How Duolingo uses its “skewed content” with Duo the Owl to make people laugh on TikTok
Most working days start with an hour or two of browsing social media for 23-year-old Zaria Parvez. But unlike most people, it’s not a bad habit. It’s part of his job.
In his first job out of college, Parvez is part of the mastermind behind language learning platform Duolingo’s TikTok account, which currently has 1.9 million subscribers – and it continues. Those hours that she spends scouring social media are actually a way for her to make social listening a key part of her social media strategy before she builds rapport, comes up with ideas for content, and gets down to business. Occasionally put on the big green owl costume to film as the brand’s mascot, Duo the owl.
Collectively, that takes up most of his work day. Filming TikTok content on its own can take anywhere from 15 minutes to a few hours, which isn’t an easy task considering the bulky owl costume can be difficult to maneuver, she added. Sometimes these TikToks involve other people in the office and, more recently, TikTok star Rod Thill (or @Rod on TikTok). Community management is another key part of the social strategy, in which Parvez and his team regularly respond to comments on the brand’s posts as a Duo, sometimes with a video. Duo once responded to a comment from McDonald’s Canada while rummaging through the chain’s ice cream machines, which are notoriously broken.
“A lot of brands are finding out about TikTok, including us,” Parvez said. “It’s part of our origin story right now. A lot of it is testing, seeing if something is working or [doesn’t] job.”
And apparently the great green owl works. Since launching his TikTok presence in February, Duo, who Parvez says is a sassy and fiercely loyal owl, has landed a number of viral TikToks relying on trending audio clips. In a TikTok, which racked up 1.7 million likes, Duo can be found twerking on an office table in what is captioned as a “preview of premium content you can only get with Duolingo. More”. In another, Duo appears to cry and slide along Taylor Swift’s “Enchanted” wall with the words “Please don’t be in love with someone else” in response to people using Google Translate by opposition to Duolingo’s services. He got 4.6 million likes. Sometimes Duo can be found in the comments section, blowing anyone who forgets their lesson.
After introducing Duo as a regular character in October, Duolingo’s viral content took off, according to Parvez. There was a slight increase in the number of people reporting finding out about the language learning service through TikTok, something the team learned through a ‘How did you hear about us’ survey and anecdotally on Twitter with “TikTok made me download it” tweets, she added. .
It’s not just about taste. Duo’s antics humanized the brand, giving Duolingo a face on TikTok and ultimately grabbing the attention of NBC News, Initiated and even Rolling Stone magazine. The key to the team’s success is that the account is less about selling Duolingo to the TikTok audience, who notoriously don’t want to be sold, but rather entertaining them, she said. The brand’s ability to lean into “lopsided content,” according to Parvez, by taking advantage of viral trends, interacting with other TikTokers in the comments section, and poking fun at themselves by recreating memes created on the brand is intended to entertain. It could be anything, from people mistaking Duolingo for pop singer Dua Lipa to the menacing character of Duo the Owl, teach yourself or whatever.
“The way I think about it, especially when I’m commenting as a Duo or creating content as a Duo, is that Duo is that arrogant friend who motivates you,” Parvez said. “But we never want Duo to be that cocky friend who makes you hate your existence. He wants you to be successful and will always live up to your business. The way to make Duo love you is to teach your lesson.
Luckily for the social media manager, Duo’s shenanigans haven’t given superiors much thought. In fact, Parvez says Duolingo has always had a cheerful, quirky brand voice, which makes it “easier for us to deliver the most lopsided content.” As an example of this lopsided content, one of Duolingo’s most watched posts is Duo apparently asking for singer Dua Lipa’s hand in marriage, taking up the joke where people often mistake Dua Lipa for Duolingo.
All in all, it’s the humanization of Duo that seems to be the selling point, according to Brendan Gahan, partner and social director of creative agency Mekanism. At this point, Gahan has been sold since Duolingo’s TikTok videos started circling the Mekanism team’s Slack channel some time ago, he said. Within three days, at least a dozen people had drawn Duo’s attention to her.
“The brand has embraced this slightly threatening perception of the owl,” he said. “There were memes for years. I don’t think most brands have the guts to do that and come to terms with these things that on the surface can be seen as negative. [Duolingo] really knocked him over his head.
What Duolingo is right, says Gahan, is to “let the audience guide them to the correct answer.” It’s a muscle that is built through social listening, a willingness to fail and a strong ability to pivot, he added, noting that good content is subjective. To put it in TikTok terms, brands that get it, get it, and brands that don’t, don’t.
Per Parvez, Duolingo posts three to five times a week, but only if there are original and authentic ideas. If they don’t have a great idea that speaks to the brand, they just don’t publish, she added.
“The idea that you’re going to throw a dart out there and hit the nail on the head, no one should come in with that expectation,” Gahan said. “You should go with the hope of, let’s improve 1% every day and leave this compound.”
Duolingo isn’t the first or only brand to humanize itself and create a deep brand affinity on social media without drawing the ire of buyers who aren’t impressed with the brand’s antics (at least not yet, touch wood, Parvez said). Another example Gahan cites is the Washington Post with Dave Jorgenson putting a face to the newspaper.
“We’re still in this growth phase with a lot of social for brands, where they’re learning to understand that attention is something that needs to be earned rather than paid for,” he said.
It’s a strategy brands like Wendy’s, Steak-umm, Denny’s, and MoonPie perfected on Twitter years ago. For Wendy’s it looked like sassy tweets, roasts and digs in competitors around 2016-2017. For Steak-umm, it looked like tweets about the existential crisis and critics of society at the same time.
“For a while after Wendy’s went viral, you saw people trying to copy and paste the same strategy,” said Amy Brown, who managed Wendy’s Twitter account from 2012 to 2017. “Which really is important and cool to see is that brands are starting to understand it. They discover how to take the same principles, but apply them in a unique way that makes sense for their brand.
Nathan Allebach is the man behind Steak-umm’s Twitter. For Allebach, Duolingo is on the way to becoming “TikTok’s Wendy’s”. But he wonders how long the schtick will last.
“The steak-umm has gone viral every year I’ve been at it since 2017, but every year it’s going down,” Allebach said. “It’s really hard to determine what’s still new to people over time. For the most part, he added, people are always excited when a brand responds to them. As long as the interaction is genuine, users feel seen and heard, he said.
At Duolingo, the idea has already crossed Parvez’s mind. But for now, plans are to keep testing and learning, strengthening the brand’s social media strategy, as well as exploring different social media scenarios and platforms. However, it’s unclear where the ominous green owl fits into this.
For Parvez, it’s been a wild ride, but she’s grateful for the experience as a junior talent to have the reins and the confidence to lead a major brand account.
“It’s only up from here,” she said.