The best company TikToks are unhinged — and it's working

Companies looking to get on TikTok should learn to be part of the TikTok community, not a brand advertising on it.

The best company TikToks are unhinged — and it's working

Duolingo, Microsoft and others are realizing that acting like a creator, not a company, is the best way to succeed on TikTok.

Image: AT&T; Duolingo; Tinder

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.


Apple's new payments tech won't kill Square

It could be used in place of the Square dongle, but it's far short of a full-fledged payments service.

The Apple system would reportedly only handle contactless payments.

Photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

Apple is preparing a product to enable merchants to accept contactless payments via iPhones without additional hardware, according to Bloomberg.

While this may seem like a move to compete with Block and its Square merchant unit in point-of-sale payments, that’s unlikely. The Apple service is using technology from its acquisition of Mobeewave in 2020 that enables contactless payments using NFC technology.

Keep Reading Show less
Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at or

Sponsored Content

A CCO’s viewpoint on top enterprise priorities in 2022

The 2022 non-predictions guide to what your enterprise is working on starting this week

As Honeywell’s global chief commercial officer, I am privileged to have the vantage point of seeing the demands, challenges and dynamics that customers across the many sectors we cater to are experiencing and sharing.

This past year has brought upon all businesses and enterprises an unparalleled change and challenge. This was the case at Honeywell, for example, a company with a legacy in innovation and technology for over a century. When I joined the company just months before the pandemic hit we were already in the midst of an intense transformation under the leadership of CEO Darius Adamczyk. This transformation spanned our portfolio and business units. We were already actively working on products and solutions in advanced phases of rollouts that the world has shown a need and demand for pre-pandemic. Those included solutions in edge intelligence, remote operations, quantum computing, warehouse automation, building technologies, safety and health monitoring and of course ESG and climate tech which was based on our exceptional success over the previous decade.

Keep Reading Show less
Jeff Kimbell
Jeff Kimbell is Senior Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer at Honeywell. In this role, he has broad responsibilities to drive organic growth by enhancing global sales and marketing capabilities. Jeff has nearly three decades of leadership experience. Prior to joining Honeywell in 2019, Jeff served as a Partner in the Transformation Practice at McKinsey & Company, where he worked with companies facing operational and financial challenges and undergoing “good to great” transformations. Before that, he was an Operating Partner at Silver Lake Partners, a global leader in technology and held a similar position at Cerberus Capital LP. Jeff started his career as a Manufacturing Team Manager and Engineering Project Manager at Procter & Gamble before becoming a strategy consultant at Bain & Company and holding executive roles at Dell EMC and Transamerica Corporation. Jeff earned a B.S. in electrical engineering at Kansas State University and an M.B.A. at Dartmouth College.

Why does China's '996' overtime culture persist?

A Tencent worker’s open criticism shows why this work schedule is hard to change in Chinese tech.

Excessive overtime is one of the plights Chinese workers are grappling with across sectors.

Photo: VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Workers were skeptical when Chinese Big Tech called off its notorious and prevalent overtime policy: “996,” a 12-hour, six-day work schedule. They were right to be: A recent incident at gaming and social media giant Tencent proves that a deep-rooted overtime culture is hard to change, new policy or not.

Defiant Tencent worker Zhang Yifei, who openly challenged the company’s overtime culture, reignited wide discussion of the touchy topic this week. What triggered Zhang's criticism, according to his own account, was his team’s positive attitude toward overtime. His team, which falls under WeCom — a business communication and office collaboration tool similar to Slack — announced its in-house Breakthrough Awards. The judges’ comments to one winner highly praised them for logging “over 20 hours of intense work nonstop,” to help meet the deadline for launching a marketing page.

Keep Reading Show less
Shen Lu

Shen Lu covers China's tech industry.

Boost 2

Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet?

He's turning Automattic into a different kind of tech giant. But can he take on the trillion-dollar walled gardens and give the internet back to the people?

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and founder of WordPress, poses for Protocol at his home in Houston, Texas.
Photo: Arturo Olmos for Protocol

In the early days of the pandemic, Matt Mullenweg didn't move to a compound in Hawaii, bug out to a bunker in New Zealand or head to Miami and start shilling for crypto. No, in the early days of the pandemic, Mullenweg bought an RV. He drove it all over the country, bouncing between Houston and San Francisco and Jackson Hole with plenty of stops in national parks. In between, he started doing some tinkering.

The tinkering is a part-time gig: Most of Mullenweg’s time is spent as CEO of Automattic, one of the web’s largest platforms. It’s best known as the company that runs, the hosted version of the blogging platform that powers about 43% of the websites on the internet. Since WordPress is open-source software, no company technically owns it, but Automattic provides tools and services and oversees most of the WordPress-powered internet. It’s also the owner of the booming ecommerce platform WooCommerce, Day One, the analytics tool and the podcast app Pocket Casts. Oh, and Tumblr. And Simplenote. And many others. That makes Mullenweg one of the most powerful CEOs in tech, and one of the most important voices in the debate over the future of the internet.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.


Spoiler alert: We’re already in the beta-metaverse

300 million people use metaverse-like platforms — Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft — every month. That equals the total user base of the internet in 1999.

A lot of us are using platforms that can be considered metaverse prototypes.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

What does it take to build the metaverse? What building blocks do we need, how can companies ensure that the metaverse is going to be inclusive, and how do we know that we have arrived in the 'verse?

This week, we convened a panel of experts for Protocol Entertainment’s first virtual live event, including Epic Games Unreal Engine VP and GM Marc Petit, Oasis Consortium co-founder and President Tiffany Xingyu Wang and Emerge co-founder and CEO Sly Lee.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.


Lyin’ AI: OpenAI launches new language model despite toxic tendencies

Research company OpenAI says this year’s language model is less toxic than GPT-3. But the new default, InstructGPT, still has tendencies to make discriminatory comments and generate false information.

The new default, called InstructGPT, still has tendencies to make discriminatory comments and generate false information.

Illustration: Pixabay; Protocol

OpenAI knows its text generators have had their fair share of problems. Now the research company has shifted to a new deep-learning model it says works better to produce “fewer toxic outputs” than GPT-3, its flawed but widely-used system.

Starting Thursday, a new model called InstructGPT will be the default technology served up through OpenAI’s API, which delivers foundational AI into all sorts of chatbots, automatic writing tools and other text-based applications. Consider the new system, which has been in beta testing for the past year, to be a work in progress toward an automatic text generator that OpenAI hopes is closer to what humans actually want.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories