Growth Hacking: Inside Duolingo’s Monster 9-Figure Growth Strategy

If you haven’t heard of Duolingo, it’s a language learning app that helps people all around the world, well, learn a new language – faster and more efficiently using their smart phone. Simple enough, right?

When it comes to growth, the team behind Duolingo must be doing something right:

The most surprising part of all of this? Duolingo was able to generate this kind of growth without:

  • Paid advertising
  • Placing sponsored ads within the app
  • Requiring users to pay at all

Currently Duolingo does include sponsored ads and provides an ad-free experience for a monthly fee – but these features were added long after their user base exploded to where it is now.

Of course, none of this happened by accident. Duolingo’s founders, Luis von Ahn and Severin Hacker, with the help of VP of Growth Gina Gotthilf, have been carefully engineering the company’s growth since before they even released the app.

I’ve taken a deep dive into some of the strategies and tactics the Duolingo team has used in order to experience the massive amount of success they have since the company’s inception in 2011.

In this article, I’ll share their strategies with you and discuss how they can be implemented to generate buzz, grow a user base and launch any company on the right path to rapid growth.

Strap yourself in, it’s going to be a fun ride!…

A Quick Note On Duolingo’s Mission Before We Start

Before we get into the specific techniques Duolingo used to gain immediate traction and fast growth, we need to recognize that the overarching reason the company has been so successful is because its founders developed and maintained a strong, central mission statement.

In the case of Duolingo, this mission statement revolves around providing affordable (read: “free”) language education to anyone with a mobile device.

Von Ahn’s drive to provide this free educational service comes from seeing how difficult – and expensive – it is for the impoverished citizens of third-world countries to learn a new language (specifically, English). Von Ahn posits that close to one billion people yearn to learn English in order to help their families escape poverty.

For many reasons – cost and geographic isolation among them – these individuals wouldn’t have the opportunity to do so if not for Duolingo.

In terms of creating a company, this insight definitely goes a long way. Knowing just how many people in the world crave an affordable method of learning a new language confirmed to von Ahn that a product like Duolingo would easily generate a massive following.

The lesson to be learned here is, above all else, develop your business around a strong mission statement, and keep the people who need your services the most in mind at all times.

7 Tactics Duolingo’s Team Used To Generate 9-Figure Growth

Now, we’re ready to get down to business.

In this section, we’re going to analyze exactly how von Ahn and company created a user base of 200 million people – and made millions in the process – without relying on “traditional” tactics (like advertising), and without requiring users to pay for their service.

We’ll look at how Duolingo:

  1. Disrupted the language-education industry entirely
  2. Rode the “TED wave” to build their Early Access Program
  3. Built translation partnerships with brands like Buzzfeed
  4. Leveraged the trust of teachers to build an advocacy program
  5. Increased user retention using psychological “hacks”
  6. Determined their OMTM and obsessed over it
  7. Experimented with 1% gains

Let’s start where Duolingo all began.

Disrupting an Existing Industry

Take a quick look at this article on the cost of learning a new language. Notice anything?

Literally every single given option costs a significant amount of money – except one:

  • Computer programs for language learning can cost as much as $450
  • Online courses could set you back nearly $500
  • The average cost of a 3-credit college course is about $1,800
  • Language lessons can cost around $70 per session
  • Duolingo is absolutely free

As we said earlier, von Ahn’s mission, in his own words, was “(to bring) free language education to the world.”

Until Duolingo came around, it was pretty much a given that, if you wanted to learn a new language, you’d need to shell out hundreds – even thousands – of dollars in the process.

Computer programs like Rosetta Stone are notoriously expensive, even for the most basic of courses. And, of course, once you complete the introductory courses, you’ll need to shell out even more money to be able to access the more advanced courses offered for each language. Even when purchased in bundles, this software can end up costing at least a few hundred dollars.

Your other option, then, would be to enroll in a live language education program of some sort. Whether it be through a university or a hired mentor, the cost of these programs is, of course, nothing to sneeze at.

