How Duolingo Took over the Meme World and What Marketers Can Learn from It

April 30, 2019

Duolingo has taken the meme world by a storm. You may be wondering what is the Duolingo meme craze? How did a company that teaches you to speak foreign languages become such a popular meme? Where did the Duolingo meme originate, and more importantly, how can marketers learn from Duolingo's approach to their rise in meme stardom?

What is the Duolingo meme craze

Duolingo memes are a series of humorous parodies based around Duo The Owl, the applications mascot. The premise of the meme is that Duo is a dangerous teacher who threatens users with real-world consequences for not using their application.

Where did the Duolingo meme originate

This meme originated on Tumblr on December 2nd, 2018 from an account by the name of screenshotsdespair. It was a screenshot of a Duolingo push notification that read, “Oops, that’s not correct. Run for your life.” The post ended up receiving 114,000 notes over the course of four months. This led to a series of meme’s revolving around ‘Duo the Evil Owl.’

Duolingo meme on Tumblr

How Duolingo responded

While some brands would have panicked given that meme culture has the tendency to take things too far, Duolingo made the decision to participate in the fun and further propel the success and virality of this meme to another level that they likely couldn’t have even imagined.

Duolingo April Fools' Twitter Preview

On March 26, 2019, Duolingo posted the image of Duo the owl entering a dark room with the text “Coming Soon” on their Twitter. To date, this post has received 2,400 retweets, 25,000 likes and 1.3K comments, an engagement rate much higher than their prior Twitter content.

Duolingo Twitter Meme

As a result, more people started to participate in the fun. A user by the name of @TayChang posted this meme, receiving more than 1,200 retweets and 10,000 likes in two days.

This ended up getting posted on the r/memes subreddit where it was also wildly successful. It received more than 97% upvotes getting 16,000 karma and 132 comments, propelling it to the front page. From there Duolingo propelled into meme stardom.

What Duolingo did on April Fools'

The image of Duo in the doorway posted by Duolingo on Twitter was leading up to their April Fool's video. Duolingo released a parody of a new feature called ‘Duolingo Push.’ This feature included real-life push notifications where Duo the Owl would come to you if you missed a lesson or were at risk of losing your streak in the app.

The internet loved it. This video received almost half a million views and 3,300 comments on Instagram and more than 2.3 million views on Youtube. To put this in perspective, this video received 33 times more views compared to their last video posted on Instagram.

“We love and embrace the Duolingo memes. They've grown organically because so many people have this shared experience of using Duolingo and getting our practice reminders,” said Cammie Dunaway, Duolingo’s Chief Marketing Officer. “We've been enjoying the memes for a long time and used them as inspiration for Duolingo Push, our April Fools' joke. I think our nod to the memes in this video is what really made them take off and turn into a viral craze in the last few weeks."

It was a clever play and it paid off for Duolingo, breathing more life into the Duolingo meme craze and reigning them as the company that won April Fools'.

What outcome did this create for Duolingo

The outcome this created for Duolingo on social media is unprecedented. Take a look at some of the analytics that show just how big of an impact this meme craze has had and is continuing to have for Duolingo on social media.

Hashtag analysis

Duolingo Hashtag Analysis Before

Above is a hashtag analysis for #duolingo and #duolingomeme between the dates of February 17th to March 16th, 2019. As you can see, there is a level of buzz that we'd expect from a company of this size and nature.

Duolingo Hashtag Analysis After

This image is for the same hashtag analysis between March 16th to April 16th 2019. Can you spot the difference?

  • Social reach on posts including these hashtags has gone from 6,000 to over 20,000,000 people
  • Social media likes on posts including these hashtags have gone from 500 to almost 2,000,000 people
  • Social media comments on posts including these hashtags have gone from 100 to 128,000

Keep in mind this is just an analysis for the hashtags #duolingo and #duolingomemes. If I considered all of the relevant hashtags being used, it’s likely these numbers would be much higher, but my point is to prove the earned media value this has created for them in a matter of weeks is astronomical.

Duolingo Instagram growth

Duolingo Instagram Growth

Duolingo has had an Instagram account for just under 7 years. Unfortunately, Duolingo’s Instagram analytics have only started being tracked since April 5th, 2019 so I can’t do a side-by-side comparison of their analytics now compared to prior to the meme craze. However, the results are clear.

  • Duolingo is expected to grow by 74,000 followers in the next 30 days, almost double what they’ve achieved in close to 7 years
  • Their engagement rate is continually rising, almost doubling in the course of a few weeks
  • Their average comments per post have almost doubled
  • They are expected to grow by 444,600 new followers over the next six months at these current rates

The impact this viral craze has created for their social growth in the past month tops out seven years of social media efforts. It shows the true power of social and how Duolingo was able to strategically catapult the impact through their internal marketing efforts.

Lessons that marketers can learn from Duolingo

1. Don’t be afraid to participate in the fun

Duolingo had a decision to make. They could’ve feared the content people were creating around their brand and worried about the possibility of meme culture taking things too far, or they could have participated in the fun and inserted themselves into the conversation. They chose the latter.

If you are lucky enough to be placed in a similar circumstance as Duolingo don’t shy away from the opportunity. It can be frightening for your marketing department because of the unpredictably around the content being created, but Duolingo made an intelligent decision by participating in a way that gave a subtle nod to the memes in a positive light.

2. Create anticipation

Duolingo could have hopped right into this meme phenomenon by immediately releasing their own take on it through content and memes on their social channels. Instead, they decided to be strategic by leveraging April Fool's as their day to shine.

This enabled them to create excitement and buzz about what was to come. They played on the idea, hinting to people that it was going to revolve around the meme craze, but they gave just enough information to keep people on their toes and generate curiosity and attention about their next move.

3. Be prepared for people to take things too far

Meme culture is a beast of its own. It happens outside of a brands control. People will take things too far and you have to be prepared for this.

When enough people participate in a trend, especially one that revolves around a brand, a small percentage of people are going to do things and create content that you don’t want to be associated with. It’s just the way it is. Be prepared for this, but don’t let that shy you away from the opportunity.

4. Don’t force it. Let it happen naturally.

Reddit has a subreddit called r/fellowkids that has more than 538,000 members with content often hitting the front page. The premise of this subreddit is to make fun of examples of advertisements and media attempting to appeal to youth culture and failing at it.


Chipotle Meme Example Failed

This Chipotle tweet is a prime example of many. This is an attempt to appear ‘hip’ and it backfired generating lots of heat and ending up on r/fellowkids. Young people are savvy and when you make forceful attempts to be relatable people see right through it and your company.

Duolingo was successful because they didn’t force it or try too hard to 'be cool.' They ran with the fun and participated in a way that played on the meme trend nicely without overdoing it. As a result, it only drove the trend to new heights rather than crashing it into the ground.

Conclusion

Memes can have an unparalleled effect on social media that can’t be bought with even the largest advertising budgets. It’s amazing to see the impact a Tumblr post and a bit of strategy by Duolingo has created for their brand on social media, and I hope it inspires more marketers to place a higher focus on understanding meme culture and how to properly participate in this new era of content.