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Author: James Nieman

How Social Listening Can Inspire Action

The best marketers don’t sell products. They sell ideas.

Ideas they want you to believe as a consumer. Perceptions that have been thoughtfully designed and delivered. Because in branding, perception is often reality.

But the hard truth is this: The message that marketers want to convey is often not the same message that consumers receive. Your brand isn’t what you tell people it is. Your brand is what people tell people it is.

So, marketers monitor the conversation. They compile metrics from their social platforms, track their mentions, and look at engagement rates. And maybe, the data they’ve gathered is enough to prove the value of their social marketing efforts.

But it’s not enough. Not even close.

The best marketers don’t just monitor the conversation; they listen to the conversation.

Through social listening, you can discover what people are saying about your brand, even if they don’t tag you. This difference is critical, because far more conversations are being had about you than with you.

Social listening can determine what the sentiment is behind these conversations. Social metrics are terrific, but they only tell one side of the story. Having a high number of engaged consumers is great, but only if those engagements are positive. To quote Dan Neely, “Monitoring sees trees; listening sees the forest.”

But unquestionably the biggest power of social listening is its ability to inspire action. Through analyzing the conversations being had around your product, brand, and industry, marketers can identify an entirely new world of opportunities to delight their consumers.

Social listening gives marketers a chance to be directly involved in the consumer experience. It reveals common frustrations that are plaguing your consumers. Then, they use these insights to inform their next business decisions, working to obliterate the gaps, drags, and blocks causing friction for their consumers. Whether it be product development, identifying influencers, or customer care, social listening should influence the way your brand chooses to interact with its consumers.

If social listening isn’t incorporated into your business strategy, you’re operating with blinders on. Simply put, if you aren’t social listening, then you don’t care about your customers, and the customer is king. Always.

The A-List Podcast: Episode 20 with David Baldwin

On the latest installment of The A-List Podcast, host and DiMassimo Goldstein CCO Tom Christmann is joined by David Baldwin, the founder and CEO of Baldwin&, an ad agency based in Raleigh, North Carolina, that was named Small Agency of the Year twice in its first five years. Baldwin is also the former chairman of the One Club in NYC and was an executive producer for the Emmy Award-winning film Art & Copy.

His advertising has been recognized by The One Show, Cannes, D&D, the Clios, the Effies, the Andy Awards, and more.

Tune in as Baldwin and Christmann share stories from working under some of Advertising’s most famous superheroes, talk about the challenges facing the industry today, offer sound advice to young creatives, and much more. Episode and show notes below!

Show Notes

  • [0:00 – 2:22] Intro
  • [2:23 – 5:49] Growing up in a little West Texas town and being in advertising since age 12
  • [5:50 – 10:39] Superheroes of the industry, being interviewed by Gary Goldsmith, and living on floors in Manhattan
  • [10:40 – 15:00] The importance of humility and Baldwin’s transformative educational experience at the University of Texas
  • [15:01 – 16:44] Baldwin talks about getting hired by McCaffrey McCall and his first assignment as a copywriter
  • [16:45 – 18:15] Baldwin shares stories about his first partner, Steve Rutter
  • [18:16 – 24:40] The story behind the Emmy Award-winning film Art & Copy
  • [24:41 – 28:19] Working under Jerry Della Femina at Della Femina Travisano & Partners and the influential book From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor
  • [28:20 – 32:15] Moving from NYC to Portland to work for Cole & Weber and how it was a defining moment for his career
  • [32:16 – 34:40] The existential conversation that led to Baldwin starting his own agency
  • [34:41 – 36:49] Baldwin&’s ethos, being benevolently selfish, and living your point of view
  • [36:50 – 39:02] The criticized McDonald’s Women’s Day stunt and why he loves working for companies that create positive impact in the world
  • [39:03 – 42:30] The Polaris Duel Campaign he spearheaded at McKinney
  • [42:31 – 44:13] Baldwin discusses his writing process
  • [44:14 – 46:15] Facebook’s recent scandal, how the industry is changing, and the pros and cons of being an independent agency
  • [46:16 – 50:27] Creating his own brand, Ponysaurus Brewing Company
  • [50:28 – 53:25] Baldwin talks about why he started his agency in North Carolina and why young people should look for a boss to work for, not just a company
  • [53:26 – 56:54] How Baldwin is building more doors into his agency, being committed to creativity, and what he’s excited for moving forward
  • [56:55 – 58:00] Outro

