How can a language learning tool generate so many memes? Duolingo prompts users to check-in every day

The learning software Duolingo is well-known for its engaging study sessions, and the brand’s mascot, “Duo” the Owl, is referred to as the “life-threatening bird”, known for bombarding users who don’t practice with study reminders. Recently, Duo, armed with a kitchen knife, participated in the “University of Life Opening Ceremony” organised by Xiaohongshu (RED) in Shanghai, bringing a sense of occasion to the graduates through activities such as acceptance notices and enrolment photos. During this event, Duolingo initiated a “pursuit mode” with a knife, chasing many fans and compelling them to voluntarily create a 10,000-day study plan. Through these graduation season activities with Xiaohongshu, Duolingo showcased its “persuasive” image from every angle.

Duolingo employs every possible means to encourage users to learn. In May this year, it staged a real-life battle royale in Japan, with a group of people dressed as owls chasing passers-by for 20 seconds, creating a heightened sense of urgency. In April, leveraging April Fool’s Day, Duolingo launched a multi-language musical, “Duolingo on Ice”, billed as the world’s first multi-language musical. Duo and the teachers performed collectively, singing and dancing for four hours, featuring surprise tracks like “Spanish or Vanish”, humorously threatening users who don’t keep up with their studies.

On mobile phones, Duolingo uses app notifications, widgets, messages, and every available method to urge users to study. These reminders range from suggestions and pleas to threats, both gentle and forceful. In April, Duolingo updated its icon from a “little green bird” to an “old green bird” with a slightly mournful look, which netizens jokingly attributed to hay fever. Users who missed a few days felt guilty, hoping that diligent studying would restore Duolingo to its youthful appearance. When the hashtag #Duolingo hay fever# trended on Weibo, it became clear that this was Duolingo’s spring limited edition icon.

Duolingo’s pervasive “persuasive” image is its most distinctive brand persona. Duolingo’s official account frequently interacts with netizens on Xiaohongshu and Weibo, sometimes even engaging in spirited banter (互怼), which doesn’t affect the audience’s feelings towards the direct personality of Duolingo. In the fourth quarter of 2023, Duolingo’s paid users reached 6.6 million, a 57% year-on-year increase, with paid membership subscription revenue totalling around $160 million, demonstrating significant user loyalty.

Regarding the product itself, Duolingo uses a level-based method to keep users engaged, deducting life points for incorrect answers and allowing progression only when a full set of life points is accumulated. This game-like design sets Duolingo apart from other monotonous language learning tools on the market.

Additionally, Duolingo has long been involved in the AI field and is an active advocate and user of AI technology. Duolingo is one of the first major GPT-4 customers. According to Reddit, Duolingo has laid off thousands of outsourced human linguists in favour of AI for translation tasks, although this has occasionally resulted in grammatical issues with some content.


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