20VC How Duolingo Scaled to 8M TikTok Followers, How to Create Viral Content, Why Most Companies Suck at Content Marketing and How to Change & Why You Should Not Work with Content Agencies with Zaria Parvez, Global Social Media Manager @ Duolingo

Summary Notes


In a revealing dialogue on social media strategy, Zaria Pervez, Duolingo's global social media manager, shares her insights with the host on leveraging TikTok for brand growth. Zaria emphasizes the importance of tapping into cultural moments and adopting a "steal like an artist" approach to resonate with audiences, attributing Duolingo's rise from 50,000 to 8 million TikTok followers to this tactic. She advocates for hiring troublemakers who push boundaries and are detached from traditional marketing, noting that creativity thrives under resource constraints. Additionally, Zaria highlights the value of internal teams over agencies for authentic brand representation and stresses the significance of content that transcends trends, creating storylines that engage even beyond the platform. Despite the pressures of maintaining viral success, she underscores the need for balance and personal contentment over career ambition.

Summary Notes

Stealing Like an Artist

  • TikTok culture involves a significant amount of imitation and adaptation of content.
  • Being original on TikTok can involve putting a unique spin on existing trends.
  • Zaria Pervez views TikTok for Duolingo as episodic, like a sitcom, where each piece of content is an episode that contributes to ongoing storylines.

"The best way to start is to steal like an artist. I say that because a lot of TikTok is like copying each other. Like that is the truth of it. I always say our TikTok is like a sitcom. Everything we put out there is an episode."

The quote emphasizes the strategy of adapting existing content creatively on TikTok and the approach of treating each piece of content as part of a larger narrative or series.

The Importance of Short-Form Video

  • Short-form video is critical for engaging audiences and scaling social media presence.
  • Duolingo's TikTok following scaled from 50,000 to 8 million due to effective use of short-form content.
  • Tools like captions and Miro can streamline the content creation process and organize workflow.

"Short form video has never been more important and I wanted to cover a breakout success story of a company that's leveraged TikTok and scaled it insanely well."

This quote emphasizes the significance of short-form video in the current digital landscape and introduces Duolingo as a case study of successful growth on TikTok.

Zaria Pervez's Background and Duolingo's Mission

  • Zaria Pervez graduated during the pandemic and sought a company aligned with her values.
  • Duolingo's mission to make education accessible and its diverse culture attracted her.
  • Initially, Zaria's content creation for Duolingo was conservative, but she later took more risks.

"Duolingo popped out to me, mainly because the mission of Duolingo is really near and dear to my heart. It's to make education accessible."

The quote highlights Zaria Pervez's personal connection to Duolingo's mission and how it influenced her decision to work there.

Transition to Riskier Content

  • The shift to more engaging and riskier content was a gradual process.
  • Zaria's fresh perspective as a new graduate contributed to the success of TikTok content.
  • The presence of the Duolingo mascot in the office sparked the idea for more creative content.

"It wasn't until a little bit later that we started taking more risks and creating the content we do now."

This quote explains the evolution of Duolingo's content strategy from standard posts to more innovative and engaging TikTok content.

Choosing TikTok as the Platform

  • Zaria chose TikTok due to her familiarity with it and its significant user base.
  • TikTok's user engagement was seen as a competitor to Duolingo's app usage.
  • The goal was to integrate Duolingo's educational content into TikTok to redirect users back to the app.

"Our real competitors are like TikTok and other social media platforms that are taking the attention away from doing our daily lesson."

The quote reflects the strategic view of social media platforms as competitors in terms of user attention and the need to integrate educational content within those platforms.

TikTok: Art or Science?

  • TikTok content creation requires understanding the platform's mechanics and trends.
  • The Duolingo team values creativity and the ability to leverage trends effectively.
  • Zaria believes in a balance between artistic creativity and understanding the 'science' of the platform.

"This is such a cop out answer, but I think it's a mix of both."

This quote expresses the belief that successful TikTok content creation is a blend of artistic creativity and strategic understanding of the platform's algorithms and trends.

  • Initially, copying trends can be beneficial for gaining traction on TikTok.
  • As a brand grows, there is a need to develop unique storylines and content.
  • Duolingo's TikTok features recurring characters and storylines that resonate with followers.

"But it's something that can live and function as short form video content, even if it was to leave TikTok."

The quote suggests that creating content with a narrative can extend beyond TikTok and engage audiences on a deeper level.

Engaging New Followers

  • Duolingo doesn't simplify content for new followers but trusts them to engage with complex storylines.
  • The brand believes in the intelligence of its users to understand and enjoy the content.
  • The content strategy involves balancing humor with demonstrating the app's effectiveness.