 “The A-List” is a podcast produced by DiMassimo Goldstein, recorded at the Gramercy Post, and sponsored by the Adhouse Advertising School, New York’s newest, smallest, and hippest ad school. You can subscribe and rate the show on iTunes or listen along on SoundCloud. For updates on upcoming episodes and guests, be sure to like the A-List Podcast on Facebook and follow host Tom Christmann on Twitter

Inspiring Action Brand of the Month: Peloton

John Foley, the CEO and founder of Peloton, joins Rebecca Jarvis of ABC for an interview on May 5, 2016.

Calmly and confidently, he says the following.

“I think that the Peloton brand will be bigger and more influential than Apple in 10 years.”

Now, maybe you’ve heard of Peloton, the all-in-one stationary bike and at-home cycling class platform, and maybe you haven’t. Either way, you’re probably wondering how, or why, the founder of a stationary bike start-up, then just four years old, could make such an ambitious claim.

(Photo from Crain’s New York Business)

The company has already proved Foley’s inspiring idea to be true: that people would pay to re-create the cycling class experience at home – but to have more influence than the most influential brand of the past decade? That is a different beast entirely.

I’m not here to say that his prediction will be true, but what I can say is that the Peloton riders, all 600,000 of them, likely believe it to be.

On the surface, it’s easy to think of Peloton as, well … a stationary bike company.

And from there, one might assume that they compete with other cycling and fitness-based brands SoulCycle, Flywheel and Barry’s Bootcamp.

But ask Foley and he will adamantly tell you that Peloton is not a stationary bike company and instead considers his competitors to be Tesla, Amazon and Apple.

To understand this line of thinking, you must first understand Foley’s philosophies. There’s no goal too grand, and no vision too wide. Later in that very interview, he goes on to say:

“You hear that goals should be achievable. I don’t think that goals should be achievable because you don’t want to set yourself up for failure. I think that if you hit every goal that you set out for yourself, you will never know how far you could have gone.”

In the two years since saying that, he has taken the company very far. For the second year in a row, Peloton tops the list of New York City’s fastest-growing companies, as subscribers tripled this past year alone.

Today more than ever, consumers are going to market to become more of who they aspire to be. They are constantly searching for brands that will help them change their behaviors for the better. They have a natural desire to change and improve. Peloton does just that, innovating an outdated category with a fusion of revolutionary software and masterfully designed hardware, they have inspired audiences in ways that benefit their well-being tremendously. Riding Peloton becomes a part of your weekly routine. It’s a lifestyle.

So, if Peloton isn’t a stationary bike company, then what is it?

It’s a great question, and one that Foley gets often. Peloton transcends so many categories, and because of that, it stands in a category of its own.

Yes, the company became popular for selling its own state-of-the-art bikes, but Peloton is far from a hardware company.

That bike comes equipped with a 22-inch tablet computer, one that Foley claims, in addition to being three times the size, is even better than Apple’s. If you don’t want to purchase the bike, you can still enjoy Peloton’s classes through a monthly subscription via its award-winning app, and although they recruit software engineers from the likes of Google, technology is only a part, albeit a very large one, of what they do and offer.

On that tablet, Peloton streams cycling classes led by professional instructors to its legion of subscribers live from its television production studio in New York City. It’s an aspect of their business that has people labeling them the Netflix of fitness, turning instructors into celebrities with hundreds of thousands of social media followers and giving its riders over 8,000 on-demand classes to choose from – uniquely positioning Peloton as a media- and content-production company that’s attracting executives from Netflix and HBO.

And with 31 showrooms nationwide, a number that’s expected to grow to 50 by the end of 2018, Peloton is also an e-commerce and retail company. When purchasing the bike, whether online through their website or through one of their showrooms, you can pay an additional $250 for the bike to be delivered in one of their Peloton-branded Mercedes Sprinter vans by Peloton employees, who then install the bikes into your home, which also makes Peloton a logistics company.

