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Let’s Talk About Duolingo on TikTok
Featuring an interview with Zaria Parvez, social media coordinator at Duolingo.
“Okay, so it starts off in black and white and the owl is staring out the window listening to Adele. But THEN it cuts into CupcakKe’s lyric ‘smack my ass like a drum’ and it’s now in color and the owl is shaking its green ass on a conference room table!!!!!”
This is a real thing I told my boyfriend a few weeks ago. It sounds like the fever dream of someone who is really into owls, but in reality I was simply describing a TikTok from the corporate brand account of language education app Duolingo.
If you’ve been on TikTok in the past month, you’ve also likely seen unhinged videos from the notoriously persistent (and debatably evil) company mascot. Commenters are crowning the account the “new Wendy’s” and are watching the videos in droves. Since October of this year, the videos have racked up more than 100 millions views and followers have grown from 50K to 1.3M. The strategy is clearly working.
As someone who has worked in social media for a while, I can be a bit skeptical about brands going viral. Maybe it’s because those brands are oftentimes huge corporations that are benefiting from someone (usually an underpaid social media manager) making them more relatable and human online. That social person rarely reaps the benefits of said virality, while the brand (that could be, say, being boycotted at the time) does. But there’s something very wholesome about Duolingo having their moment. It’s an app that is accessible (much of their language education is free), the company is on the smaller side (400 people and growing), and their viral content was born in-house (and not by an agency that might also be, for example, creating campaigns for Big Oil). At the end of the day, Duolingo is an app that is doing good and the extra attention feels deserved.
For today’s newsletter, I chatted with Zaria Parvez, social media coordinator at Duolingo and the person behind the brand’s wild TikTok growth. We talked about the strategy at Duo, what went into that first viral video, and tips for getting permission to be weird on social media.
Rachel Karten: Can you tell me about your current role and any previous social media roles?
Zaria Parvez: I'm the social media coordinator at Duolingo and I started here in June of 2020. I'm actually a new grad—so this is my first job out of college. I've interned here and there at different advertising agencies, but this is my first full-time role. I’ve always had a really deep passion for social media, and now day-to-day as a social media coordinator, I am mainly responsible for writing copy, posting content, community management, and *now* content creation.
RK: When I scroll back on the Duolingo TikTok account, it looks like there was a recent strategy shift. Can you talk about the previous strategy and sort of what inspired this new content?
ZP: In February of 2021, we worked with ByteDance (parent company of TikTok) as part of their Learn On TikTok initiative. They helped us launch our TikTok page and it really just featured language learning content. I think what inspired the strategy shift is that we really wanted to connect better with Gen Z and we weren't seeing as much traction on those videos.
To do that we really went into this test-and-learn format. I researched brands that were doing really well on TikTok—I looked at what was working and what wasn't working. We then decided that since we already had this popular Duo meme that existed on Twitter and Instagram, we could try bringing it to TikTok. To do that we wanted to jump on trends and really just entertain. It wasn’t even about getting more followers or more app downloads. We just wanted to see what we can do on the platform and keep testing and learning. It ended up working out really well. Going viral with that initial video was a good indication for us, like, let’s keep going. That encouraged us to push the envelope.
RK: Do you see Duolingo bringing back some of the more educational content?
ZP: For right now, we're definitely trying to just stick to trending content. We have a huge design program at Duo—so I am eventually hoping to break into Art Tok. Language education is obviously super important to us, and we want to find more unique ways of getting people to interact with languages.
RK: Can you talk a little about what it was like making that first video that went viral? What was the approval process like?
ZP: I think you’re referring to the “Live, Laugh, Love” video. So where I sit in the office is actually like right in front of Duo—there’s always this ominous owl sitting behind us. I heard the audio for the “Live, Laugh, Love” trend and thought why don’t we just make something about this owl. So I asked my manager to record me quickly, and it ended up doing super well. The video currently sits at 3.3M views.
