Unhinged: An Interview with the Duolingo TikTok Manager

DuoLingo, the TikTok Star

If you’ve been on TikTok in the last 6 months, then there’s a good chance you know about the Duolingo TikTok. The world’s #1 leading language-learning app turned into a viral social media sensation, amassing over 2 million followers and an average view count (per video) between 1 and 10 million.

I had the unique honor of interviewing the genius behind the account this week, Zaria Parvez.

Yeah, I’m fangirling too.

Read more about her newly minted fame, and the Duo content creation process.

But First, Some Context. Why Is the Duolingo TikTok Such a Big Deal?

You might be thinking, “okay, 2M followers makes sense, lots of people know, love, and use Duolingo”. But for a business account on TikTok, that’s unprecedented.

Here’s the thing: over the past few years, it has become clearer and clearer that large corporations are (even still) unprepared to use TikTok to their advantage. TikTok, known for it’s comedy skits, personalities, dancing, art projects, home renovations, and makeup influencers became the world’s most beloved app for a reason—there is an unspoken agreement amongst users that the perfectly-curated-instagram-aesthetic is one for the past, and that on TikTok, authenticity is the only way to attract fans & followers.

An example: I have a vivid memory of scrolling TikTok in 2020 and happening upon a Doritos ad. It was everything you’d expect: perfectly shot. Gorgeous people dancing with Doritos. Edited within an inch of its life. And it was not doing well.

No one cared. Why would we? This Doritos ad looked like every Doritos ad we’ve ever seen before, and a more relatable comedy skit is one scroll away.

Scroll.

Enter: The Duolingo TikTok

When Zaria Parvez jumped onto the TikTok scene with the ridiculous Duolingo Owl suit, she broke the internet. But more importantly, she created a blueprint for how business brands can show up on TikTok… successfully.

By using internet humor, an owl suit, and leaning into the ridiculousness of the app, Zaria has changed the game for social media managers everywhere—that is, if they can get their CEO’s to agree to it.

Hear what Zaria has to say about Duolingo’s internet fame, creating innovative content, and humanizing a business brand for ultimate TikTok success.


Me: Thank you so much for chatting with me today, I’m so excited! Let’s jump right in. Firstly, I have to know—who is behind the concept of the Duolingo TikTok? Did you come up with it?

Zaria: So, in September 2021, we actually were able to come back to the office after the pandemic. And our TikTok account existed already but was just stranded there. So I was like, “Hey, I have some ideas. I love TikTok. I really think this is somewhere we should be.” And my boss was super open to it. She’s like, “Just do whatever. Have fun. Here’s the mascot if you want.”

And then from there, we just kept going at it. It started off as just me, and now we’re trying to create this whole world with our lawyer, Legal Steve, and our office coordinator, Krista. Our main goal is just to bring a smile to people’s faces, since life is tough and annoying right now. Anything to just make it more fun and show that language learning can be fun.

Okay, wow, I have soooo many questions. Firstly—the costume already existed?

Yeah! It was just for PR events or like, we had this thing called DuoCon back when we could be in-person, so people would take photos with it. But it was never anything like this. This was not its main purpose.

Obsessed. And wait, you were talking before about how you’re creating a whole world with your TikToks (which I love, by the way). So when you’re making jokes about legal, that’s part of it?

Yeah, I mean, at first kind of started as a joke because we all have always called our lawyer Legal Steve. (Within Duo, our culture is just kind of crazy. It’s like, get your work done, do whatever.) And he actually had his own TikTok presence before. So we were like, why don’t we just like make this a storyline? Like, “the legal team’s after the social team”. So he played along, and I guess people caught on to it. And it’s still developing… some people in the comments are still like, “who is legal Steve??”, but it’s just fun.

Yeah. I love that it’s an open loop, like an open narrative. They’re recurring characters. It’s kind of like a sitcom!

Exactly. And that’s how my personal account started too. It was just kind of a joke. And then it blew up and I was like, alright, I guess we’re bringing me into this world now too.

So, that was another one of my questions. It seems like you just run around in the office with this suit on. Do you have a designated content day where you create your videos, or are you running around this costume constantly?

Yeah, so I’m actually not in the costume. It’s my friend Mark. So all the ideas are mine (and the filming and all that), but he’s in the suits. God bless us all that he does whatever I ask him to do.

