Need help growing
your brand?

Call Lee at 646.507.5804

or email lee@digobrands.com

Category : Behavior Change

A Day in the Life of an Assistant Brand Manager

At DiMassimo Goldstein, every member of our team plays an important role in bringing our clients’ ideas to life and helping them inspire action.

“A Day in the Life” is a new blog series that shines a light on the many faces behind our agency and the different roles that we each play, showcasing the creativity in every corner of our office.

This week’s post provides a glimpse into the daily routine of an Assistant Brand Manager at DiMassimo Goldstein. Matt Zani brings unrivaled enthusiasm and energy to every account he works on, including TradeStation, Sallie Mae, National Jewish Health, and Starr Companies. To learn more about a day in Matt’s life, read his story below.

Having spent exactly a year at DiGo, the five images below accurately represent my every day at the leading Inspiring Action and Behavior Change Agency.

Stepping into this beautiful world isn’t bad every day. The agency aesthetically reflects its inner soul which can be seen clearly through the walls teeming with award-winning work. A glance at the décor and a cup of coffee from the DiGo kitchen is all I need to get my day going.

DiGo breathes strategy. The agency’s process and work are strategically infused, bringing insights and measurements into creative work that allow it to work harder.

Don’t even get me started about the eats. I don’t know what I like more: Salad Wednesday, Bagel Friday, Friday happy hours or Mimosa Mornings?! Not to mention, we have some of the best snack-sharing in the ad agency game. A bowl of Cocoa Puffs is never more than 10 steps away.

DiGo is a culture designed for growth. The employees inspire each other to achieve and tease the most out of the work. The leadership team has instituted structures and programs that allow for employee transparency. There is opportunity for development and learning for whoever is hungry and willing to seek it.

The people are truly what bring this place to life. At the end of the day, DiGo is filled with bright and beautiful minds infused seamlessly to create campaigns, branding and work that hit home in the universes they aim to reach.

– Matt Zani, Assistant Brand Manager. Photographs by Will Jellicorse.

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!

Buddy Lunch: The Best Things in Life Are Free

Starting out somewhere new is never easy. You’re tasked with figuring out a boatload of new information for yourself: what those acronyms stand for, which conference room you’re supposed to be in, or what your coworker’s name actually is because you’re pretty sure it’s Pat, but maybe you misheard him and it’s Matt, but it’s too late to ask now so you just decide to play it safe and avoid calling him anything at all.

It can be tough to navigate these new waters – unless that place is DiMassimo Goldstein.

I’ve had the privilege of being DiGo’s Client Fulfillment intern since December, and I can honestly say this transition has been seamless. From day one, I’ve been met with nothing but warm smiles, welcoming coworkers, and great opportunities to get to know them better. Perhaps the greatest opportunity of them all has been the Buddy Lunch.

I realize that this is not a widespread term, as I’m lucky enough to be at the company that’s at the forefront of the Buddy Lunch Revolution. To better clarify this DiGo terminology for our readers, I’ve created a definition:

Buddy Lunch (noun): a midday meal paid for by your company during which you get to  better know one or several of your coworkers, and thus, make new friends.

Example: “Hey, John. You seem like a really cool guy. Let’s go to Panera and chat it up!”

This might not sound typical, but keep in mind that nothing about DiMassimo Goldstein is typical. This is the same company where within my first two weeks, I experienced things like team karaoke, meditation, cats and dogs in the office (and no, that’s not a metaphor). So, a free lunch during work as a way to make new friends? That just seemed like classic DiGo – and I was all over it.

Unfortunately, my execution was not as effortless as my excitement. After several drafted emails later, I still couldn’t think of the right words. How exactly is the best way to say “Hey, you probably don’t know me, but that’s why I’m emailing you. Should we get some lunch so that we can learn each other’s names?” Didn’t exactly work. Luckily enough, some kind soul in the office saved me from my own awkwardness and invited me out to lunch. If you know anything about DiGo’s employees, you’ll know that this display of kindness is par for the course. To no surprise, it was a great time: flowing conversation and plenty of laughs over a pizza that was definitely fit for more than two people. Was I sure this was the dreaded “work” that all my employed friends were warning me about?

