Title card: How Duolingo Grew a $6 Billion Brand with Guilt & Memes, a Growth Marketing Case Study

Duolingo’s $6-Billion Growth Marketing Case Study: Using Guilt & Memes to Get Engagement

In This Article:

Duolingo became a growth marketing case study for the modern age when they grew their TikTok account 40X over in under 5 months. They also took off as a standout brand among Gen-Z and a model for capturing the power of social media culture. In a way that felt authentic, not horribly forced.

A former user, I recently downloaded the app again because of all the buzz. I love the easy access to free, valuable educational content. 

What I don’t love are the guilt trips baked into the customer marketing and product experience.

Duolingo sends an abundance of communications to remind you to take lessons.

These aren’t simple touch points, though.

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They are pushy at best. Passive aggressive and naggy at worst.

My mom’s texts asking when I’m coming to visit again (along with a story about 3 days of labor and a lifetime of motherly love and sacrifice) are more subtle.

And I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Let’s look at the quirky growth marketing case study provided by Duolingo’s engagement and retention strategy.

Acquisition vs Retention: The Growth Equation

duolingo growth marketing case study provides a lesson in balancing customer retention and acquisition. the churn rate equation is number of customer lost divided by total customers you started with.

But first let’s talk about what’s at the heart of this matter: growth. 

Scalable growth requires a cost-effective balance between acquisition and retention.

High customer churn is one of the primary drivers of inefficiency and high spend in marketing. 

Churn means “the rate at which customers stop doing business with a company over a given period of time,” cancel their subscriptions/memberships, or fail to renew. The way companies measure it varies based on average time between customer purchases or length of subscriptions/memberships. Some look at churn over 3 months, others 6 months, etcetera.

Ultimately businesses want to avoid becoming a revolving door. 

Figuring out ways to keep customers engaged matters even more depending on the industry.

And many mobile apps, like Duolingo, face significant difficulties with retention. 

One out of four of us abandon an app after only one use. However, that app abandonment rate improves with savvy marketing tactics like:

  • Dynamic messaging
  • Profile-based targeting
  • Location-based messaging

Which brings us to the Duolingo case study.

Before the Duolingo Growth Marketing Case Study: Background and Facts

Duolingo began developing in about 2009 and became available for all in 2012.

They secured millions in investments over the years from big names, including Google Capital and Ashton Kutcher’s firm.

Fun fact: The inventor of reCAPTCHA, Luis von Ahn, is a co-founder of this language learning app, along with his former student, Severin Hacker. (Hacker’s parents deserve a thank you for that all-too-perfect name.)

They shared a belief that education was too expensive. 

Hence why Duolingo remains, even to this day, free to use. Unless you want an ad-free experience, in which case you can pay for a subscription.

From April 2020 to March 2022, their paid user subscriber base rose from 1 million to 2.9 million.

It’s a fun and useful tool.

Features like hearts and score leaderboards make it feel like a game rather than a boring, required educational course.

But there’s still that issue of the guilt marketing engagement strategy.

So What’s the Story with Duolingo Guilt Marketing?

If you do a search on Twitter, numerous users have shared their reactions to the guilt-trip marketing strategy. Sometimes appreciative, but more often annoyed.

Duolingo stands by the method regardless of these tweets.

The brand’s machine learning team shared some of the secret sauce behind their strategy.

An advanced AI system determines which messages to send based on different factors.

The basics sound a lot like the way social media algorithms work. Serving up content, seeing how users respond, tailoring future content based on these behavioral patterns.

The Duolingo system developed based on over 200 million user interactions.

And it continues to provide interesting insights as it learns. Such as the fact that users learning different languages (such as learners of Chinese versus English) respond best to different engagement nudges.

According to Duolingo, the guilt trips were actually found to be 5 to 8% more effective at getting users re-engaged than other methods.

twitter thread by duolingo vp of product cem kansu discussing the effectiveness of their user engagement and retention strategy - and specifically their "passive aggressive reminder" that says "hi! it's duo. these reminders don't seem to be working. we'll stop sending them for now." cem says this notification is among the best performing. (from article: duolingo growth marketing case study )

Duolingo VP of Product Cem Kansu posted a Twitter thread sharing that one of their most controversial notifications performs very well.

He said the notification shows the benefits of product and marketing communications that are:

  • Personal
  • Unique
  • Well-timed

User Responses to Duolingo Guilt Marketing

duolingo growth marketing case study : users respond to the guilt marketing tactics used by the brand to increase user retention and engagement with the app

Responses to this thread pointed out potential issues, though.

