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How Duolingo Grew Its TikTok to 6.6M Followers
If I had to crown one company the king of TikTok, I’d go with Duolingo.
No corporate account is savvier at tapping into the zeitgeist or more reliable at going viral. Since relaunching its TikTok channel in September 2021, Duolingo’s account has swelled to 6.6M followers—more than iconic brands like Disney (4.1M), Apple (2.8M), and Nike (4.3M).
To learn how a language-learning app became a viral marketing sensation, I tracked down the woman behind the scenes—24-year-old Zaria Parvez.
Zaria is Duolingo’s Global Social Media Manager and oversees every aspect of its TikTok. For this week’s Digital Native, I chatted with Zaria about how she masterminded Duolingo’s TikTok.
Before jumping in, I’ll offer a backdrop on today’s customer acquisition environment—including why TikTok has become so important—and to close, I’ll dig into how startups should approach TikTok.
The Backdrop: Rising CACs and TikTok Virality
Chatting with Zaria Parvez about Duolingo’s TikTok
How Startups Should Launch a TikTok Strategy
Let’s dive in.
The Backdrop: Rising CACs and TikTok Virality
Customer acquisition today is a bit of a contradiction.
On the one hand, it’s never been harder to grow. Apple’s App Tracking Transparency changes have decimated acquisition, leading to ballooning CACs and deteriorating measurement; ATT has lopped $10 billion off Meta’s business alone. Google SEO/SEM, meanwhile, is declining in quality, and Big Tech has never been bigger: startups have to compete with the built-in distribution of Goliaths like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google.
On the other hand, it’s never been easier to go viral. TikTok popularized an algorithmic feed that untethers content from a follower graph. The For You Page is egalitarian: if your content is good enough, you can blow up overnight. A video that takes 10 minutes to create might garner you a million impressions. This makes TikTok a rare bright spot in an otherwise grim CAC environment.
TikTok also offers a valuable audience, serving up the younger demographics that marketers have traditionally coveted:
And those young users spend a lot of time on TikTok. eMarketer reports 56 minutes of average daily engagement for monthly active users, beating out YouTube (48 minutes), Twitter (34 minutes), Snapchat (31 minutes), and Instagram (31 minutes):
A recent Qustodio study focused on daily active users and showed TikTok running circles around YouTube—113 minutes per day vs. 77 minutes per day.
TikTok’s rapid rise has left companies scrambling to figure out the channel. Platforms like TikTok can be easily misunderstood by corporate types. (Dismissing TikTok as “just a lipsyncing app” was the 2020 version of dismissing YouTube as “just cat videos” back in the late 2000s.) Having a TikTok strategy doesn’t seem as “serious” as scaling paid spend on Facebook Ad Manager, and emerging social channels perennially face an uphill battle on stigma (particularly when they target a young audience). But things get serious when you acquire tens of thousands of users—for free.
There’s a saying in the startup world, first popularized by Twitch’s Justin Kan: “First time founders are obsessed with product. Second time founders are obsessed with distribution.” Product is still the be-all and end-all, of course; there’s no substitute for a 10x product. But Kan is right: nailing distribution is fundamental to startup success. Without it, you’re left with a product that won’t grow. To bring back a Paul Graham quote I’ve used before:
“A startup is a company designed to grow fast. Being newly founded does not in itself make a company a startup. Nor is it necessary for a startup to work on technology, or take venture funding, or have some sort of ‘exit.’ The only essential thing is growth. Everything else we associate with startups follows from growth.”
TikTok is a new arrow in a growth team’s quiver. As a channel, it’s growing quickly—TikTok’s ad revenue hit $10B in 2022, up from $4B in 2021—and it’s evolving in real time. This makes it high upside for companies, but uniquely difficult to master.
Q&A with Zaria Parvez from Duolingo
How did you come to be hired at Duolingo?
I grew up in a Pakistani Muslim house in Portland, Oregon and studied Advertising in the School of Journalism at University of Oregon. Throughout my time in college, I was able to intern at a lot of different advertising agencies across the country. I quickly realized that if I wanted to be able to bring my full self to my job and feel empowered to do great work, I needed to be at a place that was inherently diverse. I was more interested in working for Duolingo than specifically looking for a job in social media.
Why wasn’t Duolingo’s initial TikTok strategy successful?
When we first launched our TikTok, we fell into the same trap of doing what we’ve always done and not really adapting to what people expect from content on the platform. Most of our content was product-driven or specifically about learning a language and didn’t really establish a connection with our audience. The reality is people wanted to be entertained, not sold to—and it took us failing to learn that.
What led you to revamp Duolingo’s TikTok?
The account as we know it today started in September 2021 on the heels of the pandemic, when in-office work was ramping up again. There were a lot of things at play, but the main reason things changed: TikTok had just announced 1 billion monthly active users and the first thought that went through my head was: if people are on the TikTok app, they’re not on ours.
When you went to revamp the account, what was the new strategy?
