Welcome to Will It Stick? podcast, where hosts Melissa and Alexis cover creative advertising campaigns, PR stunts, and marketing activations that brands of all shapes and sizes pull, and dive into the research and data to understand if it worked and of course … Will It Stick?

Duolingo is the world’s most popular language app, with over 40 million monthly users and more than 38 languages to choose from. Duolingo offers a few different learning platforms and has expanded into podcasts and live global events, giving users the opportunity to have conversations with other language learned to earn points. They have gamified it and that keeps people engaged. 

In the second quarter of 2022, Duolingo generated more than 88.3 million U.S. dollars in revenues, up by 50 percent compared to the second quarter of 2021.In 2021, Duolingo did $225 million in subscription revenue and clearly they are going to crush that number this year. Actually, the idea for the app came about in 2009 in Pittsburgh by a Carnegie Mellon University professor named Luis von Ahn. Luis has sold his second company reCAPTCHA to Google and he partnered up with one of his post-grad students named Severin Hacker to build Duolingo. The idea and motivation came from Luis’ upbringing in Guatemala, where he saw how expensive it was for people in his community to learn English. He believed that free education could change the world, and wanted to created an outlet for it. It actually was originally built as a nonprofit org, but the team quickly realized that model was not sustainable. So, he crowdsourced for early funding and then began raising money and the rest is history. 

And it’s working for Duolingo. Since 2021, the company has grown its TikTok audience to 4 million followers and routinely fetches more than 1 million views per video. At the same time, it’s become one of the most popular educational apps with more than 500 million downloads and $250 million in revenue in 2021, up 55% from 2020.

Duolingo has gained a reputation for kind of being a bit of a bully – and people are absolutely loving it. The mascot is a cute green owl who has become known on TikTok for its somewhat inappropriate office antics and not following corporate rules. He’s known for twerking in the office, for terrorizing the office dogs and holding them hostage, for doing inappropriate things to do the office copy machine and come to find out, is madly in love with Duo Lipa (so perfect, right)?

Before we dive into how they found traction on TikTok, let’s talk about the user-generated memes that ended up going viral a few years earlier.

The meme first appeared in October 2017 on Tumbler…just five years after the company launched. A user posted a photoshopped version of Duo with a gun, and a caption that reads “me: *neglects my duo lingo app*”. This one post recieved more than 150,000 comments in 2 years.

These memes are hilarious and are what essentially gave Duolingo permission to be a little edgy with their marketing, IMO. I would have loved to see the original brand voice narrative for the brand when it was created in 2012, because it really seems like this is one of the few brands where CUSTOMERS have created/shifted the brand voice, and the company embraced it.

In 2019, Duolingo officially acknowledged the meme by releasing  a video on April Fools Day that year that shows off its new featured called “Duolingo Push” … in the video, users of that new feature would receive reminders to use the app IN PERSON BY DUO HIMSELF. He stares and users and follows them around until they use the app. 

And Lex, this got even bigger when in Nov. 2019, SNL incorporated Duolingo in a sketch in which adults learn to communicate with children using a fake course on the app called “Duolingo for Talking to Children.” GENIUS.

So now, let’s talk about TikTok. The story behind the mascot and how it came to take over TikTok is pretty cool.

The official TikTok account for Duolingo, the language learning company, grew its follower count from around 50,000 in September 2021 to more than 4.7 million followers today. The hashtag #duolingo has accumulated more than 1.2 billion views. Much of the brands recent growth can be attributed to its social media strategies, specifically TikTok. 

So how did they do it? They hired a Gen Z social media coordinator and they let her do what she knows best. Zaria Parvez joined the Duolingo team in June 2020. It was her very first job out of college, she had just graduated from the University of Oregon and she had the ideal timing of graduating right into a pandemic. She landed the job with Duolingo and jumped right in – but it was remote to start because, COVID. Duolingo had already attempted TikTok with little success. When they first started posting content, they had partnered with the company that owns TikTok, ByteDance, to create videos and at the same time, the entire office was still remote due to COVID so they weren’t creating their own content, they were having to gather videos of people from all over the world taching users different phrases in foreign languages. These videos did not do much….little engagement and certainly no level of virality. They ended up having a more high production / scripted feel vs something that was filmed on an iphone so they didn’t perform well at all….little engagement and certainly no level of virality. 

