Some say the Secret Santa gift exchange comes from “Julklapp,” an 18th-century Scandinavian tradition where people anonymously threw gifts into others’ houses. For better or worse, we don’t catapult gifts into living rooms anymore. Instead, we use an app that randomly matches friends/co-workers/classmates/family members/etc. for us so we don’t have to spend a year’s paycheck on buying gifts for every single person in our lives. We call those Secret Santa apps (or Secret Snowflake apps, depending on where you grew up.)
The Secret Santa app options are plentiful, somewhat surprising for such an uncomplicated concept. Or perhaps unsurprising, because people often think up the same, simple solutions all the time. All you need is one chaotic, disastrous IRL Secret Santa exchange to think, “Hey, there should be an app for this!” Elfster CEO Peter Imburg isn’t sure if he was the first, but he’s certainly been one of the most successful.
Elfster is a dominant Secret Santa website and app, with 17 million users and frequent appearances on “best of” lists. Its story began in 2000, when Imburg’s wife and sister expressed frustrations with organizing a cross-country family Secret Santa. Imburg had a “this should be tech” lightbulb, and four years later, Elfster was open to the public.
“There was a shareware downloadable thing that was pretty hokey,” Imburg said, describing the pre-Elfster Secret Santa tech that existed. “That’s not what I was thinking. It had to feel a bit like the social network, where your feed is about what you're wishing for and you connect in groups with your friends.”
The Elfster of 2004 looked a bit different than it does today. A friend’s elf illustration is mostly gone from the website (“We got a lot of, ‘Love your site. What’s up with the creepy elf?” Imburg said). It retired a slogan that’s very, well, 2004 and perhaps wasn’t beloved by its mostly female user base. The most important thing Elfster has learned is to keep the app simple, which is harder than it sounds. The app used to have a “do not wish list” and non-anonymous gift exchange. Both ended up being more harmful than helpful. “There’s always ideas of what you can add,” Imburg said. “Addition through subtraction is what we say. What can we take away and make it better?”
Simplicity also drives DrawNames, another popular Secret Santa website. Founded 21 years ago by Arjan Kuiper in the Netherlands, it began as a free website pairing people in gift exchanges during Christmastime. It went offline each January. About 10 years ago, Kuiper bought drawnames.com and expanded to the U.S. and U.K. In late 2021 it launched a mobile app.
Like Elfster, it makes money by partnering with retailers and listing their products on its site. That’s how it avoids spamming users with ads and selling data — though there are plenty of people who would love to get their hands on users’ personal wishlists. Imburg said Elfster collects data in aggregate to highlight trending products. This year, they used this data to host a “Wish of the Week” and gave out a gift to one of their users.
Once people find a Secret Santa service that works, they’ll stick to it. “Once they use DrawNames, we rarely find people switch to another website,” said North American marketing manager Martin Looij. “It’s just clean, simple. People get what they want.
Looij said Elfster and DrawNames hold the majority of the market in terms of Secret Santa websites, but it’s slightly more spread out when it comes to mobile apps. Elfster, DrawNames, Santa’s Secret Keeper and Secret Santa 22 are some of the top apps. Imburg sent his encouragement to everyone trying to enter the Secret Santa app game (which is easy to do when you’re at the top). “We have a first-mover advantage and a network effect, things like that playing in our favor,” Imburg said. “But to be honest I have such a warm feeling towards anyone who’s doing something like what we’re doing.”
There are seemingly new Secret Santa apps each year. Jolly, the brainchild of textile factory owner Robert Rinearson and friend David Gorski, launched in October, after which it promptly dealt with feedback about a “lackluster” UI. Rinearson and Gorski hired a UI designer for a more finished look.
Like any new app, Jolly thinks it’s doing things a bit differently from other apps. You can purchase products within the app that come from dropshipping services, and “Jolly party” hosts can earn a small fee. Hosts can either charge an “entrance” fee, out of which Apple or Google takes 30% and Jolly takes 20%, or a “gift” fee, which comes when a participant buys a product within Jolly. Rinearson has high hopes: Secret Santa organizers channeling fees to a charitable cause, and influencers attracting fans to the app with their own Secret Santa parties.
“It’s a different way of looking at it because right now Secret Santa is this close-knit group,” Rinearson said. “What we think it can really be used for is the modern age where you have bigger communities where everyone goes by usernames.”
It’s too soon to tell if that’s something people really want, though. The persistence of Elfster and DrawNames indicate that people like to keep their Secret Santas simple. “As long as Elfster has been out there, I’ve seen new things come and go every year,” Imburg said.
But maybe some of you want to ditch simplicity, and spice up your Secret Santa this year (if it’s not too late). Looij said white elephant, where people swap cheap and funny gifts, has become increasingly popular. Rinearson suggested pairing up with a stranger to exchange gifts, which his app offers through a “Jolly Duo” feature. Imburg recommended pairing a group activity, like ordering delicious foods or applying a facial, with a Zoom gift exchange. As omicron spreads rapidly, a remote Secret Santa is definitely your best option.
Correction: The article was updated on December 18 to reflect that Martin Looij told Protocol that Elfster and DrawNames hold the majority of the market in terms of Secret Santa websites.