After that, I felt comfortable. I had a friend in the office, and I had the momentum to make some more. With every Buddy Lunch I went on, I felt like I became more a part of DiGo because I got to know the people who made it so special. Each person imparted their wisdom on me, wanting to give me the best possible advice on how to succeed at this company. Though I valued their input greatly, it was their willingness and enthusiasm to help others that most resonated with me.

I quickly realized that everybody at DiGo wanted the best for their peers, and the feeling was contagious. Whether it was pizza with someone from Studio, dumplings with the Account team, or salad with someone from the Marketing team, I felt such a strong sense of support from the people I was surrounded by, and it made me want to do the same for others. To me, that defines success at a company.

If that isn’t #InspiringAction, I don’t know what is. Power to the Buddy Lunch!

— Claire Holleran, Client Fulfillment Intern

Inspiring Action Brand of the Month: Stitch Fix

“Five years from now, people will say, ‘Remember when we had to wander malls and find our own things? That’s crazy!’”

That’s the behavior change that Eric Colson, the Chief Algorithms Officer at Stitch Fix, is betting on.

It may sound like a drastic change, but in today’s digital world, drastic change is the new normal. Small, smart, and disruptive brands with fewer resources and nothing but a powerful and inspiring idea are, almost overnight, transforming our behaviors in ways like never before. We’ve seen it with the likes of Airbnb and Dollar Shave Club. We’ve seen it with Casper and Betterment.

And now we’re seeing it with Stitch Fix, the online personalized styling service that is reinventing the fashion shopping experience.

Let’s go back to Colson’s prediction. The timeline he provided was five years.

Five years ago, Stitch Fix was hardly more than just an idea in founder Katrina Lake’s head – combine innovative technology with the personal touch of seasoned style experts to change the way people find clothes.

During those five years, she received funding but not much. With less than $50 million raised in the company’s history, she was able to grow the company at an unprecedented rate, raking in nearly a billion dollars in revenue at the end of 2017 – creating what has been dubbed the most cash-efficient e-commerce company of the decade.

And in November 2017, Katrina took the company public, making her the youngest female ever to take a company public. Which brings us to today, where Stitch Fix is using its data-driven model to spearhead the future of personalized fashion.

Five years.

Five years was all it took for Katrina to turn that inspiring idea into a billion-dollar company.

OK, OK … maybe it was six years (Stitch Fix was founded in February of 2011), but you get the point!

So, how did she do it? What is Stitch Fix’s secret sauce?

Like so many other disruptors, they thought differently. They did differently.

In an era where technology is all the rage, brands everywhere are competing in a race toward lower costs and convenience in nearly every industry. Stitch Fix took a different route.

Since its inception, Stitch Fix has always been focused on the consumer, understanding that the technology itself is less important than the customer experience of the consumer through the technology. That’s not to say Stitch Fix isn’t a tech-led company, because it most certainly is, but that technology is harnessed and focused toward a different goal: personalization.

Behavior-Changing Data Science

Here’s how it works: Consumers fill out a survey, or a “style profile,” indicating their style preferences. Questions range from size, price point, and preferred colors to how often a consumer dresses for certain occasions. On average, each client provides 85 meaningful data points. Clients are even encouraged to link their Pinterest boards to their profiles. Clients then schedule a date to receive their “fix,” which can either be a monthly subscription or a la carte, an important distinction that makes Stitch Fix different from competitors.

That information is then run through a list of algorithms, which you can tour on Stitch Fix’s website here. The data then matches the customer with a human stylist, who, with the information provided, creates his or her “fix” of five items and then sends the box directly to the customer.

Once received, the customer has three days to either keep the items or return them. If the customer keeps an item, an additional styling fee of $20 is given to the stylist. If the customer decides to keep all five items, he or she receives 25 percent off the total cost of the items.

This strategic use of data is what makes Stitch Fix so unique. Merging fashion with technology, Katrina can leverage that data to make the business much more efficient. She can forecast purchasing behavior and merchandize optimization. On the consumer side, the data is used to create complex algorithms that help match customers with styles and stylists they love, and Stitch Fix has even begun experimenting with designing new styles specifically for consumers.