Let’s also remember that, for citizens living in third-world countries, shelling out a few hundred dollars on these programs is simply not an option.

Von Ahn looked at the notion that language education is inherently expensive – and turned it on its head.

Rather than hiding education behind a paywall, von Ahn created a platform where language-learners could go from novice to expert without having to spend a penny.

Not only that, but, with Duolingo, von Ahn minimized other, less-obvious barriers that many language-learners face. Instead of needing to expend time and energy traveling to an educational center for language lessons, individuals can use Duolingo to access lessons wherever and whenever they want.

Additionally, Duolingo allows users to study at their own pace (rather than at the scheduled pace of a course at a university, for example).

Another way in which Duolingo has aimed to save language-learners money is by providing certificates to those who have proven mastery of a certain language. Much like the lessons and courses mentioned above, certification tests provided at universities and other such centers are pretty expensive (again, especially for citizens of impoverished countries).

Though Duolingo’s certificate programs do come with a price tag, users will end up paying a fraction of what they would at an educational institute.

Note: For those skeptical of the validity of Duolingo’s programs and tests, a 2014 study by a professor at the University of Pittsburgh determined that 34 hours of study using Duolingo is equal to an entire semester’s worth of language study.

The lesson here is this:

The status quo in any industry is never set in stone. In fact, the status quo is often a roadblock that makes it impossible for certain people to get value from the industry in the first place.

In Duolingo’s case, eliminating the cost of learning a new language led literally millions of individuals to become loyal followers of the platform.

Take a step back and look at the aspects of your industry that most assume to be non-negotiable. If you can find a way around these long-standing roadblocks, you’ll almost certainly become a pioneer in your field.

Riding The “TED Wave” To Build An Early Access Program

We said earlier that Duolingo’s team prides itself on generating an enormous user base having never spent a penny on advertising.

But this certainly doesn’t mean they didn’t spend time, money, and energy promoting the service.

The most significant promotional push von Ahn made was his TED Talk in which he discussed massive online collaboration (which we’ll get to in a bit). Though he began the talk discussing how his previous company, reCAPTCHA, used crowdsourcing for the benefit of the online community, he also took advantage of the platform he was given by introducing Duolingo to the public.

Von Ahn’s TED Talk ended up being seen by over one million people, and led 300,000 individuals to sign up for Duolingo’s private beta release.

It can be easy to chalk this huge victory up to the fact that von Ahn was already a well-known figure in the tech industry, giving him an advantage in terms of landing the TED Talk in the first place.

But let’s look at this all from a different perspective.

The fact is, von Ahn could have pitched his speech to many other organizations, in a variety of forms. He could have written his speech as a guest post for a major publication, or as a standalone podcast to be shared with his Twitter following (with crossed fingers hoping people shared it within their network).

But, by tailoring the speech’s content to a TED Talk audience, he made it possible for his voice to be heard by hundreds of thousands of individuals who, otherwise, otherwise may have never come across Duolingo in the first place.

The takeaway here is:

Regardless of whether or not you’re a known entity in your industry, it’s possible to get your message out to an already-existing audience by creating tailored content, and pitching it to platforms whose followers will find it of interest.

However, there’s a major caveat here – your content must be extremely valuable to the audience you’ve targeted. And it absolutely cannot be overly promotional.

Von Ahn framed his announcement of Duolingo’s release around a speech discussing the importance of free education, and the value of crowdsourcing. If he had used TED’s platform (which is normally focused on providing education and intellectual discussion) just to make product-release announcement, it definitely wouldn’t have been received as well as it was.

Building Translation Partnership With Huge Brands

We’ve discussed at length the notion that von Ahn and company have, for the most part, made Duolingo a free service. Of course, this begs the all-important question:

How in the world did they plan on making any money?

Note: Up until fairly recently, Duolingo didn’t include sponsored ads within the app – unlike most other free-to-play apps.

Instead, Duolingo forged partnerships with major online publications, such as Buzzfeed and CNN, that led the company to sustainable monetary growth (as well as positive word-of-mouth).

