Growing Duolingo in India — a marketer’s perspective

Photo by Leonardo Toshiro Okubo on Unsplash

“One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” — Frank Smith

Introduction

Language education is an opportunity magnifier — not just professionally but also socially. A shared language brings people together, especially if it’s a language that’s different from the others spoken around them. There’s an intimacy that instantly develops between two Tamilians or two Frenchmen who run into each other during an African safari. Such an intimacy is hard to replicate in their own home states. Once you bring individual dialects also into the mixture, the level of intimacy multiplies. Imagine, if you will, a migrant Bengali labourer who moves to Kerala to find work. A working knowledge of Malayalam is an absolute necessity for him to take his first baby steps towards survival in a society completely different from the one he has been used to. Or imagine a Syrian refugee in Germany. Knowing a smattering of German is critical for her to find food, or even to protect herself from intolerant sections of the society.

Language education industry tends to grow well in countries with multiple spoken languages, or where English, the universal language of business, is not lingua franca. India is an outstanding example. Even with 22 official languages and thousands of dialects, Indians are often at a loss for words when it comes to talking to each other.

The biggest need today in India, by far, is to have fluency or even working knowledge in English — a language linked to better job outcomes. However, as with many levers of the Indian economy, there is an immense chasm between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ with English language education. And this is reflected in the numbers as well. Nearly 25% of Indian executives said that more than half of their total workforce would need English ability in order to execute their annual strategies. Yet only 4% of men and 2% of women in the Indian workforce report speaking fluent English (read here). To make matters worse, English has slowly grown into yet another tool in India to spread discrimination — it has become a linguistic caste system enabler, where English speaking ‘babus’ are at the top of the pecking order (read here)

To make matters more complicated, the recently amended National Education policy in India has courted controversy by recommending that the medium of instruction in schools until grade V should be regional or local languages.

It is in the light of all the above that third party English education tools and institutions become even more important in India. The offline English education institutions in India are mostly unorganized and therefore ineffective in generating scale and maintaining consistent quality. I remember that a rather rowdy neighbour during my childhood days opened up a ‘Spoken English’ school in his rented house one fine day. His ulterior motive was to figure out a way to wriggle out of paying rent for his house, and to take over ownership of the ‘business premises’ eventually. I don’t know how many students legitimately learnt spoken English from him. Not many, I hope. Online apps, however, are a different story. The major language learning apps that come to mind are Duolingo, Memrise, Hello English, EnglishScore, Busuu and Drops. Of these, Duolingo is arguably the most well-known, with close to 5mn app downloads (user engagement is a different story).

I thought it would be fun to think a bit about how Duolingo, if they are planning to grow further in India, could go about doing so. Below is a 90 day plan for growth, from a marketer’s perspective. It is a slightly long read, but I promise, it will be worthwhile.

Assumptions:

  1. This is a zero based approach, assuming there are no existing teams in place in India.
  2. This plan will require financial, product, legal, and technical/customer support from the parent company.
  3. Budget will depend upon the final KPI numbers aligned with the broader team.
  4. Certain timings (especially team hire and agency selection) have been decided based on the assumption that good folks and agency partners are already known to the incumbent. If we go the traditional hiring and agency pitch route, it will take more time, and the 90 day plan will look bare.

I have deliberately not considered monetization or retention in this plan. Duolingo has stated that it is not interested in monetizing in India currently (read here) because they want to build a robust user base first, and free plans are the easiest way to achieve that. Additionally, this being a 90 day plan, retention plans won’t be so effective. We will need 90 days at least to study new user behaviour by cohorts, allowing for time for behaviour to settle. Only then can we focus on retention.

Snapshot of the 90 day action plan

90 day action plan Gantt chart — Duolingo

Deep dive of the plan

As with any good marketing plan, we begin with hypotheses of insights that can drive the business forward. For Duolingo, the two routes for insight hypotheses are as below:

Primary insight for immediate focus in the first 90 days

Command of English is the key to unlocking additional levels of opportunity in India. However, most Indian students and young professionals in tier 2 and tier 3 cities, and even in tier 3 and tier 4 colleges in the metros, struggle with their command of English language. And this lack of command over English is a major source of low self- confidence. They feel they cannot ‘make it’ in life, whether in higher education outside the country, or in the office.

Many of them simply let go of better opportunities because they fear their lack of command of English will embarrass them in front of others.

Insight: For a nation that has a non-uniform standard of English education, command of fluent English is the key to unlocking better opportunities in life.

Secondary insight to be focused on after 1 year in market

As per 2011 Census, India had 45.6 crore migrants (read here), forming 38% of the population. Between 2001 and 2011, while Indian population grew by 18%, the number of migrants increased by 45%.

India is moving and resettling itself.

India is also a country with 22 official languages and thousands of dialects. With so many languages, it becomes difficult for migrants to work and resettle in another region where the language and culture are entirely different. Being able to speak the local tongue or an acceptable common language is the first step on the path to integration. Regional languages that can travel across most states (such as Hindi and Bengali) will be crucial for migrants to know in the coming years.

Insight: For migrants who face an unfamiliar language every 1000 km, grasp of a few common regional languages is the first step towards societal integration.

