Fun and games: Duo's gamification and absurd TikToks are working

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Word games

A huge part of Duolingo’s success is in good old-fashioned entertainment, or — as critics see it — the gamification of the language-learning process.

The company has made no secret of its use of fun to liven up its educational methods, incorporating numerous game mechanics and tactics into the app. As users learn, they are rewarded with experience (XP) points, they can win “gems”, and they need to keep hold of their “hearts” in order to keep playing… all features that could be straight out of a video game. And then of course there’s the streak — arguably Duolingo’s most effective psychological hook — which keeps people coming back to the app day after day, in order to keep their streak alive, with pushy notifications to tell you if you’ve forgotten to log in.

Those mechanics are core to what makes Duolingo so successful, but they’ve also positioned the company for criticism from those who say that they oversimplify the language-learning process, favoring lessons that optimize for in-app engagement over what might be most helpful in real world situations.

Weird is working

The company has also leaned into what has been described as “unhinged” marketing on TikTok. Unlike so many brands that post polished marketing material, Duolingo’s TikTok is meme-heavy… and often just straight up weird.

Videos have included the company's legal team trying to catch the owl mascot to stop it from posting online, obsessions with celebrities (notably Dua Lipa) and non-stop nonsensical memes. That approach has set Duolingo apart, growing to nearly 10 million followers, as people follow along to see the content that they presumably can’t quite believe is coming from an official brand channel. The company is also planning a 5-second local Super Bowl ad, which executives at the company say will be “quite stunting”.

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