Why Duolingo has replaced many TV ads with free TikTok posts

June 26, 2023

A few years ago, Duolingo ran squeaky-clean animated TV campaigns to direct attention to its language-teaching app in major markets. These days, much of its marketing has taken on a different flavor: It offers posts like one it made on TikTok on March 8, featuring its mascot owl in a photo series with text reading, “I clogged the toilet on the 3rd floor of the office,” reports The Wall Street Journal.

The platform now relies more on memes—like the one described above—helping it climb to 20 million daily active users. It’s “unhinged,” and intentionally so, says Emmanuel Orssaud, the company’s global head of Marketing. 

Brands over the years have navigated the balance between leaning more on brand marketing, which is seeking to help a consumer understand a brand and what it stands for; versus performance marketing, which refers to advertising that directly generates consumer actions like clicks or downloads.

When Orssaud joined Duolingo in 2020, the company was focused on traditional marketing to build awareness for the brand, which teaches 43 languages. Since then, the company, which went public in 2021, has determined that—with 80% of its growth coming from word-of-mouth and the majority of users subscribing to its free, ad-supported version—the return-on-investment of bigger-budget campaigns wasn’t adding up. 

That kicked off the new emphasis on social-media channels such as TikTok, which Duolingo started using more frequently during the pandemic. The attention started rolling in on posts about the Duolingo owl’s romantic relationships with other brand mascots and jokes about the company’s legal team trying to capture the mascot to keep it from posting online.

Part of the social campaign’s appeal may come from a relative lack of oversight, allowing memes and jokes to go live before they grow stale.

“I would say for 80% of the content, we trust the team” to perform any necessary oversight themselves, Orssaud says—an effort to make sure the content can react to trending jokes and audio. For the other 20%, content, which is more planned and part of larger campaigns, “we would improve on an idea or just give some guidance or tweak things a little bit,” he adds. “But the majority is all about speed. The more layers you add, the harder it is.”

Duolingo has 6.7 million followers on TikTokmaking it one of the more highly followed accounts on the app, trailing accounts such as ESPN, Nickelodeon, Netflix and the NBA. It also has seen success on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. 

Company leadership has recently lauded the change in strategy over the past year-and-a-half. During its first-quarter earnings call in May, Luis von Ahn, co-founder and chief executive, attributed recent user growth in part to more efficient marketing.

“Our marketing team has really found its stride in terms of…the levers that work and don’t,” he said on the earnings call. “We’ve just found that we have a brand that is very good for social media. And it’s organic, it’s not paid stuff.”

The company’s marketing also benefits from having become an Internet joke. Duolingo is the beneficiary “of essentially having a mascot that has become a meme,” says Chris Ross, a vice president analyst at research firm Gartner.

That fate for a mascot, he says, can be a powerful way for brands to build an audience—and can lead to success with organic marketing.

Research contact: @WSJ