Stitch Fix employs over 80 data scientists with doctorates from a variety of disciplines, including astrophysics and computational neuroscience. That team is led by, you guessed it, Eric Colson. If there’s anyone who knows how to change behaviors, it’s Colson. Prior to joining Stitch Fix, Colson was the VP of data science and engineering at Netflix, where he fueled the company’s recommendation and targeting engine, helping us discover our new favorite shows and forever altering the way entertainment companies operate.

In a digital landscape that has already forced traditional brick-and-mortar retailers out of business, Stitch Fix sits in an enviable position, with an unmatched wealth of data on the changing behaviors of consumers. Stitch Fix knows what consumers like and what they don’t like, and each sale or return makes the company smarter. It’s a business model that thrives off engagement. The more feedback a consumer provides, the better suited the “fix” will be.

Stitch Fix is capturing the future. It is changing the way people shop, offering a more personalized, curated, and delightful experience and making the try-on room a thing of the past.

What you wear is an extension of your own personal brand, and consumers more than ever are going to market for guidance and help in shaping that brand. Stitch Fix delivers the type of clothing you didn’t even know you needed. It stays up on the trends for you. It takes the hours of browsing or reading up on fashion tips out of the equation and delivers it all to you in a personalized way that no other e-commerce outfit can compete with.

But it’s not all algorithms and numbers. It’s the Stitch Fix stylists that build trust and loyalty with the consumers. They take time to get to know their consumers on a personal level, leaving handwritten notes and creating the type of emotional connection that makes an otherwise digital experience feel human.

In a letter to investors, Lake said, “I founded Stitch Fix to take on a very human problem: How do I find clothes that I love? Spending a day at the mall, or devoting hours of time sifting through millions of products online is time-consuming and overwhelming and neither effective nor enjoyable. I knew there had to be another way.”

Today, Stitch Fix is another way, but in five years from now, it may be the only way.

Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, once said that “a great brand is a story that never stops unfolding.” And while Stitch Fix’s story is still very much being written, the first few chapters alone have already built a story worth telling. We can’t wait to see where it goes next.

That’s why Stitch Fix is our Inspiring Action Brand of the Month!

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.

#SitOutSantaCon

Let me start by saying, we here at DiMassimo Goldstein love a good bar crawl. Be it for a 21st birthday, bachelorette party or a fantasy football draft. A small group of friends hitting up one bar at a time in embarrassing matching T-shirts one person in the group all demanded they wear can be a lot of fun.

And then, there’s SantaCon, when thousands and thousands of overserved Santas, inebriated elves and freaky Frostys takeover the streets and bars of cities around the globe. Every year here in New York, there are articles about bars and businesses bracing for the impact of SantaCon, while neighborhoods fight over who has to host the thing, like relatives arguing over who has to take home an unwanted fruitcake. It’s annoying. It’s inconvenient. And most of all…is that cool for kids to see Santa and his friends acting that way?

At DiGo…we don’t think so.

We noticed that these drunken Santas mostly seem to be of a certain age that is both a.) far from their belief in Santa Claus and b.) far from the stage in life where they would have a child of their own who believes in Santa. And because of this, they don’t realize that their “unique” portrayal of old St. Nick does not go unnoticed by young eyes.

That’s why we partnered with our friends and creative collaborators at Crew Cuts and made this ad to encourage people to #SitOutSantaCon.

We wanted to hear from the children themselves some of the horrors they have witnessed during SantaCon, in order to maybe encourage people who were planning on going to SantaCon to if not sit it out completely, at least please, think of the children.

In just under a week, the video amassed over 20,000 views (and counting). The social campaign received over 50,000 impressions and was picked up by ten different publications, including a write-up in Adweek and a televised feature on Pix11.

Our Facebook event received over one hundred RSVPs – that’s 144 small inspiring actions that together can make a big difference.

Thank you to all who supported the campaign and helped spread the word. We’re looking forward to continuing this mission next year, and with your help, we can end SantaCon in our lifetime.

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.