How to Reimagine Mobile UA like Duolingo

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UA managers today have an unhealthy obsession with automated funnels, campaign structures, targeting options, AI, etc. There isn’t nearly enough love for the organic side of UA. It’s the battle between math and art. While I write MOSTLY about the math & performance side of UA, here’s some food for thought on the side of art.

Why is it important? Because global mobile ad spend is on track to reach $402B this year, with social and creators being at the forefront of it all. TikTok alone surpassed $10 billion in lifetime ad spend.

So what’s up with the bird?

If you aren’t on TikTok, you probably have no idea why or how the green bird became the most loved menace on the platform.

To set the stage here, the language learning app went public and was valued at $6.5B in July 2021. Although they started posting TikToks in February of that same year, they started getting edgier around May – just two months before one of the biggest days for the company.

That’s what makes this story special. Today they have 8.8m+ followers and 189.2M+ total likes on their videos. A year before their investment in TikTok, they were running TV ads that just weren’t driving any ROI, so they looked elsewhere.

The top comment on their TV Ad!

Boring and ineffective TV campaigns. Let’s try to change that?!

The premise

Just like Wendy’s vastly popular Twitter account circa 2017, Duolingo took TikTok by storm with a very similar approach…but even crazier.

Their first TikTok

@duolingo

Do you know what’s pretty cool? Learning #Italian slang with @samandwendy! 🇮🇹 Also, ciao! We’re on TikTok! #LearnOnTikTok #Duolingo #Slanguage

♬ original sound – Duolingo

What they post today

@duolingo

#HeeDuo is real !!! whos the delulu one now??? thank you everyone who danced with me yesterday at newark it was so fun🥺🥺🥺 #engene #enhypen #heeseung

♬ polaroid love – ‘•.¸♡♡¸.•’

@duolingo

sad g(owl) hours #duoplushie #duolingo #languagelearning #emo

♬ Rio romeo – 𝖑𝖚𝖍’🕷 ★

@duolingo

Langauge simply wasn’t enough😫😤 #math #music #duolingo

♬ original sound – Duolingo

The premise basically is that their green bird mascot, Duo, will do whatever it takes to remind you to do your daily Duolingo exercises. Whether that’s by threatening you or simping on your favorite K-pop idols with you.

@duolingo

The most unhinged reality TV show yet, hosted by yours truly 😘 Love Language, a new @Duolingo and @peacock original series where sexy singles share a house in paradise in hopes of finding true love. The catch? None of them speak the same language. #duolingo #peacockoriginal #languagelearning #dulapeep #realitytv

♬ original sound – Duolingo

People on TikTok ate it up. I mean, it’s genuinely hilarious.

They’re so comfortable in their own skin that they openly roast other brands, their own followers, and celebrities. While they make it feel completely effortless, there’s a lot of work that goes into each and every video.

@duolingo

pov: i take u to a broadway show to congratulate u instead of going after ur family #duolingo #duolingostreak #languagelearning #fyp

♬ original sound – Duolingo

Behind the scenes

According to their CMO, they still spend almost half of their marketing budget on paid UA and the other half on producing organic content. TV is almost completely scaled back and replaced by TikTok videos, except in high-performing markets like Brazil and Japan.

But how did it start? They hired a Gen-Z TikTok fanatic, Zaria Parvez, to run the show. It was her first job out of college she envisioned a new personality for the once-whole owl. She pitched the idea to get the Owl to twerk on a conference room table and it was a massive hit – the rest is history.

They tested a random idea, validated it, and ran with it. The timing was everything. In an interview with Silicon Republic, she attributes her success to calculated risks.

“At Duolingo, we have this concept called calculated risk, which is all about consciously bold decisions that marry intention with impact. I think it’s really important to have this mindset of taking a calculated risk, because it brings up the safeguards and the spaces for you to take risks without overstepping the line or messing up too badly.”

But not everyone has the magic

Brands have tried and failed to emulate Duolingo’s magic. While most of them look like boring corporate accounts or straight-up cringe, I’ve tried my best to distill the criteria of what sets them apart from the rest.

