At the end of 2017, Duolingo, a popular online language learning service, did something unusual for an edutech firm: They started a podcast. As a “freemium” educational product, Duolingo uses a variety of avenues to attract new customers and keep (and monetize) the ones they already have. Podcasts are just one part of a social media strategy aimed at courting an audience split across countries, continents, and languages. 

Facing Freemium Challenges

Pittsburgh-based Duolingo was founded in late 2011 and was recently valued at over $700 million. The company quickly took on industry incumbents like Rosetta Stone by offering a completely free product that helped them become a dominant player in the online language learning space. Users access Duolingo either through its website or smartphone or tablet apps.

The company monetizes in three primary ways. Free users are served ads on their website and mobile apps, and there’s also an option for users to pay a monthly fee for an ad-free experience that includes extra freemium functionalities like offline downloading. Duolingo also offers non-English speakers a $49 online English proficiency exam which Sam Dalsimer, the company’s senior PR manager, says is primarily used in college and universities admissions.

Depending on the prism it’s viewed through, Duolingo is either an edutech company or an app maker. Their major social media marketing challenges are the same either way: A fragmented user base that uses Duolingo for very different purposes, and a wide variety of social channels preferred by very different users.

Going Across Platforms

Duolingo has official presences on Facebook (~1.5 million likes), Twitter (259,000 followers), Instagram (~5,700 followers) and Google Plus (~298,000 followers). According to Dalsimer, Google Plus remains popular in international markets like Brazil, where Duolingo has a presence.

The company maintains a unified visual opportunity for social media content; the same artist creates unique illustrations for all of Duolingo’s social media content, and the company deliberately carries the same cartoon-y aesthetics from their website and apps into the social media world.

Complicating things for Duolingo’s social media strategy is the fact that Duolingo serves two very different core constituencies. The first consists of native English speakers learning a wide range of foreign languages for instances like work opportunities, travel and heritage. The second, approximately 55 percent of their user base, consists of non-native English speakers learning English for primarily work-related purposes.

Dalsimer said Duolingo reevaluates their social media strategy every quarter, and have two current goals: Promoting their core value of diversity and informing users about new product launches, features and other company news.

However, despite teaching users everything from Spanish to Vietnamese to Russian, almost all of Duolingo’s social content is currently in English. Duolingo says that may change in the future.

Official And Unofficial Presences

Duolingo’s official Facebook page is accompanied by unofficial pages like Duolingo English-Spanish and Duolingo Greek Learners, the multi-platform Shit Duolingo Says, which highlights awkward and humorous translations, and the popular-but-unsanctioned Duolingo subreddit.

These unofficial sites arguably boost Duolingo’s engagement and name recognition, but exist outside of the service’s officially sanctioned social media presences. The Duolingo subreddit, for instance, is a mixture of praise and complaints about the service, while Shit Duolingo Says often features off-color content that doesn’t necessarily align with Duolingo’s brand.

In the case of Duolingo, the company balances the fact that they have an officially sanctioned user forum with a very active user base. Unofficial social media presences present service feedback and bug reporting.

App Lessons

Duolingo is a good example of how a mostly free educational app is trying to avoid user churn through social media strategy and marketing. But Dalsimer says there are foundational goals that should be set no matter the company.

“As we set our social media goals, we also think about deciding what our most important metric is and the optimize for that,” Dalsimer says. “For some brands and companies, it might be downloads or subscribes–you have to create and tailor content for that purpose. For other people, the goal might be engagement rates on posts, or calls-to-actions to put in posts–that is one of our biggest challenges. Once we make that decision, it helps us focus on what exactly we post, and best way to do it.”

As for the podcast, it could be a bellwether of sorts in terms of social content for the growing company. The Duolingo Spanish Podcast is an important foray for the into content that is emphatically bilingual and is aimed at the company’s approximately 110 million English speakers who have signed up for free Spanish-learning courses. The first eight episodes debuted this past winter and Dalsimer likens it to “This American Life, but in Spanish.”