How Duolingo Struck Social Media Gold with Unhinged Content

Lestraundra Alfred
Lestraundra Alfred

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Duo, Duolingo’s big green mascot, might be the most famous owl of the post-tootsie roll pop commercial era.

The language-learning app first established a TikTok presence in early 2021 and found its stride by sharing funny videos featuring the sassy owl Duo. Since then, Duolingo’s TikTok account has grown to nearly 7 million followers and accumulated over 147 million likes from various viral videos.

How did Duolingo do it? By embracing “unhinged” marketing.

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What is unhinged marketing?

When brands take less of a polished, perfect approach to social, and embrace more chaotic conversational moments, it’s often referred to as unhinged marketing. If you see a social media post and think “How did that get approved?” it can likely be considered unhinged.

This approach was first popularized on Twitter when Wendy’s became infamous for “roasting” social media users and openly shading the competition. Since then, other companies including Popeye’s and McDonald’s found viral moments by sending sassy Tweets.

Unhinged marketing can be particularly effective at winning over Gen Z customers who prefer marketing that feels more real and less salesy. What may have been deemed unprofessional in the past is now considered more authentic and relatable.

With the introduction of TikTok and the rise of short-form video content unhinged content now expands beyond fast food companies sending mean tweets, and Duolingo has capitalized on it.

Duolingo’s TikTok Strategy

Since shifting from investing in TV ad spots to a focus on organic social, Duolingo has found its marketing stride. What has made Duolingo’s TikTok content so viral? Three key strategies:

1. Entertainment Over Selling

The content is funny and aims to entertain more than it aims to sell.

Duolingo’s TikTok started taking off when the content featured Duo, the app’s mascot. The content focused on Duo being a humorous character the audience could connect with, and it has kept people coming back for more to see what Duo would do next.

When using the app is mentioned, it’s done in a funny light, and the audience doesn’t feel overly sold to. In fact, Duolingo’s TikTok content that mentions the app often highlights the free version of the app.

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2. Hopping On Trending Topics

Scrolling through Duolingo’s TikTok feed, the brand is always on top of using trending sounds and hopping on current topics while they’re hot.

@duolingo Keep your friends close and your enemies closer 👀 #selenahailey #duolingo ♬ original sound - <3

One post from last fall features a cover image of famous rivals Selena Gomez and Hailey Bieber. The post was shared shortly after the photos of the pair (which caused waves on the internet) first dropped and played up Duolingo’s one-sided beef with Google Translate. This video illustrates how the brand can hop on a then-trending topic while reminding the audience that it is still a language-learning app.

Another example is a recent post featuring Duo at the premiere of the Barbie movie dressed as the main character of the film which has been a trending topic on social media in anticipation of the film.

These types of posts keep the brand’s content fresh, which helps build trust with the audience.

3. Consistent Storylines

Duolingo’s account also does a great job of having consistent storylines for the audience to follow. This helps viewers feel more connected to the brand and creates a sense of belonging because consistent viewers are in on the joke. Here are a few examples:

  • Duo’s one-sided rivalry with Google Translate: Several videos (including the example above) feature Duo shading Google Translate and those who use it instead of learning a new language on Duolingo.
  • Duo + Dua Lipa: Another storyline is Duo’s “crush” on singer Dua Lipa. This gives the brand easy material any time Dua Lipa is trending.
  • The Duolingo legal team: There’s another running joke on the TikTok account that highlights Duolingo’s counsel trying to stop Duo from posting (a nod to the unhinged nature of the content).

It’s not all memes and funny videos — the marketing strategy has provided an ROI for the company. Duolingo’s daily active users are up 62% from last year and it continues to be among the top-downloaded Education apps.

When done right, a more relaxed, less corporate approach to social media can cement an authentic connection between a brand and its audience. The content doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) have to consist of mean tweets and images of the company mascot in a thong to be effective, but a bit of personality and relatability can go a long way.

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