Master controlled controversy

Duolingo very rarely crosses the line on offensive content. The only time they really had to apologize was for a silly comment about Amber Heard during the Johnny Depp trials (but everyone sided with Duo anyway).

The edgier stuff is mostly self-deprecating, but they’re in tune with what’s okay to joke about and what’s not. This strategy is called ‘controlled controversy,’ where you share your opinions or joke about subjects that have little to no political affiliation or morality.

Think about the Kardashians who continuously put out “harmless” PR stunts to maintain their relevance (minus the s*x tape). The controlled controversy is more like that time Kim created a ‘media moment’ by paying someone to throw flour on her at the red carpet. Or DJ Khaled proposing to Nicki Minaj on MTV.

Understand trending formats and sounds

There are so many unspoken signals to a successful TikTok. The way they’re paced, the way they sound, the lighting, camera angles, and even where the captions are on the screen. If you’re in the weeds of TikTok, you’ll see that trends emerge every waking moment. Whether it’s a memey carousel or a terrible capcut edit, you need to be on top of what’s trending, because TikTok will push that content heavily.

Jab jab jab, right hook strategy

Focus on building an audience first – the selling will come later. Washed-up social media guru Gary V coined the idea jab, jab, jab, right hook. He essentially says to deliver value (entertain, educate, inspire, or delight) for free consistently over time to build and serve a loyal audience. Once you earn their trust, you can ask for something in return (like downloading your app).

Duolingo’s team dedicates 80% of the time generating entertaining ideas while 20% of the time is reserved for scheduled promotional campaigns.

Take risks and move fast

Content is consumed so fucking fast today that you might have a golden opportunity to react to something and it’ll be gone if you’re dwelling too long on it. Someone might make a video about your brand, or mention you in a comment, or your competitor might be going viral. Whatever that opportunity is, make sure you’re always monitoring your niche and ready to be quippy in your responses.

Be absurdist

Because of how fast everything moves, Gen Z humor does, too. Gen Z and Gen Alpha memes are so far removed from the original joke that the humor is the absurdism, like what RyanAir is doing here.

@ryanair

We love stuffed crust >

♬ original sound – Ryanair

Learning the lingo is hard (sorry Boomers), so sometimes it’s best to hire someone who knows and understands the ethos of TikTok (maybe ask your nephew). It should come as naturally as RyanAir’s profile description.

Be thematic

While it’s funny to be unpredictable in the variety of your content, it pays to be predictable as well. Duolingo has a running theme of Duo attacking and threatening people to continue their streaks.

Some brands have a consistent look or format that is predictable but executed in a fresh way. There needs to be a uniformity and familiarity to your content to start building recognition in the long-run. If you’re just starting out, you’ll have to experiment with a ton of different formats and your audience will validate the themes for you.

Other accounts to look at

@quizlet

Replying to @ireallylikeapplesauce Gotta give the people what they want 🙏 #fyp #lunchtime #unhinged #pedropascalmeme

♬ New Home by Austin Farwell – GetBy

  • Finchcare: Their product is so good and has helped so many people with their mental health, it’s developed a massive cult following. Their paid ads on TikTok perform exceptionally well.
@finchcare

I guess it does work 🥰🥳 #mentalhealth #finchfam #fyp #selfcare #motivation #app #birbs #finchcare #finchtok

♬ original sound – 🎧‹𝟹

  • Scrubdaddy: Another cult following for a sponge product. Hilarious, edgy content.
@scrubdaddy

Wowzers! What a great product! 😀. #scrubdaddy #smile #cleantok #cleaningtiktok #americasfavoritesponge #scrubdaddycif

♬ Christmas Sleigh Bells Orchestral – Minister_of_SOUND

  • Bratz: Targeted towards Gen Z girls, but popular with Millennials for nostalgia
  • Roblox: Great at aggregating user-generated content and leveraging influencers

Anything I missed?

Oh wow! You made it here! You must be very engaged. I like that type of players… Ehm, people!

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