Personal Growth

How Duolingo constructed a $250 million model by being a jerk

“Have you been physically or emotionally injured by Duolingo?” requested the legal professional, who promised to get victims hundreds of thousands in compensation.

It wasn’t an actual TV advert from a scummy lawyer, however an April Fool’s prank launched earlier this month by Duolingo, the favored training app recognized for its gamification of language studying and for its passive-aggressive reminders (“It would be a bummer to lose that 7-day streak. Just saying.”) 

In the previous, Duolingo has mentioned that its guilt-laden nags get higher outcomes. In exams, the corporate reportedly discovered that clients usually tend to open emails with the topic line, “You made Duo sad????”

“Specifically, when we’ve tested other options, we’ve found them to be between 5% and 8% less effective at getting learners to take a lesson,” a spokesperson informed Debugger.

Increasingly, the corporate has leaned into its repute as form of a bully in its advertising efforts. (“Beg for your life in German!” one person joked on Reddit.) On TikTok, the corporate’s mascot, Duo, a cute inexperienced owl with a mischievous streak, has turn out to be like the trendy model of the Kool-Aid man. But as a substitute of unexpectedly busting by way of partitions, it’s twerking within the workplace, getting inappropriate with the photocopier, expressing its love for Dua Lipa, and holding the workplace canine hostage till you do your Spanish lesson. 

And it’s working for Duolingo. Since 2021, the corporate has grown its TikTok viewers to 4 million followers and routinely fetches greater than 1 million views per video. At the identical time, it’s turn out to be one of the vital common instructional apps with greater than 500 million downloads and $250 million in income in 2021, up 55% from 2020.

Of course, Duolingo isn’t the primary model to realize followers by being humorous and irreverent on social media: Brands like Wendy’s, Innocent Drinks, and Steak-umm have seen their controversial takes—and brutal roasts of individuals on Twitter—get consideration. But the corporate positively stands aside within the e-learning trade, the place opponents like Rosetta Stone and Babbel are sometimes extra severe {and professional}, and have a tendency to focus their social media advertising on sharing content material in regards to the topics they train.

TikTok customers observe Duolingo as a result of its posts are humorous. But some analysis suggests that an irreverent method additionally comes throughout as extra genuine to customers than conventional advertising and may considerably influence the perceived worth of an organization’s merchandise and the notion of a model’s trustworthiness.

Regularly utilizing the Duo owl mascot because the butt of the joke is disarming, and stating that it’s a model utilizing social media to succeed in clients helps the corporate come throughout as extra real. As a consequence, the dialogue seems like a shared joke, and that’s notably entertaining, even when Duolingo’s mascot is making enjoyable of itself, its workers, or its clients.

For occasion, a current TikTok mocked homophobic customers by pairing snarky copy with trending audio to make enjoyable of people that’ve left hateful feedback when the model posts LGBTQ+ content material. 


we solely say homosexual rights on this home #Duolingo #DulaPeep #DuaLingo #DuaLipa #comedy #pattern #gayrights

♬ unique sound – Servant of the Highest God – Servant of the Highest God

The caption for the publish reads: “We only say gay rights in this house,” a sign that the model is liberal and understands the cultural lexicon however isn’t afraid to ostracize folks.

Granted, Duolingo’s social media method isn’t one that the majority manufacturers can pull off. Being foolish on social media is dangerous and may backfire if not achieved with intention, buy-in from management, and self-awareness. What works for Duolingo is the model’s tone of voice, which is comedic, intentionally self-referential, opinionated, and, above all, constant, which is crucial to being plausible and memorable.

One recurring story line options the Duolingo lawyer on TikTok pretending that the mascot’s actions on social media have gotten the corporate in authorized hassle. This collection is refreshing, because it’s a response to the corporate’s content material being thought of “unhinged,” so it’s making an attempt in actual time to make enjoyable of social media discourse on social media. Because it’s a humorous, surprising subject to harp on, every addition builds camaraderie between the model and its followers as they’re a part of a growing inside joke.

Brian Honigman is a advertising guide, adjunct professor, and LinkedIn Learning teacher.

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