I re-evaulated our failed strategy and pitched the idea of Duo [Duolingo’s owl mascot] being a creator himself. At the time, it was almost a sense of satire that a big green owl could participate in internet trends and be an influencer. From there, we really see each piece of content we create as a way to tell the Duolingo story in a non-traditional way. You get to experience our company culture, a flavor of working for a big green owl, and ways a language learning app interacts with the world.
How did has your strategy evolved over time as you responded to what was working and what wasn’t working?
The core of the strategy has pretty much stayed the same and has led to sustained growth and virality. I think the main thing we saw is that the owl needs to be in each video for it to be successful.
Do you have a favorite viral moment?
Of course. I think what’s memorable is rather than the actual video, it’s more about what was going on behind the scenes. My favorite moment was the first time we did the iconic Duo twerk. I was with my coworker, showed him this trend and was like “Is it possible to twerk in the suit?” And we couldn’t stop laughing after we posted it. The video hit almost 6M views within 4 hours and all these news outlets started reaching out to us about how we transformed Brand TikTok.
What's the structure of the team? In-house or contractors? Who comes up with the ideas?
Our team is pretty fickle and evolves quite a bit. When I first started, it was just me and [one other person] who split her time between social and PR. After our TikTok success, we hired a Global Head of Social. Since then, we’ve had a couple interns and a couple contractors. In August 2023, we’ll officially get two full time people added, making us a 4-person team!
Ideas and execution usually come from me and our contractors, but I oversee any content before it goes live. When it comes to frequency, we’re more focused on great ideas rather than frequency. It really depends on how many great ideas we have a week. Sometimes it’s just 1 post a week, sometimes it’s 5.
How does the team come up with concepts like Love Language?
[For April Fool’s Day, Duolingo put out a trailer for a new dating show called Love Language. The premise of the show is that 10 “confident and flirty singles” from across the globe come together “to share a house in paradise in hopes of finding true love.” The catch: None of them speak the same language. The trailer for the fake Peacock show is hilarious.]
Since our TikTok success, our team mantra and marketing strategy has shifted to being social-first. We have an awesome brand marketing team that helps pitch big ideas like Love Language and our job is to figure out how we can make it viral on social media. Everyone in marketing knows we take big swings, actual risks and aren’t scared to push the envelope—so that usually means ideas like Love Language are part of our DNA. [The trailer for Love Language has 12.2M views on TikTok.]
Can you map ROI on the TikTok account? How do you quantify user acquisition?
Yup, we can. When you open the app, you’re presented with a “How Did You Hear About Us?” survey and social media—TikTok specifically—is an option you can click. Whenever a post or comment goes viral, we’ve witnessed a stark increase of users from that survey. Interestingly enough, we also see a spike in resurrected users.
How has TikTok changed over the past two years? How do you think it'll change over the next two?
Well, for one, it’s harder to go viral. We entered the game right when it was taking off, but now that the platform has become more saturated, it’s harder to get constant big wins. I also believe we’ve shaped the way companies take risks on the platform, so it’s pretty wild to see how many random brand accounts now have a mascot suit. I think trends won’t feel as shared as they used to in the sense that more micro-communities will have niche specific trends while on a macro lens we’re having even more individualized experiences.
What common mistakes do you see companies make with their TikTok accounts?
This may sound cliche, but the number one mistake is companies get caught in the ideas of what they can or can’t be. Objectively speaking, it doesn’t make sense for a language learning app to be obsessed with Dua Lipa or to be twerking on conference room tables. But when did we decide which brands are ‘allowed’ to be social-first and which have to be traditional?
What advice would you have for a startup getting started on TikTok and hoping for virality?
Be bold or go home. If the ideas don’t make you second guess how they’ll land, it probably means you’re not taking big enough risks. The cost of disruption is risk.
Launching TikTok as a Startup
Every startup should experiment with TikTok. Typically, the channel is low cost: early employees, or even founders, can handle video production themselves. And the channel can surprise to the upside, becoming a highly-efficient acquisition engine when done right.
There are a few common ingredients to successful TikTok strategies I’ve seen; some of these build on what Zaria said before. To tackle three of them:
Organic to the platform,
Low production value
Organic to the Platform
We’re well into the second decade of social media, and consumers have become smarter. Staid, overly-corporate marketing doesn’t work on social.
One shift in influencer marketing over the past few years has been brands becoming less prescriptive. It used to be commonplace for brands to require approval on all content—both the image / video, and the caption. Brands have since learned to relinquish control, trusting creators to get it right. In tandem, brands have poured dollars into formats like TikTok’s Spark ads—a native ad format that lets brands put money behind a creator’s content. To the user, videos appear organically as originating from the creator’s account.
The best companies lean into what makes TikTok unique as a platform. They use popular features like Stitch and Duet, they jump on new filters (Bold Glamour, for instance), and—most importantly—they participate in timely trends.
In February’s The Retail Revolution, we covered Mary Clare Lacke, a 20-year-old intern at Claire’s, the teen accessories retailer that was once the go-to place for any 90s-baby looking to get her ears pierced. Claire’s revenue declined throughout the 2010s as the brand struggled to stay relevant in the digital age. One of Lacke’s tasks as an intern: inject fresh energy by running Claire’s nascent TikTok account.