"I would say that we literally just drop them into the deepest part of the ocean and say, swim."

This quote reflects Duolingo's approach to engaging new followers by immersing them directly into the brand's existing content narratives without oversimplification.

Content Relevance to Brand Mission

  • Not every piece of content on TikTok needs to explicitly relate to Duolingo's language learning app.
  • Building a relationship with followers can lead to increased interest in the brand's core offerings.
  • The focus is on creating entertaining content rather than overtly educational material on social media.

"People don't come to social to learn a language, and very few people actually care about our app when they're on social media."

The quote underscores the strategy of prioritizing entertainment and relationship-building over direct promotion of Duolingo's educational services on social media platforms.

Social Media Engagement Strategy

  • The strategy involves meeting the audience where they are, which is typically on social media for breaks or entertainment.
  • Content must be engaging and tailored to the interests and behaviors of the audience on social platforms.

"It's just not something that they're going to social for. They're going for either a break or for entertainment. So we need to grab them and meet them where they are."

This quote emphasizes the importance of understanding the context in which the audience uses social media and tailoring content to fit that context.

Ideation and Content Creation Process

  • Initially, content ideas stemmed from humorous office tropes and the unique culture at Duolingo.
  • The community's reactions and comments on social media platforms often guide the content creation process.
  • The ideation process has evolved from a one-person effort to a team approach, with a head of social, a social coordinator, and a social media manager.
  • The team uses a collaborative approach, sharing trending topics and ideas in a Slack channel and creating content quickly.

"These were genuinely just funny tropes that I thought existed in our office. I think Duo is a very quirky place in general."

This quote reflects the organic nature of content creation in the early days, based on the company's internal culture and humor.

Impact of Office Environment on Creativity

  • Being physically in the office provided a conducive environment for sparking ideas and creativity.
  • The use of available resources and a scrappy approach to content creation are seen as beneficial.
  • The speaker expresses skepticism about the possibility of achieving the same level of creativity remotely.

"I don't think so. And I say that as someone who is a homebody and loves being remote."

The quote suggests that despite a personal preference for remote work, the speaker acknowledges the value of in-office interactions for content creation.

Pressure of Content Releases

  • The speaker feels pressure from the marketing team to maintain high performance and viral content.
  • There is an internal struggle to accept that not all content will go viral and that it is okay to return to the drawing board.

"I do feel pressure from our marketing team in general."

This quote conveys the speaker's sense of responsibility to meet the expectations set by the marketing team and the challenges that come with it.

Adapting Content Across Platforms

  • The team is focused on TikTok reels and shorts, with each platform requiring different approaches.
  • Trends and content types vary significantly across platforms, making it challenging to apply the same strategy everywhere.
  • The team has divided responsibilities by generational divides to better tailor content to each platform.

"TikTok and reels feel more connected, and shorts just feels like a new ballgame."

This quote highlights the differences between platforms and the need for a nuanced approach to content adaptation.

Channel Expertise and Content Team Structure

  • Having team members specialize in particular social media channels contributes to more effective content creation.
  • The speaker emphasizes the importance of channel-specific knowledge rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

"It's really helpful having almost experts in each channel talk to us and give feedback."

The quote underlines the value of specialized knowledge and collaboration within a content team.

Predicting Viral Content

  • Predicting whether a post will go viral is not straightforward due to constantly changing algorithms.
  • The speaker uses personal enjoyment and the potential for sharing as a litmus test for content quality.
  • Feedback from people outside the brand, such as the speaker's nephew, provides valuable insights into the content's appeal.

"I wish I had a go viral button so bad."

The speaker expresses the unpredictable nature of viral content and the desire for a more certain way to achieve it.

Importance of Consistency on TikTok

  • The speaker believes that the quality of content is more important than the frequency of posting.
  • Taking breaks from content creation can prevent burnout and lead to better content upon return.
  • The reality is that the audience is unlikely to miss the content during short absences.

"I believe that the quality of content is far more important than the quantity."

This quote emphasizes the speaker's philosophy that content quality should take precedence over posting frequency.

Brand Presence Across Multiple Platforms

  • The decision to be present on multiple platforms should align with the brand's core truths and strategy.
  • Duolingo's brand truths involve making language learning fun and having the mascot, Duo, appear everywhere to remind users to do their lessons.

"For us, what we've established with our TikTok is language learning is hard, so we make it fun."

The quote summarizes Duolingo's brand message and its relevance to their content strategy across various platforms.

