One day in November, Duolingo’s social media team convened to film a TikTok.
The company’s green owl mascot would press itself up against a glass door and fall to the ground as the song “Enchanted” by Taylor Swift played. Text on the video read: “When you use Google Translate instead of actually learning a language.” The post got nearly 22 million views and 5 million likes.
Those are the kinds of posts that helped Duolingo go viral on TikTok. Zaria Parvez, who runs the account and is often dressed as the owl, said users started taking Duolingo “seriously” as its posts got more chaotic. “People were like, ‘Oh, they’re fun. They’re not just fun. They’re fun fun,’” Parvez told Protocol.
TikTok may be one of the few corners of the internet where companies can find success by acting completely unhinged. In order to accomplish that, Parvez and social media managers at companies like Microsoft and AT&T said they’ve learned to establish themselves as a persona, not a brand. That makes users see them as part of the TikTok community and want to engage.
The language-learning app’s TikTok has blown up with over 2 million followers since it launched last February, and the owl mascot has become a constant presence on the platform. Parvez now spends the majority of her work day pitching, filming and editing TikToks, saving just enough time to run Duolingo’s other social media channels on Instagram and Twitter.
Parvez said a successful company TikTok is one that acts more like a creator than a company. The account aims to be entertaining and quirky, much like Duolingo itself, and the company makes fun of itself to get users riled up. Parvez isn’t even trying to get more people using Duolingo by posting on TikTok. She wants what any influencer wants: recognition, more followers and maybe a collab with Dua Lipa one day (that’s an inside joke).
“My dream is for Duolingo to be that one brand that creators want to be a part of and have the creative freedom to do what excites them,” she said.
She added that companies looking to leverage their TikTok accounts shouldn’t be afraid to lean on younger employees. This position at Duolingo is Parvez’s first job out of college, and she wouldn’t have gotten the chance to run Duolingo’s TikTok if her co-workers hadn’t given her creative freedom and put their trust in her. “That’s super empowering for young talent, and shows that there is space for young talent on social teams,” she said.
Microsoft has a TikTok presence too, but it’s not as chaotic as Duolingo’s. Kelley Myers, the director of Consumer Social Media at Microsoft, said the company uses its TikTok to invoke nostalgia for the old Windows (remember that startup tune?), connect with creators and engage with the next generation of Windows users.
Myers described the account as a “comedy sketch troupe” that walks a line between entertaining users and maintaining the image of a large enterprise company. The company’s TikTok has worked with both artistic and comedic creators such as Emily Zugay, who’s known for trashing company logos and offering (purposely off-kilter) redesigns. “We want to make sure we’re still holding up those brand characteristics [and] at the same time playing in that space that feels like we’re entertaining and educating on a platform that is very expected for us to have that sort of approach,” Myers told Protocol.
Anyone can pay to target a certain group, but Myers said it takes time on TikTok to sound less like a corporation and more like a creator. Her social media team scrolls through TikTok and talks about trends they should jump on. That helps them learn what users want to see, which informs the content they make.
“The platform doesn't want you to take yourself too seriously,” says Duolingo's social media manager, Zaria Parvez (middle).Photo: Duolingo
For Tinder, TikTok is the place to hear about people’s dating experiences in a way it can’t on its own platform. Charly Hillman, the platform’s director of Social Media, said Tinder uses TikTok to engage with users on the dating app by commenting on their posts about dating.
“It’s been fun to see our members share aspects of their dating life on TikTok,” Hillman told Protocol. “It's not usually something we get visibility into, Tinder isn’t a public platform in the way Twitter or TikTok is, but now we have a front-row seat to our members' dating lives.”
Hillman added that instead of using TikTok to promote itself, Tinder's account tends to react to the conversations already happening on the platform. “We’ve found that listening to our audience and following their lead to understand what content truly resonates with them is just as important as the actual creative idea,” she said.
AT&T is also trying to let loose on TikTok. It’s worked with creators including Zugay and Josh Zilberberg — the person known for saying “thank yew” at the end of each post — and uses popular sounds and effects to make its own content. Nolan Carleton, an assistant VP with AT&T’s Corporate Communications team, said that this year, the company wants its account to start acting more like a persona and connecting with niche audiences like older millennials and sports fans. “With a focus on authenticity, storytelling, educating and entertaining, we think we can help fuel conversations in these circles,” Carleton told Protocol.
Some companies have done well on TikTok without acting like an influencer. Meta, for example, has amassed over 200,000 followers by talking about the metaverse and user privacy. Amazon has gotten over half a million followers by posting about deals and Prime Day. Still, Duolingo’s Parvez said companies can live up to their true potential on the platform by having a little fun.
“The platform doesn't want you to take yourself too seriously,” Parvez said. “It doesn’t want you to be edited and super filmed and pristine.”
Correction: This story was updated Jan. 12 to clarify Nolan Carleton's title.