In an 11-second video, Lacke riffed on a TikTok trend called “krissing”—a bait-and-switch type of video, inspired by Kris Jenner, that misleads the viewer and then reveals the fake-out. Lacke used #krissing to reveal that Claire’s did indeed still sell gummy bear earrings. The video generated 1.5M views and 20,000 new followers for the company’s TikTok account.
The Claire’s video is an example of a well-executed corporate TikTok: it feels organic to the platform because it touches on a popular trend. It taps into the zeitgeist.
We see similar themes in other successful brands on TikTok. Ryanair, a possible runner-up to Duolingo for best brand on TikTok, consistently touches on timely trends. Here’s one alluding to TikTok’s inexplicable love for capybaras:
Other savvy brands create their own challenges, which lean into TikTok’s infinite meme-ability. Chipotle’s Lid Flip Challenge was its first viral hit, with 100K users replicating the challenge on their own accounts.
Chipotle quickly followed with the #GuacDance challenge, which brought in 250K video submissions and 430M impressions in just six days.
Are You Not Entertained?
There’s a reason people like Super Bowl commercials; they transcend corporate shilling to become entertainment. A good TikTok strategy should do the same.
I like how Zaria put it: “The reality is people wanted to be entertained, not sold to.” It’s possible to promote your product and entertain. Ryanair, for instance, consistently pokes fun at itself—no wi-fi onboard, hidden luggage fees, no legroom—by emphasizing its key feature: low prices. Duolingo manages to remind users that it’s a language learning app, all while still being funny:
One of the earliest viral case studies on TikTok was E.l.f. Cosmetics, which commissioned an original song called “Eyes. Lips. Face” (that’s what E.l.f. stands for) specifically for TikTok, tapping top TikTokers to promote the song. It worked: videos tagged #eyeslipsface have been viewed 6.7 billion times and the original song is the soundtrack for 3 million videos. Celebrities like Lizzo, Ellen, and Reese Witherspoon joined the challenge organically, and later, E.l.f. launched an accompanying music video on YouTube. The song was entertaining enough to even break into Spotify’s trending songs playlist.
E.l.f. later released a second original song, “Vanishing Act,” to promote the brand’s Poreless Putty Primer. Again, product promotion and entertainment can co-exist. I like one line that Zaria said: “When did we decide which brands are ‘allowed’ to be social-first and which have to be traditional?” Traditional often means boring. Boring won’t break through the noise of the internet, and it won’t drive acquisition.
Low Production Value
Locket is an app that lets you embed photos from friends into your phone’s homescreen—sort of a digital photo album. You can send your friends Locket photos that update automatically. Matt Moss started Locket as a way to stay close to his long-distance girlfriend, and he began to promote the app on TikTok. As a one-man-show, Locket went viral, hitting #1 in the App Store and amassing 20 million downloads and 1 billion photo shares in its first few months.
I asked Matt what content works well for a startup—his advice: “Telling a story about the creation of the product is great for authenticity. Some of our best-performing videos just explain how and why the app was originally built.”
Locket’s first-ever video does just that. It’s just Matt, telling Locket’s founding story, and showing how his app works. The video has amassed 3.2M views and 100K likes.
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High production values often do more harm than good; they come across as trying too hard. People are drawn to real-life people and to authenticity, as overused as that word has become. The savviest startups on TikTok understand this.
Notion, for instance, has amassed a strong TikTok following by filming approachable, low-cost, everyday content. In one recent TikTok, Notion explains its new AI features by walking up to an employee and having her demonstrate how she uses Notion AI. It’s simple and straightforward, yet the video has 531K views and 44K likes. On TikTok, bigger isn’t always better.
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There’s another quote about distribution that I like. Originally from Alex Rampell, the line has become a common saying in Silicon Valley: “The battle between every startup and the incumbent comes down to whether the startup gets distribution before the incumbent gets innovation.”
Distribution has only gotten harder for startups. The usual playbook—dial up Facebook Ad Manager, turn on SEO/SEM, sprinkle in some influencer marketing—no longer works. This is concerning. It’s especially concerning when customer discovery is changing so rapidly in the age of AI. We used to visit Airbnb.com to book a trip. Soon, we might ask ChatGPT, “Book me a room in Paris next week.” This creates a new paradigm shift in acquisition, reinventing the customer-company relationship—right when startups were already struggling to master distribution.
The good news is that distribution is also becoming more accessible. Platforms like TikTok allow anyone to quickly leverage their creativity to amass an audience. With the right idea, one person and an iPhone could acquire more users than an expensive television campaign. I expect generative AI tools will further level the playing field: you won’t need a small army of animators or expensive equipment to create marketing content.
TikTok is more saturated than it was a year ago, but it’s still relatively fertile ground. As CAC headwinds push against incumbents and startups alike, TikTok offers a potential short-cut to hitting escape velocity—if you can muster the right amount of savvy and originality.
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