Duolingo’s Rise to TikTok Success

10 May 2022
by Annie-Mai Hodge
5 mins
Duolingo’s Rise to TikTok Success

Duolingo’s explosion on TikTok, where it regularly draws millions of views per video, is a prime example that showcases the influence of social media and how the right marketing strategy at the right moment can quickly turn a brand into an online phenomenon.

Just over a year ago, Duolingo didn’t even have an account on TikTok but its decision to embrace the platform and post entertaining clips has paid dividends for the language-learning app, which has significantly broadened its reach, solidified iconic branding and got other brands trying to follow in its footsteps.

What is Duolingo?

Duolingo is a language learning website and app that allows users to practice vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation with exercises including reading, written translation and speaking comprehension in 30+ languages. Duolingo claims that it’s intuitive, and easily digestible lessons that use spaced repetition are the “world’s best way to learn a language”. Duolingo’s users primarily use the app available on iOS and Android, or a web browser to access lessons and it currently boasts a 42.4m monthly active-user base.

Duolingo first launched more than a decade ago, and it has continually honed the “implicit learning” methodology that helps users pick up languages quickly and use them in a functional way. While it has always been quite popular, it has really found some momentum during the last 12 months – and TikTok has been key to its success.

The Pittsburgh-based company recently revealed that its quarterly sales jumped 51% to $73m and that upswing was due in part to its content marketing strategy on TikTok. What’s more, Duolingo says it was able to post a “lot of really good stuff” and appeal to “a lot of people”, without spending much on marketing. It’s no wonder brands are sitting up and taking notice.

CEO Luis von Ahn added: “You know, we’ve gotten over 500 million video views on TikTok. And, as far as I know, we’re probably the brand that gets the most interactions on TikTok of all brands. So, I think that’s another thing that has been pretty, pretty good.”

How did Duolingo achieve success?

While Duolingo now has 4.2m followers, its foray into TikTok was not an immediate success. It wasn’t until its 39th post that it found the right formula and had its first viral moment, with a video featuring its now iconic owl mascot overlooking an employee working who complains that it is difficult to “live, laugh, love” in these conditions. The video has since been viewed 3.2m times and attracted 720,000 likes and more than 6,000 comments.

Prior to the release of that video, Duolingo posted mainly tutorial videos, with people in them teaching phrases in different languages. While this episodic format was proactive and consistent, it is fair to say that it did not really resonate with viewers. The owl mascot video was the catalyst and made Duolingo realise that more entertaining content was the way to go.

Striking the right tone has been important too. Videos that have a funny and menacing tone resonate more. This is because the owl, called Duo, represents a tough task master who is trying to get students to complete their daily language sessions. One video where Duo is running through a corridor with audio saying the “killer is escaping” has been viewed nine million times. The most popular video, featuring images of Duo overlaid on a pool and popstar Dua Lipa, has attracted a staggering 37.9m views.

The growth of Duolingo’s TikTok channel has been meteoric. Back in October last year, it had just 100,000 followers but after its first viral hit, this ballooned to 1.7m and as of early May 2022, it now has more than 4m. All of those followers are regularly checking in and interacting with new videos too, as it has an average engagement rate of 19%.

Has “unhinged” content been a factor?

As the follows, likes and comments mount up, experts are trying to figure out what went right for Duolingo. One ingredient that has yet to be mentioned that has been vital is the use of trending audio clips. While the big, green, sassy owl draws viewers in, Duolingo’s ability to riff on audio snippets and songs of the moment appeals to younger demographics on TikTok.

This is part of what could be called an “unhinged” content strategy, where brands tap into viral trends and memes and play around with more left-field, quirky ideas to stand out from the crowd. This is not as easy as it seems, with Mekanism’s chief social officer, Brendan Gahan, revealing that Duolingo had the “bravery” to embrace what could be perceived to be negative aspects of its branding, such as the menacing owl, and use it to its advantage.

While Duolingo has taken TikTok by storm, the company’s social media coordinator, Zaria Parvez, says there is a limit to its creativity and that it is not always flush with original and authentic ideas. Parvez says Duolingo tries to publish between three and five posts per week but that it won’t force the issue and will refrain from posting if it can’t find the right message or tone.

What can other brands take from Duolingo’s success?

Brands that attempt to copy Duolingo’s strategy verbatim and expect similar levels of success may come away disappointed, but there are important lessons that can be learnt. Gahan believes social listening and reacting to trends is key, as is a willingness to fail, and being open and agile to try new things. Creating high-quality content, consistently, is critical too.

TikTok has already outlined a “flicker, flash, flare” model for brands to follow. Duolingo’s strategy closely adheres to the flicker phase, which is reactive, easier to produce and builds on and participates in trends, but others could find episodic flash content or large-scale flare campaigns work better. What Duolingo’s success does show is that every brand has the potential to become a social media starlet by executing a targeted, coherent strategy, cost-effectively.

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