within the social context of their peer group.

The popular Instagram challenge, Mannequin Challenge, which received 20 million mentions in the last two months of 2016, illustrates this dynamic. Started by students at Ed White High School in Jacksonville, USA, the challenge involved adopting sudden mannequin poses – essentially repeating the formula of the ‘Planking’ phenomenon of 2013. Sports teams and professional athletes loved the concept, and delivered a litany of Mannequin poses that reinforced fun and innovative aspects of their identity within the nuanced and localised social rituals of sport, friends, and fans.

6. The media always plays a role – and sometimes takes over

The Tide Pod phenomenon took off in early 2018, challenging people to literally consume colourful laundry detergent pods. The concept is said to have arisen from an ironic article originally posted several years earlier in the satirical publication, The Onion. Soon after the Tide Pod Challenge appeared online, articles highlighting the poisonous nature of the detergent within the pods and warning of severe injury also appeared, including calls from relevant associations and stakeholders for participants – chiefly children, tweens, and teenagers – not to respond to nominations.

However, as this article on Mashable explains, while cases of pod-related poisoning rose dramatically in the USA, the numbers were still very low. Statistics from the American Association of Poison Control Centres show that 39 such cases were reported in the first 15 days of 2015. Yes, there were only 53 cases in the entire preceding year, but ultimately 39 cases from 40 million teenage Americans remains a small number.

Nonetheless, the Tide Pod hashtag gained 2 million mentions in the first two weeks of 2018. In this case, though, the mentions relate mostly to discussions around the idea of the challenge, rather than executions of the challenge itself. Also, the warning nature of extensive media coverage saw most sites taking down videos of Tide Pod consumption. When you search for Tide Pod Challenge videos today, the returns are almost always of fakes – videos purporting to be Tide Pod Challenges that actually end up being a warning not to do participate.

person holding detergent pods for the tide pod social media challenge

7. We love riding the challenging wave because it's social

Social media challenge participants generally have a strong feel for what the ‘range’ for their effort should be, including an instinctive sense of the reputation risks that come with pushing the boat out too far. This ingrained social instinct allows us to enjoy through the process even as we obey ingrained social rules. The authors of Prestige, Performance and Social Pressure in Viral Challenge Memes offer a neat summary:

“For most of the participants, negotiating these boundaries and tensions produced an enjoyable, creative, and fleetingly shared moment. The latter point suggests another important feature of participation, namely an overarching desire to be part of the social.”

How to Join a Social Media Challenge

There are a number of organic online challenges that brands can participate in, especially on platforms like TikTok and Instagram. By using a social media monitoring tool, you can identify what is currently trending among your audience and then focus on creating a strategy where you organically participate as well. 

Once you have identified a challenge you want to join, make sure that you know which platform and video functionality you will use. Whether you want to film in-app or use a DSLR camera to edit later, keep the platform's 9:16 aspect ratio in mind when creating the video content for the challenge. 

person holding black android smartphone

Where music is involved, ensure that you utilise the same song found in other challenge videos. Click on the challenge hashtag to find what song is being used for the specific challenge so that you can match it.

Some online challenges may require a certain filter or editing technique to use. TikTok and Instagram, however, make it easy for you to add these features to your videos as an enhancement to the video overall. 

From here, once you have the complete video ready to post, don't forget to use the challenge hashtag. You want your video to be discoverable so include the hashtag in the caption of your video. Post it, promote it, and see just how viral your video can go.

In Conclusion 

Social media challenges have been a great way for people to connect and inspire creativity despite the circumstances of remaining indoors. Regardless of all our well-founded anxiety about the changes our new digital lifestyles have wrought, most of us still relish the opportunity to share the fun with friends and family. And that’s probably a good thing. 

It’s this insight that, ultimately, defines why challenges are destined to remain a strong feature of social media. Despite all our well-founded anxiety about the changes our new digital lifestyles have wrought, most of us still relish the opportunity to share the fun with friends and family. And that’s probably a good thing.

To learn how you can stay on top of trending memes, popular online conversations, and brand opportunities, fill out the form below to chat with the Meltwater team.