So we try to keep Mondays Tuesdays as filming days, but obviously trends pop up, so we’re like, “shit we got to get on this”. I’ll put 15 minutes on Mark’s calendar and be like, “please, please please please do this.” It takes 1-3 hours, depending, but we try to get content prepared for the week.

Wow. That’s so funny. Are your co-workers lining up to be in these videos? Or are they like, “get me out of this shot?”

Some are super into it and some aren’t. And it’s fine either way. There’s like a couple people who are just like, good at it. Kristen, who’s our office coordinator, actually went to professional acting school, so she’s really awesome for being dramatic and being in the videos.

And then other people will be background. It’s funny because if you walk into our office, it’ll be like utter chaos happening in the suit, and everyone will have straight faces. Nobody’s fazed by it anymore. They’re like, “it is what it is. They’re at it again.”

I love that. How do you know which trends to hop on?

Honestly, whatever is just popping up on the For You Page, and stuff we can bring our authentic POV to. There’s a lot of trends that we stray away from like, explicit content.

For example, we never explicitly cuss, unless it’s a subtle thing. We never actually show Duo being violent. And then as a brand account, we actually can’t use copyrighted music. So that makes it a little bit tougher, but it also makes it more fun because it has to be more strategic with puns, jokes, and subtleties. Which, to me, is more fun than being absolutely ridiculous, but sometimes we do that too. It’s good mix. So, we can lip sync to people’s talking but we can’t use songs.

Yeah. I’ve always wondered how that works because I don’t have a business account. That must be frustrating.

Yeah, it’s such a pain in the butt. Like, I get why it is a thing and I totally respect it, but I just wish we could. Sometimes I’ll have such a good idea for something, but I can’t do it.

Regardless, it seems like you have a ton of creative freedom with what you post on the Duolingo TikTok, which has led to the success of it. Do you have to get approval? And what about comments? Because your comments are a whole different thing.

For comments, they’re fine with me being a little bit wild. I don’t really have to get approval for that. Again, I’m not cussing or being explicit.

But yeah, actually, I’m glad you asked this. I don’t know if you saw, but we had a video up yesterday for like 4 hours. It was the My Little Pony trend and we had to take it down. We’re still learning what’s funny and what resonates, and also what doesn’t.

99% of the time, they’re fine with whatever we post. I’ve been learning how to advocate for why a certain video makes sense. But it can be hard to figure that out, because there’s always different levels to a meme. And if you’re deep in internet culture, at least like I am, you’re like, I don’t even know where to begin with this.

I abbbbsolutely know what you mean. And what was the office response to your success? Are you the star of the Duolingo office?

It’s interesting as I’m actually like, one of the younger employees here. I’m 23. I graduated in 2020. And our marketing team started in 2018 here, so it’s very fresh. It’s been really surreal. It’s cool to be young talent and to be given the platform to create shit and be valued for what you do. The common story is that people don’t get that freedom, especially so young in their career.

There’s obviously moments of question, or people being like, is this appropriate? Is this the way we want the brand to be portrayed? But then there’s also moments of trust and being like, you know, you say it works, and it’s getting the numbers, so I guess it works.

And then I think that with my personal account blowing up, that was really surreal. I did not think that many people cared. I didn’t realize that many people were obsessed with Duo.

That is so crazy to me, because I’m in a bunch of marketing groups on Facebook, and people bring up the Duolingo TikTok all the time.

That is so nice to hear because obviously it’s valued and treasured here, but it’s also an engineering-first company. It’s not a marketing agency. So that’s very heartwarming to hear.

Zaria, thank you so much for chatting with me today—I know everyone will be so interested to hear what you have to say!

That is so sweet! Thanks for having me. Have a great afternoon!


The Takeaway? Personal Brands are the Future

especially if your brand is a traditional business brand.

The days of buttoned-up marketing tactics are over. Will CEOs trade in their old-school ways in favor of a new approach that appeals to a younger audience? Will they give up the reigns to their younger social media managers, who certainly have more internet culture experience than they do?

I hope so.

In the meantime, we have Duolingo to thank for the blueprint & cultural shift. I am so excited to see how marketing evolves in direct response to Zaria’s successful experiment. And also…. I hope she got a raise.

If you’re a service-based business owner looking to bring more of a personal brand feel to your marketing efforts, I would love to help you with a custom brand & website. Inquire here!

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