Learning from Mistakes

  • The speaker acknowledges the responsibility that comes with a large audience and the potential for mistakes.
  • Early mistakes include inappropriate comments and content that did not translate well across different demographics.
  • Learning from these mistakes has helped refine the approach to risk-taking and boundary-pushing in content creation.

"I've commented on something that I probably shouldn't have before, and I got checked and balanced for that."

This quote reflects on a personal learning experience and the importance of understanding the impact of social media comments.

Relationship with Team and Content Creation

  • Zaria Pervez emphasizes the importance of a supportive team dynamic in content creation.
  • The team's investment in the success of social media efforts helps to navigate challenges with other departments.
  • The sense of unity within the team is contrasted with potential opposition from legal or executive entities.

"I think there's that relationship that makes it feel I'm not alone and there's people giving feedback. And it's not like me versus legal or me versus a CEO."

The quote highlights the collaborative atmosphere that Zaria Pervez feels is crucial for successful content creation, as opposed to feeling isolated or in conflict with other departments.

Defining Success on TikTok

  • Zaria Pervez discusses the evolution of Duolingo's TikTok strategy from brand awareness to content creation.
  • Success is initially measured by views, with 1 million views indicating a viral and successful video.
  • True success extends beyond views and includes cultural impact, such as influencing job applications and being a topic of conversation.
  • The transition from experimental content to established success metrics, including survey data correlating TikTok exposure to user uptick.

"But I feel like the real measure of success for me was when I noticed that people were referencing Duolingo's TikTok as like, a home run machine or Duolingo's TikTok as things outside of people who would normally care about Duolingo."

This quote illustrates Zaria Pervez's belief that the true measure of success is the broader cultural impact and recognition of Duolingo's TikTok presence, beyond just the metrics of views and conversions.

TikTok as a Conversion Tool

  • Zaria Pervez challenges the skepticism about TikTok's ability to convert followers into users.
  • She argues that content can be both scrappy and iconic, and that creativity thrives with limited resources.
  • The belief that a tight budget can inspire creativity is a central theme in her approach to content creation.
  • The discussion includes the organic nature of their impressions and the minimal costs involved.

"I would kindly and candidly say, does your happy Earth Day posts convert to users?"

Zaria Pervez uses this rhetorical question to challenge the notion that traditional social media posts are more effective at converting users than innovative TikTok content, highlighting the potential of TikTok for user conversion despite skepticism.

Agency vs. Internal Content Creation

  • Zaria Pervez shares her experience with agency content not resonating until an internal team took over.
  • She emphasizes the importance of brand champions who are deeply invested in the brand's mission.
  • The discussion includes the idea that internal team members have a unique connection to the brand that cannot be easily replicated by external agencies.

"It wasn't until an internal team like me took over that it started to go more viral."

This quote reflects Zaria Pervez's belief that the internal team's passion and connection to the brand were key to the viral success of Duolingo's TikTok content, as opposed to the content produced by an external agency.

Personal Success and Recognition

  • Zaria Pervez discusses the challenges of changing traditional brand practices to a social-first approach.
  • She addresses the potential for internal friction due to her recognition and success.
  • The conversation includes her belief in luck as part of her success, but also emphasizes hard work and taking advantage of opportunities.

"I do think I got lucky in some shape or form. I think I worked for that luck."

Zaria Pervez acknowledges the role of luck in her success but insists that it is coupled with hard work and seizing opportunities, suggesting a balanced view of her achievements.

Hiring the Right People for Social Media

  • The importance of hiring individuals who are willing to push boundaries and can bring a fresh, creative approach to social media is highlighted.
  • Zaria Pervez suggests looking for "troublemakers" who are not afraid to challenge the status quo.
  • The discussion includes the value of people with intersectional backgrounds in creating cultural shifts.

"I would say you have to hire troublemakers."

This quote encapsulates Zaria Pervez's advice on hiring for social media teams, emphasizing the need for individuals who are willing to take risks and innovate.

Interdepartmental Friction and Growth

  • Zaria Pervez acknowledges that pushing the envelope on social media can cause tension with other departments.
  • She views these moments as opportunities for discussion and growth.
  • The importance of having thick skin and being open to feedback is discussed.

"Yeah, it does, candidly. But I think that's natural and I think tension is required for growth."

By acknowledging the existence of friction, Zaria Pervez underlines her belief that such tension is a natural and necessary part of the growth process within a company.

Handling Underperforming Posts

  • Zaria Pervez shares her approach to dealing with posts that do not perform well.
  • The decision to take down posts is based on the severity of the underperformance.