It’s not the most economical way to deliver the bikes, but it’s an important differentiator for Peloton, as it gives them 100 percent control of the consumer experience end to end. Uncompromising in their direct-to-consumer approach, the deliveries are made by brand enthusiasts who are equipped to deliver a high-touch, on-brand experience. They can answer any questions the consumer may have, give the brand a voice and build relationships. Most importantly, they know how to get them set up and riding in no time.

So, if you’re following along, that makes Peloton a part hardware, part technology, part media, part logistics, part e-commerce and part retail company, all while not truly being any one of those.

In Foley’s words, his brand is a “disruptive technology company at the nexus of fitness, tech and media.

If anyone knows disruption, it’s Foley, and he hasn’t always been on the right side of it.

As the former president of e-commerce at Barnes & Noble, Foley had a front-row seat when the company and its NOOK were subject to disruption by Amazon and their Kindle Fire.

Speaking to a large audience at CES in Las Vegas last year, he reflected on the experience.

“At Amazon, they make the Kindle Fire, and they make it for $250 and they sell it for $150. That disrupted all the Dells and HPs and IBMs and Acers who also tried to make tablets, but they were hardware business models. When you make a tablet, and you make it for $250 but sell it for $500 because your business is making money on hardware, you can’t compete with Amazon, who makes their money on the digital content after the fact.”

For Peloton, it’s not about the hardware, as the company primarily has a subscription digital content business model.

That’s not to say the bike isn’t the best bike in the world, because it is, but what truly differentiates Peloton from anything else is the content, community motivation and software it provides its consumers.

The bikes are suited with an electronic dial that displays your exact resistance from 0 to 100. It shows your cadence (pedaling speed), calories burned, distance ridden and total power output (a combination of your speed and resistance). The tablet constantly compares your current ride to your personal record, minute by minute, pushing you each time to reach new milestones. The tablet also shows you where you rank among others who have taken the same exact class, giving you incentives to climb the leaderboard.

If you take a live class, the instructor will often shout out your achievements, like breaking a personal record or riding your 100th ride. This make the Peloton experience immersive, entertaining and interactive. You become a true virtual member of the class, giving you the magic of being in the room all from the comfort of your home. You can even video chat with other riders and friends while the class is in session.

With over 8,000 classes to choose from, there’s something for everyone. Rides vary in length, difficulty, music genre and by instructor. Some combine riding with an upper-body workout, and Peloton has even added yoga, ab workouts and stretching classes to their library as well. Skip a trip to the gym and enjoy the rush of your favorite classes at the tap of a screen, on your terms.

Everything at Peloton has been designed with intention. That intention is a bit of a tongue twister.

Peloton wants to make you want to want to work out more.

And they’ve succeeded. Through a synthesis of social marketing, word-of-mouth advertising, persuasion design, behavioral science and design thinking, Peloton has mastered the art of behavior change marketing. Proving that emotion leads to motion, they’ve inspired their audience, increasing their commitment to improving their health. Sprinkling in behavior change ingredients into every brand touchpoint, they have created a cult-like following that has become the envy of brands everywhere.

Ninety-six percent of riders would buy the bike again if they could go back in time. On average, riders ride eight times a month, or twice per week.

But more impressive than that is their Net Promoter Score, an index that measures the willingness of customers to recommend a company’s products or services to others. Peloton has an NPS of 91, which, per Foley, is the second-best NPS in the world and far ahead of Amazon, Apple and Netflix. Foley has stated that his goal is to make Peloton the first company ever with an NPS of 100.

This brand loyalty makes word of mouth a powerful acquisition tool, as over a quarter of Peloton’s customers first learned about Peloton through a friend or a family member.

So what’s next for Peloton?

Earlier this year, they announced their entrance into the treadmill market with the Peloton Tread, a $3,995 Internet-connected treadmill with a 32-inch HD screen, so that if you step off the treadmill to participate in any of the guided core exercises, you still have a fully immersive view. The Peloton Tread will be available this fall.

The treadmill market is five times bigger than the stationary bike market.