Why not personalize the notification experience to the individual user’s preference? Shouldn’t users get to decide if they want more positive or motivating language?

Some even said passive aggressiveness and guilt marketing turns them off from using the product at all rather than the intended effect.

The whole thing spawned the creation of the Evil Duolingo Owl meme.

It features the brand mascot, Duo the Owl, threatening users who don’t continue using the app for language lessons.

the duolingo mascot, duo the evil owl, stars in memes showcasing him threatening users for missing language lessons on the app. it's a spoof on the company's use of passive aggressiveness and guilt marketing, a key part of their engagement and growth marketing case study strategy.

On their part, the team at Duolingo took advantage of the attention pretty brilliantly.

They regularly joke about it all with snarky marketing campaigns acknowledging their pushy practices.

It’s the kind of self-aware, tongue-in-cheek tone that fuels the brand’s social media and TikTok marketing success.

They embrace the mockery…and then incorporate it into their marketing.

And Gen-Z + Millennials embrace that kind of brand authenticity.

That may be why their user base trends younger, with 60% of global users under age 30.

Some Duolingo marketing examples of this:

  • Lawyer vs Duo fake-advertises legal services to anyone who’s been bothered
  • Duolingo Push shows beloved mascot Duo stalking people to get them to use the app (check out this clever landing page)
  • Responding to social media users in character like in this clever tweet

The Science Behind This Growth Marketing and Engagement Strategy

But trying to guilt your way to increased repeat customers still feels a little icky. 

“Guilt can encourage negative attitudes and even anger.”

“For example, guilt appeals by commercial marketers can backfire because consumers may be turned off by feeling guilty. I would venture that because Duolingo is a commercial marketer, the use of guilt appeals may backfire.”

That’s a quote by Raji Srinivasan, a professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business.

“Shaming people is often associated with undesired behavioral outcomes, such as reacting defensively [or] withdrawing,” says Linda Hagen, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.

According to one study on the effects of guilt appeal marketing:

  • Repeatedly using guilt in marketing or ads can make customers start to permanently associate that product or brand with those negative feelings
  • Customers could start trying to counter or argue against the message you’re presenting as a way of coping with the guilt and negativity they feel
  • The effects of marketing based on negative emotions like guilt can vary a lot based on the personality or circumstances of the person watching
  • Marketers should be careful to recognize the differences between causing guilt versus shame. One says “I have done something bad,” while the latter says “I am bad as a person”

Final Thoughts on Guilt Trips and this Duolingo Growth Marketing Case Study

Ultimately Duolingo provides an incredible growth marketing case study for brands looking to add more authenticity and freshness to their strategies.

They lead the pack when it comes to TikTok, and they’ve connected with Gen-Z like few other companies.

But the jury is still out on their use of pushiness, passive aggressiveness, guilt, and other negative emotions in their marketing and retention.

Personally, Duolingo is the first place I go when I’m looking to learn a language.

But I did breathe a sigh of relief when I received that infamous passive aggressive reminder, telling me that the notifications would stop after weeks of inactivity.

I was going through some things in life and just didn’t have the bandwidth to continue lessons.

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That doesn’t mean I wanted to stop entirely. I just didn’t have the energy or focus to engage with the app at that time.

The guilt trips were a big turn off.

I didn’t need the push to feel disappointed with myself. I would rather Duo had said, “Hey, great work at being so consistent for so long. Take some time if you need it. I’ll be here when you get back.”

But based on the data reported by the team, many other users disagree with me.

And Duolingo just doesn’t quit.

In 2018 they did a rebrand to make Duo the mascot even more teary, even more pathetic, even more manipulative.

Just shows the difficulty of creating a one-size-fits-all marketing strategy.

What works for some of your customers or users just won’t work for everyone.

And that’s probably OK at the end of the day. Especially when you have data to back that up.

Key Takeaways:

  • Since 2020, Duolingo’s paid user subscriber base grew from 1 million to 2.9 million
  • Duolingo bases its product and marketing strategy on machine learning algorithms and millions of user interactions
  • The brand reports passive aggressiveness and guilt marketing messages are 5 to 8% more effective at creating user engagement than other methods
  • Personalization, timing and uniqueness add more success to their product and marketing strategy
  • Gen-Z and young Millennials gravitate toward the brand, with 60% of global users under age 30
  • The success of guilt marketing depends on the frequency of exposure and the personalities/circumstances of the audience

In summary: Duolingo offers an outstanding growth marketing case study of a Gen-Z-favorite brand that does authentic, engaging marketing that cuts through the digital noise.

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