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Duolingo’s head of global social strategy, Katherine Chan, talks about making unhinged content work and learning from mistakes

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Social media is in its so-called unhinged era, where social media managers are breaking the digital fourth wall and speaking the language of the internet from branded accounts. At the helm of the unhinged social media movement is a big green owl, Duo, brand mascot for the language learning app Duolingo. (Read a deep dive into Duolingo’s social media strategy here.)

Duo has made a name for itself on TikTok with funny skits as the social media team behind the owl works to humanize the brand. But sometimes, like Icarus, Duo sometimes found itself flying too close to the sun. Last year, the brand came under fire for a comment on a TikTok about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s defamation trial. 

It’s been a lesson in toeing the line, learning what works and what doesn’t. Experimentation may be the cornerstone of Duolingo’s social media strategy, but Duo’s unhinged personality is here to stay for now with the company planning to explore other character personalities from the Duolingo universe in the future, said Katherine Chan, head of global social and influencer strategy at Duolingo.

“We have a running rule that we have no rules,” Chan said on the most recent episode of the Digiday Podcast. “We basically have a set of guardrails in terms of absolute no’s for the brand. But outside of that, there’s a lot of freedom and empowerment to try to draw the shortest line from ideation to post.” 

Below are highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Selling unhinged content to higher ups

We actually are building on the success of the personality of Duo in the app. Even going back years ago, long before our TikTok presence, Duo himself was a meme. He was known for very persistent notifications to remind you to do your lesson every day. As a part of getting Duo on TikTok and building out his personality, we leaned into what the community already was saying about him. And because it saw such success, shareholders were thrilled that we were able to so effectively engage an audience that was valuable both from a brand and user base perspective, and drive a ton of growth.

Flying too close to the sun 

What really came of it was one, we made sure that we had these clear standards and practices guidelines, which now we have a process. If we think stuff might be on the edge, let’s run it by the standards and practices team. And that’s actually helped a lot. The second thing is definitely realizing that, especially in storylines that are so polarized in the culture, it’s probably not a good idea to take aside unless it is something that we have a really strong stance on in terms of our brand values. Those are cases where we want to take a stance. But if it’s not directly speaking to our values of inclusivity, diversity or access to education, we have learned that it doesn’t make sense for us to bring our voice to the table. 

Building the Duolingo multiverse 

[The] Duolingo multiverse is real. We just launched a very weird, experimental 1 — episode sitcom on YouTube. They’re 10-one minute episodes featuring our character Lily, who, after Duo, is one of the most popular characters. We like to compare it to like a Wednesday Addams or an April Ludgate in [Parks and Recreation]. This sitcom follows a very funny and narrative arc of her being trapped in this perfect 90s suburban home, but she slowly realized things aren’t as they seem. We think about our characters a little bit like Sesame Street for adults.

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