Peloton is already working on a third product, and it won’t be their last.

“We want to build the biggest consumer-products brand in the world. We’re going to make Apple look small-time,” Foley tells Bloomberg.

As for taking the company public, Foley has stated that he eventually will, but not for financial reasons. Instead, he looks at an IPO as a marketing event – a way to generate awareness and get the word out about Peloton to the masses, helping as many people as possible improve their health and fitness.

That’s why Peloton is our inspiring action brand of the month!

The A-List Podcast: Episode 019 with Paul Caiozzo

After a short hiatus, host and DiMassimo Goldstein CCO Tom Christmann returns to the booth for another exciting (and hilarious) episode of The A-List Podcast! This time, he’s joined by Paul Caiozzo, an award-winning creative and the cofounder of Office of Baby, a youngish creative independent agency that’s mature enough to work for companies like Google, Etsy, Zocdoc, and StreetEasy. Before starting his own agency, Paul served as the executive creative director at Goodby Silverstein & Partners.

In this inspiring interview, Paul shares the unique story behind how he got into advertising, how negativity is poison, the challenges and balancing act of starting a new business, why creativity is still the core of advertising, and where he sees the future of the industry. Full episode and show notes below!

Show Notes

  • [0:00 – 1:36] Intro
  • [1:37 – 4:59] The meaning behind the name “Office of Baby”
  • [5:00 – 8:08] Looking back on his time freelancing, Paul shares the lessons he learned from being around a variety of different agencies
  • [8:09 – 15:20] The power of remaining positive, even in the face of uncomfortable situations
  • [15:21 – 18:03] How a young web designer from Long Island found himself at a start up in Silicon Valley.
  • [18:04 – 20:25] Paul shares the inspiring story of how a favor for a friend turned into a lifelong passion for advertising
  • [20:26 – 24:20] Packing up his life in San Francisco and leaving to go an advertising school in Atlanta, where he discovered how ideas can be applied to art
  • [24:21 – 28:27] The mentor who convinced Paul to stay in the industry after a rocky start
  • [28:28 – 31:29] What he’s learned from starting a business and how to deal with the challenges that come with it
  • [31:30 – 35:08] Paul shares some of his favorite philosophies he learned working under advertising legend Alex Bogusky at Crispin Porter + Bogusky
  • [35:09 – 38:33] Paul reflects on his time as the executive creative director of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, building a satellite office and selling a vision
  • [38:34 – 40:34] Tom and Paul chat about “global agencies” and how the fragmentation of people solving a problem can be a problem of its own
  • [40:35 – 49:06] The current landscape of advertising, and how even in a sea of data and numbers, creativity still reigns supreme
  • [49:07 – 1:01:29] The future of Office of Baby, the company’s vision, why you should never chase money, and how being kind to others will ultimately reward you
  • [1:01:30 – 1:02:22] Outro

 “The A-List” is a podcast produced by DiMassimo Goldstein, recorded at the Gramercy Post, and sponsored by the Adhouse Advertising School, New York’s newest, smallest, and hippest ad school. You can subscribe and rate the show on iTunes or listen along on SoundCloud. For updates on upcoming episodes and guests, be sure to like the A-List Podcast on Facebook and follow host Tom Christmann on Twitter

Behavior Change Marketers of The Year: 2017

The year 2017 was the year of behavior change marketing. Here is our list of marketers who changed our behaviors for good, for bad, and maybe forever. If there are any brands you think deserve to be added to the list, tweet us here and let us know!

Amazon

For changing the way we read, shop and watch…

Casper

From almost never going to a mattress store to never going to a mattress store – all in one brilliant brand experience. 

Duolingo

For merging innovative technology with behavioral design to reinvent the way we learn languages.

Per unire tecnologia innovativa e design comportamentale per reinventare il modo in cui apprendiamo le lingue.

Para fusionar tecnología innovadora con diseño de comportamiento para reinventar la forma en que aprendemos idiomas.

Kakushintekina gijutsu to kōdō dezain o yūgō shite, gengo o manabu hōhō o kaikaku suru tame.

Google Translate

For making it easy for people who don’t even have time for Duolingo to do what we just did above.