Before that, the account hadn’t really been very active since February of 2021, so my manager was pretty open to just trying new things on the platform and seeing what worked. That obviously took off, and I’ve been coming up with ideas for the account since then. Now the approval process is basically me pitching her an idea and she’s able to be like “yes, no, yes, no” and it’s a pretty seamless experience. I feel like I am constantly exercising my creative muscles, and it’s nice to have a manager who trusts me in that sense.
RK: I feel like one of my favorite parts of the Duolingo TikTok is the community management and all of the interactions you have in the comments section. Can you talk about that strategy a bit?
ZP: As I touched on a little bit earlier, Duolingo is a fun and quirky brand and we know the key to learning a new language is making it fun; so we want that sense of fun to show up wherever our brand is! Our commenting strategy is really just leaning into the meme of Duo being everywhere and having fun while doing it! At the end of the day, our strategy is to make it feel like the daily practice reminder is coming to people via TikTok comments versus a push notification you’d get from the app.
RK: Any tips for social professionals who are running TikToks for brands that aren't quite as willing to have fun and take risks?
ZP: Brands on TikTok should really be asking themselves, How do I entertain and have fun on this platform?
TikTok is just so much different from other platforms and the more we can train our brains to think that way on TikTok, the more liberty and freedom you have to create really awesome content. If you have that goal to be an iconic or standout brand on TikTok, it’s important to do things that maybe make you feel uncomfortable or a risk that maybe you wouldn’t take on any of your other brand platforms.
There are still posts where we get butterflies in our stomach and we’re not sure how it’ll do. But those posts are often the ones that do really well. If you’re nervous about a TikTok, that’s not a bad thing. It likely means you’re doing something right.
RK: You’re obviously on TikTok a lot. Any other platforms you are into right now?
ZP: I'm a huge TikTok user and have been for a while. I’m 23 so that’s the platform that I am used to and it’s what all my friends are on. I definitely use Instagram, but probably not as religiously as I use TikTok though. I am still struggling with Reels, some people argue that it's really awesome but I am just not exactly sure what to do with it. And I don't really use Snapchat or even Facebook.
RK: Do you feel watching TikToks and being familiar with trends is pivotal to the success of a brand on the platform?
ZP: In terms of Duolingo’s success, I do think the amount of time I spend on TikTok helps. It’s embarrassing how much I am on TikTok. I understand the culture of TikTok and what’s going on with different trends.
But I don’t think you need to be Gen Z to be good at TikTok. I’ve had moments where I’ve gone offline for a week or two and when I log back in I am totally lost. Which I think is indicative of the fact that it’s not about being part of Gen Z to understand TikTok, it’s more about just being active. Consuming the content on the platform often and spending time there.
RK: I completely agree. I also would argue that while TikTok is a good place to *reach* Gen Z, that doesn’t mean that’s the only age group that’s on the channel. I’d argue that every brand has an audience on TikTok. If you're able to share, has this growth on TikTok led to more downloads of the app?
ZP: Yeah, so we have a survey at sign up that asks people how they heard about us. We’ve seen a slight uptick in people selecting “social media”. But we are planning to add TikTok, specifically, as an option in the survey. As a data driven company, we’ll begin measuring the impact TikTok is having on driving new people to download and try Duolingo—although that isn’t our primary goal with this platform. Again, for us TikTok is about entertaining and having fun which coincides nicely with our brand’s mission to make learning a language fun. Anecdotally, we also just see a ton of people Tweeting about it and commenting that they are downloading because of TikTok. It’s pretty cool to see.
RK: I feel like a lot of brands question the ROI of TikTok, and it’s really amazing to hear the virality has led to actual downloads. Okay, final question! What are your hopes just personally and professionally within social media moving forward?
ZP: The next challenge I am hoping to tackle is showing people how amazing Pittsburgh is. Duolingo is headquartered in Pittsburgh and sometimes recruiting can be a challenge, so I want to show people how great of a city it is. Maybe show off our bridges?! Bringing employer branding to TikTok feels like my next big initiative.
Oh and obviously I’d lose my mind if Dua Lipa commented.
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