"I think it depends. We have before, if it's been really freaking bad,"

This quote reveals that Zaria Pervez and her team are willing to remove content from their social media platforms if it significantly underperforms, indicating a strategic approach to maintaining the brand's online presence.

Disillusionment in Content Creation

  • Content creators can experience periods where their work does not achieve expected success.
  • It is crucial not to take such phases personally and to maintain a professional perspective.
  • Adopting an alter ego or a mental separation from one's content can be beneficial in dealing with these phases.

"I feel like I'm going through that right now. So I appreciate you saying that. Yeah, it happens. And I feel like the biggest thing is to not take it personally."

This quote emphasizes the importance of detaching personal feelings from the performance of one's content and viewing content creation as a professional task.

The Importance of Timeliness in Content

  • Content that is tied to current events or cultural moments tends to have a greater impact.
  • Teams should be flexible and ready to adapt their content calendar to include relevant and timely topics.
  • Having a system in place, such as a "veto card," can ensure that the most relevant content is prioritized.

"Cultural moments have had way more impact than regular scheduled programming."

This quote highlights the significance of creating content that resonates with current cultural events to engage an audience effectively.

Content Planning Strategies

  • Content planning should be flexible, especially on social media where trends are constantly evolving.
  • Planning too far ahead can be counterproductive due to the fast-paced nature of social media.
  • Teams should be prepared to pivot their content strategies based on what is trending and be willing to push back less timely content.

"The way we go about it is we know that social is very much dependent on trends, so we never really plan more than, like, two weeks out."

This quote explains the approach to content planning, emphasizing the importance of staying adaptable to trends and current events.

Challenges in Content Creation

  • Personal attachment to content can make it difficult to accept critique and adapt.
  • The need for constant innovation and the ability to start anew are challenging aspects of content creation.
  • Being adaptable and able to pivot is crucial for content creators.

"Being able to remove the personal and take the critical feedback and figure out ways to be innovative is the most tough thing for me."

This quote reflects the difficulty of separating personal attachment from professional critique, which is necessary for growth and innovation in content creation.

Authenticity versus Trend Following

  • Content creators face the choice between replicating successful content or striving for originality.
  • Duolingo, for example, aims to blend their core message of making language learning fun with current trends.
  • The strategy of "candy to the medicine" involves using engaging content to subtly promote the core product or message.

"I think that goes back to the North Star. Like, language learning is hard, so we make it fun and every piece of content will have some mention of that."

This quote stresses the importance of staying true to a brand's core mission while also engaging with trends and popular content.

TikTok Engagement and Content Strategy

  • Passionate individuals, even those outside of marketing, can be valuable assets to a social media team.
  • Hiring people who naturally connect with content, such as comedians, can be more beneficial than those with formal marketing training.
  • Authentic engagement with content is more important than traditional marketing experience.

"My dream is to hire a stand up comedian for my team. Like, candidly, I think people who are removed from marketing, who are removed from content creation who just exist and love the content for what it is, are probably going to help your brand go further than those with specific marketing training."

This quote suggests that genuine passion and creativity can be more effective in driving a brand's success on social media than formal marketing expertise.

Personal Preferences and Inspirations

  • Personal tastes and preferences can vary widely, even among marketing professionals.
  • Appreciation for brands is often based on the quality of their work rather than their prestige.
  • Favorite accounts and content types can include a mix of humor, practicality, and long-form storytelling.

"I don't really care about brands. Like, I admire a brand like that. I love Ghani because I love their clothes. I love Costco because I love shopping there."

This quote indicates that personal preferences in brands and content are diverse and are often influenced by the practical value and quality of work rather than brand reputation alone.

The Future of Social Media and Content

  • The social media landscape is becoming increasingly competitive, making it harder to stand out.
  • Concerns about the longevity of content beyond trends and the ability to create resonant storylines are prevalent.
  • Cross-promotion and its impact on various platforms, including app downloads, is an area of interest but lacks clear correlation.

"Candidly, I worry about TikTok being banned content wise. I worry that I'll not be able to come up with more content that lives beyond a trend, if that makes sense."

This quote expresses concern about the challenges of creating content that remains relevant and impactful beyond the lifespan of social media trends.

Personal and Professional Growth

  • Not everyone aspires to climb the corporate ladder or achieve high-ranking positions.
  • Some individuals prioritize work-life balance and personal contentment over career advancement.
  • It is essential to recognize the value of personal fulfillment outside of professional achievements.

"I don't have any crazy ambitions for the ten years. Maybe I'll be retired. That's my dream. My dream is to be retired."

This quote reveals a personal perspective on career aspirations, emphasizing the desire for a balanced life and the absence of pressure to constantly pursue higher professional goals.

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