Key priorities in the first 30 days (Planning phase)

It will be critical to hit the ground running in the first month. So, we will need to compress prep times and insight validation to 30 days.

1.The first step will be to talk to a good cross section of consumers–Duolingo users, Duolingo lapsers, folks who have joined unorganized English teaching institutes etc. and validate/re-formulate the insight hypothesis.

2. Identifying partner agencies–next, we will establish project based (and not retainer) relationships in the first set of campaigns to allow ourselves the freedom to experiment:

  • A digital media agency will be critical to create media plans to help drive awareness across all touch points.
  • A PR agency will be crucial to start a long lead campaign to drive awareness of Duolingo’s laudable brand purpose.
  • A creative agency will be required to create the assets needed for a national, 360-degree awareness campaign.
  • Identifying a few key influencers who can take Duolingo’s message to our TG — to be closed once positioning is locked.

3. Team building — It will be important to recruit a small but passionate team of folks with the right credentials:

  • A digital marketer to execute always on performance marketing campaigns to drive awareness and app installs.
  • A data analyst to help with audience segmentation, cohort analysis & experiments as a/b tests to optimize campaigns constantly.
  • A social media strategist with creative ability to help develop content inhouse, aimed at driving awareness and installs.

4. We will need to kick-start standardized equity dipstick reads quarterly to create a database of progress of brand equity.

5. Establish a regular drumbeat of reviews with senior management to review plans, progress, next steps, and budget.

Key priorities in the next 60 days (Execution phase)

The execution wheel below shows how a 360 degree campaign could be set up to start the accelerated growth of Duolingo across the nation.

Awareness: Long lead PR plans and visibility building via TED style talks in schools, colleges and corporates will help land the importance of language education and the message of the brand. Corporates are an especially interesting choice. They are a catchment pool of career oriented youngsters aiming to advance professionally (which requires knowledge of fluent English). They also are a substantial source of migrant professionals who would benefit from learning the local language of the city they are in, for cultural integration.

Full-blown video-led ATL campaigns should be considered only after validating the insights and building some momentum on the ground by testing and learning in small audience sample sizes. This is primarily to limit the downside since these campaigns cost upwards of 15–20 Cr.

Activation: Since Duolingo is app and website led, we will define activation as user registration. We will kick start app install campaigns (optimized for an in-app action, like registration) from the second month onwards.

Currently,

  • There is almost no growth in month-on-month Google search trends for brand related keywords for Duolingo from Apr ’20 to Mar ’21 in India (based on keyword research on Google ads).
  • Average monthly generic keyword searches such as ‘learn English online’, ‘free English classes’ etc. have seen a 20% increase starting from Nov 2020, but Duolingo is not present on the first page of the SERPs.
  • Similar case exists on the Google Play Store for generic searches.

So we,

  • Start Universal App Campaigns on Google.
  • Start App Install campaigns on Facebook & Instagram and affiliates to drive app awareness and installs of the app.
  • We will gradually start optimising for the in-app action ‘Sign up’ as the campaigns learn, to get higher intent users.
  • We will aim for a minimum 20% MoM (month on month) increase in brand search through awareness campaigns and minimum 30% MoM growth in app installs.
360 degree awareness and acquisition campaign for Duolingo

A viable content strategy for Duolingo

Content strategy pyramid for Duolingo

Picture of success after 90 days

  • A well onboarded and passionate team in place
  • Measurable rise in new user traffic to app and app installs (specific numbers to be committed once budget is aligned)
  • Share of search increase (specific numbers to be committed once budget is aligned)
  • Long lead PR articles in media that drive traffic to app
  • Launching a national video led campaign focused on driving awareness

Key metrics to track actively

  • TOMA
  • New user traffic
  • DAU growth (jointly owned with growth team)
  • CAC (blended and broken down across channels)
  • Retention rates (after 90 days, to allow for user behaviour to settle)
  • NPS
  • Share of search (good proxy for awareness)

Key challenges

This is a rather ambitious plan to formalize and execute within 90 days. I packed a lot of stuff in it deliberately, just to show what all could be done. However, such an ambitious plan is not without its own challenges.

  1. It will be impossible to acquire only high intent users. And if we are trying to increase TOFU (Top of Funnel) rapidly, we will end up with a lot of low intent users as well. This can affect activation and retention.
  2. Typical app install campaigns are functional ads with a clear CTA (just like stars in the sky). They do not help to build lasting brand awareness unless preceded by insight led content (just like the bright moon). In our plan we will run both in parallel so that we can create some quick momentum. The challenge will lie in crafting the media plan in such a way that purely functional ads do not run by themselves and are always preceded by insight led content across channels.
  3. Recruiting a high caliber team in a short time of 45 days is a major challenge.

So, there it is. It’s been a fun weekend thought exercise. Democratisation of language learning is critical for an economy like India to grow, and companies like Duolingo are in a great position to influence this.

I write about business, marketing and startups. If you are interested in knowing more about how I approach marketing, feel free to drop in at sandeepnair.net.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Brand marketer with delusions of humour. History buff. Loves psychology & consumer behaviour. Once played Bassanio in Merchant of Venice.