Airbnb

For making travelers feel more at home, regardless of where they are.

23andMe

For taking the genome revolution to the people, allowing us to access our own DNA, find our DNA relatives, and empower us to lead healthier lives.

Nobel Prize Committee

For bringing the beneficent insights of behavioral economics into the international spotlight.

Ellevest

For closing the gender-investment gap by giving women the tools, place and voice to invest for themselves.

Bombas

For making the most personal of clothing decisions – what socks to buy – the most pro-social, by giving a pair of socks to a homeless person for every pair we buy.

Cards Against Humanity

For showing that a silly, politically incorrect game can take a serious political stance, and win big.

GoFundMe

For building a platform that makes humans helping humans more possible than ever.

Headspace

For showing that your guru can be an app. And, for introducing the life-changing effects of meditation to millions, ten minutes at a time.

Uber

First, for changing the way tens of millions of us get from here to there. Then, for exploiting their monopoly in greedy and insensitive ways and driving millions of us to Lyft and other options.

Facebook

From the Russian election hack to the #MeToo movement, Facebook has had an outsized effect on all aspects of our society, changing our behavior in good, bad… and still unclear ways.

McKesson 

For allegedly over-delivering hydrocodone, and perpetuating the opioid epidemic, which currently ends 144 American lives each day.

HelloFresh / SunBasket

For turning the average joe into an iron chef, all without going to the grocery store.

Tinder

For simplifying and streamlining the dating process with one swipe of a finger.

Venmo

For forever ending the headache of splitting a bill and making the act of going to an ATM a behavior of the past.

Resy / OpenTable

For removing human interaction from the reservation-making process.

Slack

For changing the way we manage our email inbox.

Spotify

For using complex algorithms to change the way we discover music.

Netflix

For changing the way television shows are produced and consumed.

Betterment

For making managing your wealth as easy as scrolling through your phone.

StitchFix

For making online shopping more personal.

Acorns

For showing us that there is no such thing as spare change.

Audible

For making listening the new reading.

MasterClass 

For turning our heroes into our teachers.

We’ve loved watching these brands change our behaviors, and change the world. We can’t wait to see what 2018 has in store!

Brand Resolutions That Work.

Every brand needs a New Year’s resolution.

Yes, even yours.

We’re not talking about increasing sales. Or retention rates. Or profitability.

Because those are goals, not resolutions.

A goal is a hope. Like losing weight, or getting a promotion.

A resolution is a plan. Like deciding to pack healthier lunches every day, or to walk to work instead of taking the subway.

You see, resolutions are all about behaviors.

Dislodging the behaviors you don’t like, and replacing them with new ones that empower you.

Resolutions are the behavior change plans that help you achieve goals.

But behavior change is hard.

Hard, but not impossible.

Behavioral science research has provided us with insights on how individuals and organizations can effectively change behaviors to better drive business results.

Like the practice of moral reframing, which we wrote about last month.

Or rewarding outrageous failure, which you can learn more about in this video.

Or behavioral design, which Inspiring Action brand Duolingo has mastered.

There is so much behavioral science can teach us to better understand what drives consumers.

And it’s our resolution to bring all of that to you in the upcoming year.

Through emails, just like this one.

And now, it’s your turn.

What is your brand’s New Year’s Resolution?

What Behavior Change plan will you launch?

And what goals will that achieve?

Shoot us a tweet, and use the hashtag #BrandResolution.

We’d love to hear it.

The A-List Podcast: Episode 018 with Sandy Greenberg and Terri Meyer

This week on The A-List Podcast, host and DiMassimo Goldstein CCO is joined in the studio by Sandy Greenberg and Terri Meyer, co-founders of TERRI & SANDY, an award-winning, brand-igniting agency that was recently named Ad Age’s Small Agency of the Year.

Before founding their own agency, both Sandy and Terri left their creative marks on some of the biggest agencies in the world, helping to build some of the most iconic brands, including Mars, Kraft, Campbell’s, Disney and Nestlé. Along the way, they’ve won virtually every industry award, including twelve Effies. Terri and Sandy’s work has permeated popular culture, and has been featured on TBS’ Funniest Commercials, Conan, CNN, The View, Fox News, Access Hollywood, and Today.