The way the partnership worked was so:

  • Duolingo would partner with publications that needed their articles translated from English into other languages.
  • Duolingo users who had become proficient in English (as their second language) would practice their acquired skills by translating articles written in English into their native language.
  • The publication would then pay Duolingo for the translated pieces.

To ensure accuracy, articles are translated by an average of 30-40 people, and edited via a wiki-like system.

According to von Ahn, though the translations end up being extremely high in quality, Duolingo would sell them to partner companies at a much lower price than the industry standard. Even so, a constant stream of articles – and a steady increase in qualified translators – allowed Duolingo to rely almost solely on this method of generating revenue during their initial stages of growth.

In terms of popularity growth, these partnerships were, of course, incredibly beneficial to Duolingo, as well. Articles that were translated into other languages by the Duolingo community would usually have a specific mention of such within the article’s byline that would link back to the service’s main site.

Additionally, Duolingo’s partners also would often created articles touting the effectiveness of the service – kind of a “you scratch my back, I scratch yours” situation.

And that’s the lesson you can take from this:

Look for outside-the-box ways your product or service can help the world on a macro level, rather than simply helping individual people.

Though your overall game plan may be to operate as a B2C company, forging certain B2B partnerships can allow you to generate growth while simultaneously working toward your main goal.

Using The Trust Of Teachers To Build An Ambassador Program

The last section explained one way in which Duolingo utilized its users as leverage to provide a service to major publications.

If you skipped to this section, the gist is Duolingo’s advanced users would translate actual articles from publications like CNN and Buzzfeed into numerous languages, and Duolingo would sell these translations back to the applicable publication.

But this isn’t the only crowdsourcing initiative Duolingo has undertaken. As part of its ” Duolingo for Schools ” program, Duolingo allows language teachers to apply to become “Ambassadors” of the program.

As described on Duolingo’s FAQ page, Ambassadors:

  • Collaborate with staff to improve Duolingo and its adoption.
  • Empower local communities via trainings and events.
  • Attend (sponsored) conferences on Duolingo’s behalf.
  • Share expertise through blogs and social media.

This is yet another way in which Duolingo has managed to create a mutually-beneficial relationship to help spur growth. In this case, Duolingo has opened up the possibility of partnering with thousands (perhaps millions) of educators all over the world.

While the benefits of becoming an Ambassador are numerous, Duolingo also benefits from the partnership in a few ways.

First of all, as Ambassadors are connected with one another, they can collaborate and communicate ways in which Duolingo could improve its services. To put this more plainly: Duolingo’s team figured out a way to get input from its most-qualified users without paying them for these suggestions.

Yes, ambassadors get other perks in return – but this method is certainly cheaper than bringing in expensive consultants that would likely make the same suggestions, anyway.

Secondly, Ambassadors are invited to create and share content via their own blogs and social media pages. Needless to say, this potentially leads millions of individuals to become aware of Duolingo’s services – without the company needing to spend a dime.

Lastly, Ambassadors can facilitate their own training sessions within their individual communities. In addition to creating even more awareness among potential users, these sessions may lead even more individuals to become Ambassadors in the future – who, in turn, will be empowered to put on their own seminars in the future.

Creating customer loyalty is extremely important. And getting your loyal customers to become evangelists of your brand is even more valuable.

By developing an ambassador program in which you provide intrinsic motivation to your most loyal customers in exchange for positive word-of-mouth, you can take a strategic approach to creating evangelism, rather than just hoping for it to happen.

Generating Buzz & Increasing Retention With Psychology

Whether we’re talking about how the folks at Duolingo began to grow a user base, or how they kept these users continually coming back to their app, the conversation will almost certainly circle back to how the team implements psychological “hacks” within their plans.

Note: this isn’t to say they “trick” people into becoming Duolingo users. The team has simply figured out the most effective ways to get the attention of their target users.

