duolingo tiktok optim

Duolingo’s TikTok has become a phenomenon. Just a couple months ago they were at 100,ooo followers…now they have 1.7 million. Not to mention 7 million likes and a 19% engagement rate.

Best of all, TikTok is having a tangible impact on their business. Duolingo has skyrocketed to the #1 education app in the Apple App Store.

Screenshot of the top education apps in the Apple App Store, with Duolingo in the #1 spot.

Many may be tempted to call Duolingo’s success a fluke. That they got lucky.

However, in deconstructing how the account evolved it becomes clear Duolingo’s success is no accident. Their success is the byproduct of a coherent strategy.

The company (along with their eerily threatening owl mascot) was methodical in their approach. And, far from an overnight success, Duolingo has been relentless—chipping away at TikTok for nearly a year.

In this article, I’ll sum up the three key elements of their success and what other brands can learn from it.

Flicker, Flash, Flare

TikTok advises marketers to use the Flicker, Flash, Flare content strategy to program their channels. Here’s how it works:

  • Flicker content – reactive (i.e., participation in trends)
  • Flash content – proactive (i.e., planned/episodic content)
  • Flare content – interactive (i.e., large-scale campaign initiatives)

Graphic detailing the Flicker, Flash, Flair content strategy for TikTok

Duolingo applied the model rigorously. Initially, most of their TikToks were tutorials (i.e., Flash content). Simple “how-to” videos teaching phrases in various languages.

Sprinkled throughout their Flash content, Duolingo participated in multiple trends (i.e., Flicker content). They brought these to life in a variety of ways—ranging from using staff to tapping Duo, the big green owl that serves as the brand’s official mascot. For example, they stitched Duo’s reaction to entering the elevator with Jacob Rott and his boyband-esque friends.

The brand was also quick to pounce on the NBA trade offer trend. While the NBA draft jingle plays, participants “offer a trade,” typically two funny or odd items. In Duo’s case, he gets no money, while, “you get Spanish lessons, push notifications” and “an owl friend.”

Over time they found that featuring Duo was performing well. That’s when things really started to take off.

Optimization makes perfect

It’s rare to create a successful content format on the first try. Duolingo is no exception. It wasn’t until their 39th video that they had a proper “hit.”

It’s important to iterate and be open to feedback from your audience. Duolingo did this well. They found that people were responding positively to Duo and leaned into that.

That first breakout TikTok showed an employee sitting in a chair while the camera pans over to Duo looming over the table. Meanwhile the popular “live, laugh, love” audio trend plays in the background.

The onscreen caption reads, “when you’re just tryna do your work without being terrorized by an owl.” It references the widespread joke depicting Duo as threatening students who did not finish their daily language learning sessions.

The video has gotten over 3.3 million views and 700,000 likes.

In the process, Duolingo found the formula that worked for them:

Duo + trends + funny/menacing tone = success.

They increased the frequency of this new format. At the same time, they phased out their flash/tutorial videos. That optimization lent itself to hockey stick growth. Up and to the right.

Graph plotting Duolingo's TikTok follower growth from April through November 2021, with a spike after their first viral video in late September.

Candy with the medicine

To reach their current scale, Duolingo had to appeal to the masses and they had to create content native to TikTok.

Through their iterative process, they discovered that being entertaining first and highlighting their message second was key to their success. They leaned into entertainment as the hook to lead consumers to education.

It makes sense. We scroll through 500 feet of content a day. To stand out, brands have to appeal to the expectations of consumers who have endless content at their fingertips.

Duolingo learned this well. After all, who wouldn’t love to see Duo playing red light/green light while talking smack to Google Translate?

Duolingo’s success is more than a tactic. It’s in their brand DNA.

Duolingo’s teaching methodology emphasizes standout content, continuous improvement and many ways to learn. Their social content is a reflection of those values.

By being creative, patient and open to experimentation, they ultimately uncovered what people love.

They’ve since doubled down on what works (that crazy owl) while ditching what doesn’t.

Most brands fail to experience this level of success. But that doesn’t need to be the case.

TikTok may seem daunting, but by analyzing Duolingo we have a playbook to rely on. Embrace the Flicker, Flash, and Flare framework, optimize for what works, and focus on entertainment first.

Start small, then capitalize on small wins. Success is slow at first. Compound interest does the rest.

Whether or not your brand is on TikTok, there’s no denying its impact. Learn more about how you can use TikTok trends to inform your broader social strategy.

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