For just under an hour, Terri and Sandy tell Tom all about starting their own agency, why young creatives struggle with strategy, the importance of building a strong client relationship, and so much more. Full episode and show notes below!

Show Notes

  • [0:00 – 1:42] Intro
  • [01:43 – 4:03] Terri talks about growing up in St. Louis, and how she knew she wanted to be an Art Director from as early as age 15.
  • [4:04 – 7:17] Sandy talks about moving all over the East Coast during her childhood, and getting her first gig at D’Arcy in St. Louis.
  • [7:18 – 9:51] Sandy and Terri recall how they first met, and why it took some time for the two to become friendly with each other before eventually becoming partners.
  • [9:52 – 14:07] What it was like being a female team in the early 90’s, and why politics are the dark side of advertising.
  • [14:08 – 17:39] The two creative mavens discuss each other’s strengths, why loyalty is so important to a good partnership, open communication, and screaming until you laugh.
  • [17:40 – 21:46] The two discuss some of their early work together, like the Twix “Oh Yeah” spot, and why young creatives struggle with strategy.
  • [21:47 – 28:33] The story of Sandy becoming Terri’s birthday present, remembering the wisdom of Richard Levenson, and the importance of not burning bridges.
  • [28:34 – 32:39] Terri and Sandy talk about starting their agency 7 years ago, and how not having a plan took them from a couch at Terri’s house to on office on Broadway.
  • [32:40 – 39:10] Building a great client relationship through honesty and listening.
  • [39:11— 41:00] Growing an agency culture.
  • [41:01— 44:08] Terri and Sandy talk about some of the favorite campaigns they’ve worked on, including Avon’s “This is Boss Life”
  • [44:09 – 50:00] How advertising has changed since the Mad Men era, and why agencies need to unite more to give back.
  • [50:01 – 50:52] Outro

 “The A-List” is a podcast produced by DiMassimo Goldstein, recorded at the Gramercy Post, and sponsored by the Adhouse Advertising School, New York’s newest, smallest, and hippest ad school. You can subscribe and rate the show on iTunes or listen along on SoundCloud. For updates on upcoming episodes and guests, be sure to like the A-List Podcast on Facebook and follow host Tom Christmann on Twitter

Inspiring Action Brand of the Month: Duolingo

Photo from Business Insider

After he sold his second company to Google, Luis von Ahn received a phone call.

It was Bill Gates.

The richest man in the world, and co-founder of Microsoft, was personally recruiting the young computer scientist to join his team.

But for von Ahn, joining a world-changing company wasn’t enough. Like Gates, he needed to create his own.

So, the Guatemalan-born web wizard —who has become famous for combining humans and computers to solve large-scale problems that neither can solve alone — founded Duolingo, a free, science-based language education platform that is now the most popular way to learn languages online. And while von Ahn’s portfolio consists of several successful ventures, Duolingo is likely to be his masterpiece.

Von Ahn’s passion has always been rooted in the world of academia. A graduate of Duke University, who later received his Ph.D. in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon, where he now serves as a professor, he knows the education system all too well.

Both sides of it.

He’s seen the prestige of the world’s most elite universities, and the wealth that feeds them. He’s also experienced the resources, or the lack thereof, of the schools in a developing country. This side, sadly, is much more prevalent globally, and it’s the problem von Ahn has made his life work to solve.

In countries like Guatemala, education does not bring equality to social classes, as some may think. It does the opposite. Those with money can buy themselves an education, while those without it can barely read and write. This system sets up career barriers that are almost always insurmountable, and only widens the divide between the upper and lower classes.

By launching Duolingo, von Ahn was taking a seat at the intersection of technology and human behavior, inspired to create a product that could change outcomes in more permanent and integral ways to tackle the global-scale problem of language learning.

The mission was simple: make language education free and accessible to everyone all over the world.

Why language?

Of the 1.2 billion people in the world learning  foreign languages, 800 million of them satisfy three properties:

  • They are learning English
  • The reason they are learning English is to get a job
  • They are from low socioeconomic classes

For these individuals, learning a language can be the gateway out of poverty, but doing so can cost up to $1,000 dollars. Without the money, and no other alternative, the odds are unfairly stacked against them. To change those odds, von Ahn would first have to change behaviors.