Let’s start by talking about Duolingo’s initial splash page:

Though this original landing page doesn’t include everything an effective landing page usually includes, it certainly covers the most important aspects:

  • A headline with a clear message explaining what you’ll be able to do with the app, and how it will benefit the world
  • A deeper explanation of the app’s benefits, including the fact that the service is free
  • A form for collecting users’ contact information, including a strong call to action explaining how the contact data will be used
  • The option to share the page’s information via Twitter or Facebook

As mentioned earlier, von Ahn reported that his TED Talk caused over one million people to visit this landing page – and 300,000 people to actually sign up for Duolingo’s beta. This potential conversion rate of nearly 33%, when compared to the average landing page conversion rate, is nothing short of astounding.

Once Duolingo launched, the team knew one thing for sure: they absolutely needed to figure out how to get their users to stick around. After all, there’s no way for anyone to get the full value out of a language-learning program if they only use it for a day or two.

Again, the team relied heavily on psychology in order to get users “on the hook” – and to keep them there.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not so), von Ahn maintains that Duolingo’s biggest competition doesn’t come from other language-learning apps; it comes in the form of addictive time-wasters like Candy Crush.

As reported by the article from Fast Company we linked to above, von Ahn himself tried to use Duolingo to begin learning Portuguese. However, he found that his own app wasn’t very effective at keeping his attention.

So, what the team at Duolingo did in order to keep its users from defecting to these soul-sucking apps was…exactly what those games do. Von Ahn “experimented with adding little incentives, such as new levels and badges, to make it more fun.”

In addition to gamifying the Duolingo experience, the team also implements non-intrusive reminders to keep users coming back to the app on a daily basis.

Furthermore, Duolingo rewards users for coming back every day in the form of “streak” bonuses. The app doesn’t punish users for missing a day, but rather offers positive reinforcement to those who do keep their daily usage streak alive.

Does this gamification work? Absolutely.

We’ll get more into this in a moment, but for now just know that Duolingo boasts a monthly active user base of 20 million.

In more qualitative terms, Duolingo’s gamification is a huge part of the app’s success. A surprised von Ahn reports that, when he asks people what they love most about Duolingo, many simply explain:

“At least I’m not wasting my time by playing Candy Crush.”

Hey, whatever works, right?

Anyway, the point of all of this is that, in order to truly grab – and keep – your target consumer’s attention, you need to understand what makes them tick.

In the case of Duolingo, this comes down to gamifying the user’s experience. This might be the case for you – but it might not be. Luckily, there’s no shortage of psychology-based “tricks” you can implement to get people hooked on your brand.

Once more, though. When we say “tricks,” we don’t mean you should be aiming to pull the wool over your users’ eyes. Not only is this unethical, but it will eventually lead your customers to not trust you once they figure out what you’ve been up to.

Instead, use psychology to discover what your users really want (even if they don’t even realize it), then work diligently to give it to them.

Finding The “OMTM” – One Metric That Matters

Whether you’re just starting a company or have been in business for years, the sheer volume of data there is to analyze and assess can be straight up overwhelming.

Knowing this, when growth-hacker Gina Gottthilf became Duolingo’s VP of growth, she created a data hierarchy of sorts to determine which metrics the team should keep in mind at all times in order to measure the performance of the company as a whole.

For Duolingo, this One Metric That Matters (OMTM) is Daily Active Users.

As Gotthilf explains:

“DAU is our key metric at Duolingo but a lot of sub-metrics feed into it directly. We look at retention (day 1 and recurring, which is a lot harder to measure), use site visits and downloads to measure the impact of marketing and PR efforts and work on optimizing those metrics every single day at Duolingo.”

It’s not so much that you should actually only be focusing on one metric; rather, you should focus on one overarching metric and all the metrics that directly relate to it.

Defining and understanding your company’s OMTM is beneficial in a number of ways:

  • It solidifies your company’s internal mission
  • It allows you to set and focus on a clear goal and KPI in determining the success of certain campaigns and initiatives
  • It creates alignment between all members of your team

VP of Product at GoInstant Ben Yoskovitz dives deep into the concept of OMTM on Kissmetrics’ blog. In this article, he discusses the notion of what makes a “good” metric, as well as the idea that certain metrics are more important in some industries than they are in others.

