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How Duolingo dominated TikTok
In just two years Duolingo blew up on TikTok. They grew from 50,000 to 5 Millions followers & managed to create 83 viral videos that achieved over 1M views. Yet in 2023 as more brands jump onto the platform, but seemingly go nowhere, it raises a question. How the heck did they do it? Let’s find out…👇
#1 AIM TO ENTERTAIN
Spend five minutes on Tiktok and you will notice a pattern. There is a stark contrast between creators and companies. The former tends to be funny & engaging. The latter takes itself a bit too seriously. And what do they love to do the most? Sell, sell, sell...
Ref #1 Spend a few minutes on TikTok and you’ll notice most brands love to sell, sell & sell.
Want to know a secret? In the beginning, Duolingo was falling into the same trap that most brands do. As Zaira Parvez, Global Social Media Manager at Duolingo explains, they were too obsessed with product-focused content. Everything was centred on language learning & education. Everything was, to be perfectly honest, a bit boring.
Ref #2 In the beginning Duolingo’s content was very matter of fact & wasn’t performing well.
Thankfully Duolingo soon changed its strategy. They decided to look beyond the category for inspiration. They soon realised (surprise, surprise) that people don’t want to be sold to. They want to be entertained.
Ref #3 Tiktok's very own research reveals that around 50% of its users want brand content to be entertaining.
Now really, when you think about it, this is hardly surprising. If you’ve ever used the platform think about your own usage. How many times have you endlessly scrolled through the platform? Scrolling through video after video, until one finally hooks you in. Why does this content hook you in? Because it makes you smile, shocks or perhaps even makes you a little angry. All of which you can loosely describe as ‘entertaining’. And this is exactly what Duolingo now does so well. It creates funny content that makes you smile. It creates ‘memeable’ content that you just need to share online or in a Whatsapp groups. And it creates ‘cultural’ content that taps into the tending moments whilst also putting an entertaining spin on it all.
Ref #4: Tiktok's creates a wide variety & type of entertaining content.
#2 BE AN AUTHENTIC CREATOR
Brand assets are an important element of any brand. They could be your logo, colour palette or a mascot like Ronald McDonald. Why are they so important? Well, the inconvenient truth is people don’t care about brands. Their lives are too busy and distracted. In light of this, brand cues are important shortcuts for the brain. We see, hear or even smell them and we are reminded of the brand. See the colour red you might think of Coca-Cola. Hear ‘I’m loving it’ and you will probably think of McDonald’s.
Ref #5: As professor Byron Sharp states distinctive brand assets are an essential element to a successful brand.
Now as I mentioned brand assets can come in many shapes and sizes. It could be a logo, colour or perhaps a brand line or brand world. In reality, these cues are normally fairly static and they don’t interact with their audience that much.
Ref #6: As we can see the vast majority of normal brand cues are fairly static and not that interactive.
Duolingo, however, decided to do something different. They decided to transform its main brand asset ‘Duo’ the owl, into a creator.
Ref #7: Zaria Parvez points released that the Duo mascot wasn’t being used to its full potential.
Now some in this community may say ‘Oh Will, it’s just a mascot, brands have been doing this for years?!’. Very true. Yet what Duolingo has done so well, is how they have brought this mascot to life. You see TikTok is different from Instagram, Facebook or other channels. The content that performs best on TikTok is mostly, authenticity. It’s the platform where people are their truest selves. It’s the platform where people don’t pretend to be living their best lives. Or post the perfect selfie.
Ref #8: Authencity is an important factor for millennials when deciding what brand they want to buy.
Duolingo gets authenticity, when it comes to TikTok, better than 99% of brands on the platform. They didn’t create a perfect, saccharine and bland mascot. They created a very real and relatable mascot. One that has highs and lows. One that has good days and bad days. Duo is relatable, imperfect & ultimately authentic. Like all of us and like the best creators we follow.
Ref #9: Duo isn’t perfect….he is relatable, imperfect & authentic.
#3 FREEDOM TO EXPERIMENT
Shout out to all the social media managers reading this! Your job is a tough one. How many times have you been tasked with growing your brand’s social following, only to be restricted by a big brand bible or the legal team (sigh). If it makes you feel better, you are not alone. Most companies are risk-averse and guess what? It’s bad for business…
Ref #10: Most companies are risk-averse & it’s bad for business.
What Duolingo has done so well, is that they have given the social team the freedom to experiment. They have empowered them to take risks. They have empowered them to make a giant green owl authentic (and slightly unhinged). And here is the most important lesson of all. No matter whether you are working for a startup, scaleup or bigger brand…you need to experiment. You need to take risks. Why? Well, as I’ve said before people live busy and distracted lives & they think about brands all that often. So the best thing you can do is aim for fame and stand out.
So many brands are waking up the potential of TikTok, but so many are getting it so so wrong. They approach it in a very cautious manner. Yet as we can learn from Duolingo you need to take a different approach when it comes to this platform. You need to be entertaining, you need to be authentic and above all else, you need to take a risk.
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Finally, please excuse any typ0s…I’m proudly dyslexic.
Co-Founder | Strategy Partner