Behavior Change Marketing

Learning a language is difficult. Everyone wants to do it, but most give up. The key is making it a habit. Duolingo could never work unless a user visited it regularly, so the success of the company hinged on it becoming a regular behavior, which also meant dislodging other long-held behaviors.

And change, according to world-renowned behavioral economist, Dan Ariely, “comes not from the inside, but the outside. If you want people to lose weight, give them a smaller plate. You have to change the environment.”

For von Ahn, the environment was technology. How could behavioral design be used to  prevent the poor retention rates of other language-learning softwares? How could he reinvent the teaching process to make it a memorable experience worth the consumers’ time?

You gamify it.

American psychologist and behaviorist, B.F. Skinner, once said, “No one really cares whether Pac-Man gobbles up all those little spots on the screen… What is reinforcing is successful play, and in a well-designed instructional program students gobble up their assignments.”

As the work of behavioral economists has shown us, consumer decision-making is not just about the availability of information. Instead, it’s about how that information is framed and delivered. By framing language-learning as a game, von Ahn was applying behavioral design to keep consumers coming back for more.

He and his team incorporated gameplaying elements to increase engagement. Like other mobile-game apps, Duolingo is friendly and fun. It uses images, video clips, and the microphone on the mobile device to not only help you learn words, but to recite and write them as well.

Behavioral science has proven that marketing efforts that activate goals have a much greater impact on consumers. Duolingo rewards right answers with “points.” Consecutive daily lessons can help the consumer build “streaks.”

“It’s like a video game, where you have to do something every day or you lose your rank,” says Gina Gotthilf, VP of Marketing and Growth for Duolingo.

The streaks give you  virtual currency that can unlock bonus skills or purchase outfits for the game’s mascot, a green owl named Duo. Von Ahn picked an Owl because owls are associated with wisdom, and chose to make it green as a joke on the company’s co-founder, Severin Hacker, who’s least favorite color is green (seriously).

An educational resource that’s actually enjoyable to use, Duolingo combines fun with function in a way that no language-learning platform has before.

A major point of differentiation amongst competitors like Rosetta Stone, other than the price, is DuoLingo’s use of Artificial Intelligence. In his research, von Ahn discovered that the hardest part of learning a new language is overcoming the fear of sounding it out in front of others. With AI chatbots, DuoLingo users can practice without pressure, preparing them for real-life conversations without the awkwardness and anxiety that come with the learning process.

The performance data also allows Duolingo to measure how effective different teaching methods are. If a person makes a mistake, or even hesitates to answer a certain question, the app registers that behavior, and will serve a new series of questions to help that person overcome that difficulty.

The Duolingo team has conducted thousands of A/B tests exploring the biases and cognitive shortcuts that affect how people absorb and process information. In doing so, they continue to build on their mastery of behavioral techniques, analyzing how millions of people learn at once, to create the most effective educational system possible, and then tailor it to each student.

For example, if Duolingo wanted to know if people learned faster when being taught plurals before adjectives, or vice versa, they would simply split the next 400,000 users into two groups and test each. Once they have their answer, they can implement it across the entire platform. This allows Duolingo to get smarter and more efficient as the company grows; and it’s working. A recent study by the City University of New York shows that 34 hours of learning a language on Duolingo is the equivalent of an entire university semester learning that same language.

Today, with over 200 million users, it is the most downloaded educational app in the world. In the United States, there are more people learning languages on Duolingo than there are in the nation’s school system.

Outside the U.S., entire countries like Costa Rica and Columbia have adopted Duolingo into every public school that has access to the internet, and the company is currently working on creating offline platforms for countries that do not have stable or reliable internet connectivity.

Von Ahn wanted to show the world that true equality  exists only when money cannot buy  better educations; and, while he’s just getting started,  he realized his impact when he received news about a familiar friend.

Bill Gates used Duolingo to learn French.

The richest man in the world and kids in developing countries – both using the same educational tool to learn.

Now that’s inspiring action.