For our purposes, we’ll leave it at this:

Figure out what your OMTM is (based on your company’s overall mission and goal), and make keep this metric top of mind at all times – especially when making changes that affect any aspect of your business.

Additionally, when assessing other metrics, always take the time to relate them back to your OMTM. Doing so will allow you to see just how interconnected every tiny part of your business truly is – and reinforce the idea that every decision you make is important in one way or another.

Experiment With 1% Gains

This probably goes without saying, but in order to experience insane growth, you need to always be looking for ways to improve your company in terms of how it operates, as well as how you provide value to your customers.

Now, this doesn’t mean you need to constantly overhaul your entire operation. On the contrary, focus on one area at a time. Gotthilf reports:

“The growth team is actually balancing ‘inch-by-inch’ type experiments with 1% gains and allocating time to defining bigger feature projects that can contribute to growth in more significant ways.”

As far as experimentation goes, Gotthilf says Duolingo A/B tests everything, from copy and timing of emails and push notifications to actual features within the app.

This testing is actually relatively transparent, as many users note on Duolingo’s discussion forums when a new feature has been implemented in their instance of the app (or when the update has yet to occur).

Perhaps unintentionally, by slowly unrolling features through A/B testing, Duolingo has also facilitated discussion among their user base regarding these features as they become available. In turn, the team can use this additional information when working on future improvements to the app.

Regarding experimentation with a focus on growth, Gotthilf offers the following advice:

“Make sure you’re reading results correctly before making decisions. Is it statistically significant? Does it complicate the code more than it contributes to growth? Does it affect other metrics in weird, unexpected ways?”

There’s a lot to unpack there – so let’s break it down a bit.

Regarding statistical significance, though you’ll want to target specific user segments with certain A/B test campaigns, you need to ensure these segments are large enough to provide meaningful insight. Check out Harvard Business Review’s awesome primer on determining statistical significance for more on this.

Speaking on whether certain changes are worth making, Gotthilf says:

“Don’t over-simplify… testing a tiny little addition may not actually indicate what you’d see were you to transform the entire experience to (improve it).”

So, while Gotthilf does extol benefits of making inch-by-inch improvements, she also makes clear the importance of ensuring the changes made are noticeable, and that they’ll actually affect the user’s experience in a meaningful way.

Lastly, to reiterate, it’s essential that you keep your OMTM in mind at all times – even when making seemingly unrelated changes to your offering.

Gotthilf offers the following example:

“We’ve run experiments that increase a metric like ‘trial account conversions’ but actually hurt other metrics, or even long-term retention.”

As mentioned above, retention metrics trump all others in the eyes of the Duolingo team. As far as Gotthilf is concerned, although increasing trial conversion rate might seem beneficial in the short term, it’s not worth doing if it negatively affects long-term retention.

As we said in the last section, all metrics relate to each other in one way or another. In this same vein, a tweak or change focused on improving one metric may unintentionally end up affecting another area of the user experience – in turn having an affect on other, more important metrics.

Keep this in mind whenever you experiment with a change in your offering.

A Quick Review

If there’s one thing you take away from this post, it should be that Duolingo’s massive growth wasn’t a happy accident.

During the company’s initial period of growth, von Ahn focused on:

  • Disrupting an existing industry by developing an incredibly strong unique selling proposition (free language education).
  • Generating a buzz for his new service by releasing content through an established third-party platform
  • Forging partnerships with existing companies to help fund his initiative
  • Leveraging the most loyal users of his product to create crowdsourced content

From there, Gotthilf and company implemented strategies designed to spur growth such as:

  • Utilizing psychological “hacks” such as gamification
  • Determining the company’s One Metric That Matters
  • Focusing heavily on testing and experimentation to continuously improve the company’s offering

Oddly enough, both von Ahn and Gotthilf have used the phrase “lucky” when discussing Duolingo’s ability to grow so rapidly.

But – considering everything we’ve discussed throughout this article – it’s pretty clear that, even if luck did factor into Duolingo’s success at some point, it’s the team’s innovative, disciplined approach that really made it all possible.


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