I think that’s the biggest thing that brands dont’ realize on TikTok and even Instagram Reels. Brands think if they produce videos they have to be high production and look fancy but those videos do not perform at all. The videos that go viral are almost always the ones that look like they were 100% produced on a smartphone.  

And Lex, you are going to love this part. Because the moment everything changed for Duolingo was the moment the company’s office reopened and staff was reunited. You are a big believer in people being physically together in an office, and this is definitely one of the arguments in favor of your preference. 

So now it’s September 2021 and the staff is reunited, and they start brainstorming and experimenting with new ways to use the Duolingo TikTok account to grow it. At this point, it had 50,000 followers. Not horrible, but not viral.  So Zaria is in the office for the first time, her first real job in an office ever, and she’s at her desk and realizes one day that there is a giant green owl that no one even blinks an eye at that sits right behind the marketing team. She looks around and is like WTF how is everyone just sitting at their desk working as if it’s completely normal that there is a weird mascot just hanging around watching us. She thought it was hilarious and so she gave her boss her phone and asked him to film this idea she had for TikTok real quick. 

Here’s the video she created on the fly Lex:

This first video was posted on Sept. 30, 2021 and it features an employee sitting in a chair as the camera pans over to show a looming Duo standing on a nearby table while playing the “live, laugh, love” trending audio clip. On the video, her caption reads: “when you’re just tryna do your work without being terrorized by an owl.” This text is a reference to one of the memes that had already been floating around the Internet about the Duolingo owl, depicting Duo as threatening to users who did not complete their daily language lesson.

Once Zaria posted this first video, it immediately saw so much success. This first video wasn’t anything risky, just something that was fun and played off a viral trend to she was inspired at that point to keep creating and pushing the limits more and more. 

That first video Lex? Today it has over 3.6 million views, 724.7K likes, 6,600 comments and 17.8K saves. So Zaria followed that formula on TikTok, she incorporated the full-pody costume of Duo into the videos and used popular audio trends to help skyrocket each video.

A week after her first video, Daria posted another that featured Duo and using the audio trend that spells out the word “cap” with a literal explanation showing a baseball cap sticker on Duo’s head but if you spend lots of time on TikTok you’ll know that CAP means “lie” … when you see the phrase “cap” us the emoji of a cap, it typically means someone is calling out something that is UNTRUE. The caption of this video says “I’m going to do by Spanish lesson today”. This video was a fun way to illude to the user who tells themselves they will complete their lesson on Duolingo’s platform but actually won’t ever end up doing it. This video is one of the most popular videos to date, currently with 17.1 million views and 2.1 million likes. Gen Z loves this stuff. Actually, in one article Daria said that it’s actually pretty hilarious because ever since she posted it, she and other staff members often overyear Duolingo co-founder and CEO Luis von Ahn singing the song to himself around the office, and he thinks it’s cool to reference the term in emails and slack messages to the staff. He’s 43. 

And Lex, because of this new strategy, the Duolingo TikTok account officially went from 50,000 followers to over a million followers in ONE MONTH. As I mentioned earlier, Today, the account has 4.7 million followers, 92.9 million likes and it just keeps on growing.

One of the most important things here is once the account got some level of viral traction, the company’s exec team didn’t step in and put a bunch of KPIs on Daria which could easily have throw her natural ability to create viral content off. Instead, they trusted her and the marketing team and just told them to keep going with the strategy they had discovered. They understood that by posting these engaging videos, they would be spreading the message that language learning can be fun for everyone and that was good enough. The basically considered TikTok a playground at this point and still relied heavily on user acquisition through other channels, of course hoping that TikTok would convert users but not relying on it. 

Although you can bet the marketing team wanted to show results from TikTok, and they did. In mid November 2021, they did a survey and found that a large percentage of new Duolingo learners in the U.S. said they first heard about Duolingo ON TIKTOK.

Since changing the strategy, the brand has taken some pretty big risks that probably gave the exec team a few sleepless nights.

Check out this video that was posted earlier this year in response to the “don’t say gay” bill. 

The caption reads “we only say gay rights in this house” and the video has 1.5 million likes and over 22.1K comments.

Another time: brand Scrubdaddy maker of sponges and cleaning products (seen on Shark Tank), collabed with Duolingo at the end of 2021 when they reached out to the Duolingo social media team aftering noticing the brands had a lot in common when it came to their social media content and voice/tone. So they met up to spend a day filming and the result was a video that became a bit infamous…where the Duolingo owl births green, owl-shaped sponges. It was a spur of the moment decision that amassed over 10 million views within the first 3 hours… until the CEO asked Daria to remove the video because it was a bit too edgy. Despite how quickly it came and went, this video helped boost Scrub Daddy’s presence on TikTok in a BIG way leading to more than 22,000 comments.

Here was the video that was posted to Scub Daddy’s TikTok: https://www.tiktok.com/@scrubdaddy/video/7088400705844972846?is_copy_url=1&is_from_webapp=v1&lang=en 

But instead of getting down about the one they had to remove from the Duolingo TikTok, here’s the video that Duolingo put out after they deleted it…

The caption reads: And we’re back after legal review…

One recurring story line features the Duolingo lawyer on TikTok pretending that the mascot’s actions on social media have gotten the company in legal trouble. This series is refreshing, as it’s a reaction to the company’s content being considered “unhinged,” so it’s attempting in real time to make fun of social media discourse on social media. Because it’s a funny, unexpected topic to harp on, each addition builds camaraderie between the brand and its followers as they’re part of a developing inside joke.

And you know what else these viral videos did besides bring new consumer attention to the brand? It also brought in lots and lots of employee applications. Suddenly, the company was seeing prospective employees referencing Duo’s TikTok videos IN their applications, saying they loved a workplace where management encouraged the creation of this type of fun content.

And this permission to play has led the brand to some serious growth.

One notable creative campaign launched amid the season 2 premiere for Netflix’s “Emily in Paris” last December offered a free Duolingo Plus subscription—now rebranded to Super Duolingo—to anyone named Emily.

Check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RanA4z94jo  

The promotion ran for 48 hours from December 22, the date season two premiered globally, and was available to all those who share a name with the lead character. Variations of the name, such as Amelie, Emilie, or Milly, were also accepted. Existing users of the Duolingo app named Emily were also offered a month of free French learning via an in-app message. This is SO smart, because one of the best ways for a brand to be culturally relevant in people’s lives is by playing with these trending, pop culture happenings that their demo loves. We just did a series of Bridgerton Brunches for our client Robbins Brothers, The Engagement Ring Experts and it was SO perfect for the brand and their audience. This stuff works!

I also have to mention the most recent April Fools joke the brand pulled in 2022. Duolingo released a new video in the form of a spoof legal advertisement where the lawyers sue the company for damages due to family members going missing, once again alluding to the meme.

Overall, I love the way Duolingo has used social media. They tested some content that was just ok, nothing special. And when they found someone that stuck, they didn’t put a bunch of rules and restrictions on it – they let the team be creative and listen to what works and is trending and they take risks. And due to her success, Duolingo has promoted  Zaria to Global Social Media Manager. Another reminder that age and experience shouldn’t always be the deciding factor of someone getting a job that is typically reserved for someone with more years under their belt. 

Word of caution though, this kind of strategy certtiantly wouldn’t work for all brands…not every brand canbe this silly on social and get away with it. It can backfire if it’s not intentional, and if you dont’ have buy in from leadership. But the possiblities are endless if you can find a way to bring your brand to life authentically on social because it can convert to real revenue. 


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