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Category : Thinking

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.

 

Don’t Go Out There Without a Beloved Brand

Today, even the largest corporation in the world is naked without a beloved brand, full of positive content.

Not so long ago, I received a call from a senior leader of a large corporation, and he was clearly in significant emotional distress.

This distress reflected the emotions of senior management and of the people in his organization.

This was one of several similar calls over the past couple of years.

All of these organizations had been world-beaters, with seeming strangleholds on their categories, at least, in their strongest regions or sectors.

At the times of these calls, each was being trashed in social media, destroyed in the press, and humiliated in the U.S. congress.

The reasons for their turnabouts varied. Suffice it to say that bad things were done, or the right things were left undone. The companies had fumbled, and the world had decided that they no longer deserved to exist.

Empathizing with my callers, I invariably told them some version of the following story:

“You may be aware that Warren Buffet said that his idea of a perfect business would be to own the only toll booth, on the only bridge, to an island.

Many large businesses share qualities of Buffet’s fantasy. While not being perfect monopolies, they have elements of a monopoly. Perhaps their bridges are not the only ones to the islands, but just the most convenient ones, for example.

People inside these companies say things like, “We have the size. We have the relationships. We have the supply. We have the data. We own the cables. We laid the pipes. We’re the only ones who have it… We don’t need to waste time or money building a brand. We don’t need to be loved – it’s enough to be rich!”

But here’s the thing about companies like that – people hate them.

They won’t say that in surveys nearly as much before, as after, the lapse, because the hatred is mostly unconscious, implicit, and waiting for a trigger to emerge.

But, make no mistake, people are waiting to get even. When you have power like that, people are waiting to set things straight.

Invariably, these brand owners who had called me had spent years trying to get their senior management to embrace brand strategy and brand-building processes. To a one, these senior managers had fought for efforts to make their brand experiences delightful, and to express  noble purposes to the world and prove those purposes with inspiring on-strategy actions. And every one of them noted sadly that he or she had, more or less, lost those battles.

The companies had been fat and happy; but now, they were bleeding and miserable and mortally wounded… by what? By shame. By infamy. By the fury of a global mob empowered by social media, by the people who prosper by attracting their eyeballs, and by those whose pensions depend on their votes.

And… now they were very much interested in the brand, the purpose, the experience. Now they were interested in being delightful,  customer-centric and socially valuable. Now, they needed a quest, and hoped that we might help them find their purposes, above and beyond commerce.

And yes, we can.

But, the time to have a purpose is before. The time to build a brand is before. The time to be delightful and meaningful and worthy of cheerful word-of-mouth and sharing, and 5-star reviews, and thousands of caps and t-shirts, and maybe even a few permanent tattoos, is before.

Because, even before social media and the monsoon of shaming, it was coming for them. Organizations with purposes, understanding the inspiring ideas that drove them, expressing them not just through communications, but through iconic actions, infusing exceptional experiences with the ideas, and generating waves and ripples of word-of-mouth – these organizations were coming to take away their clients and customers anyway. They just didn’t know it.

When selling is just selling, you are building a house of cards today, more than ever.

When your inspiring idea is your best-selling idea, you’re not only selling more, you’re building something that can stand the test of time.

Every large corporation stumbles. No collection of people that large is without a few bad actors. But, some companies are protected by the powerful, positive feelings that people have for them. There are companies about which most people don’t want to hear anything bad. Their love for those companies, their belief in their goodness, and most of all, their identification with the heroic qualities they attribute to the companies, dramatically alter their behavior. This is why building the brand in this way is the ultimate behavior change marketing strategy for brand and business growth.

Some organizations planted those seeds from the beginning, from their startup phases; and that’s always best. Others found their inspiring ideas in the growth stage; and that works really well, too.

The important thing is to find it, live it, act it out, communicate it… before.

You’re naked in the icy winds of change without it.

 

Inspiring Action Organizations

Some organizations so outperform most organizations that it seems wrong to put them in the same category.

While most organizations fail in their early years, most of the survivors also fail. Among the majority that survive, generating average growth means growing at a few percentage points per year.

Only a small minority are fast-growing companies. Of the fast-growing companies, many are in fast-growing categories. No doubt, the leaders of these companies know that they are beating the odds. Likely, they feel very successful. But the fact is that most of these companies only grow fast quickly for a limited time, and then they revert to the mean — or fail. Particularly in gold rush industries, there may be many fast-growing companies, but nearly all bubbles end in pretty much the same way. They burst.

I’ve long been fascinated with the extreme exception — the company or organization that builds an iconic brand and inspires a movement.

Most businesspeople miss the most important things that make for this kind of success. Perhaps this is because they try to reduce the life of the business to just business. Working closely with the leaders of rare outperforming, high-impact organizations, I’ve always found them to be on a mission to create something very different in the world. While the people at the top of these organizations are typically extremely savvy about business, they haven’t been so much business managers as movement leaders.

Call it “purpose” or “meaning” or “an inspiring idea” that fuels these businesses. Behavior change scientists might call it “a moral frame” that attracts, inspires and encourages the identification we measure as brand affinity, customer loyalty and advocacy.

While most businesspeople seem to judge incentives by the simple measure of whether they bring about the desired action, the leaders of these companies see incentives differently. They realize that all action is not created equal, and they appreciate that the meaning behind the behavior is actually much more important for long-term success and impact. The results of behavioral economics experiments actually bear this out.

Most business managers incentivize action, but great leaders inspire action.

Part of inspiring action is actually forgoing the easy results that could come from generating action with cheap but unaligned incentives. Don’t read that wrong — they don’t forgo the results. In fact, their results are much, much better.

It’s not the results they sacrifice. It’s the ease. Cheap tricks are common, easy to explain and relatively easy to execute. Copying your competitor’s “loyalty” program, for example.

Building a distinct and meaningful brand with an entirely integrated experience is a whole other thing entirely. It just happens to work so much better.

Behavior Change Science Update: Moral Reframing

When Steve Jobs was trying to hire John Sculley, then the CEO of Pepsi, to come and work with him at Apple, Jobs said,

“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

Sculley did leave Pepsi and join Jobs at Apple, becoming CEO. At first, it was a lovefest, but over time they clashed, leading to Jobs’ ouster from the company he had founded.

It turned out they didn’t share the same values.

For Jobs, changing the world was a moral imperative. For Sculley, the technology business was a cool consumer products business that was first and foremost a business.

This cautionary tale is a good way to introduce the topic of moral reframing. It contains all the tensions a behavior change marketer must resolve in order to successfully use this technique.

The news is that Robb Willer, a Stanford sociologist, has found that an effective way to persuade people in politics is to reframe arguments to appeal to the moral values of those holding opposing positions (https://news.stanford.edu/2015/10/12/framing-persuasive-messages-101215/).

We know from testing and experience that similar reframing works outside of the political realm as well.

For example, let’s say my company has invented a new way to get you to exercise more.

I believe that if you were to try my product, you would exercise more, be healthier, live longer and feel more energy and vitality.

In other words, in my moral universe, exercise is about health.

But, maybe my audience cares about cool experiences and being part of an “in” crowd. If I reframe my presentation of my innovation in that frame, I’ll make many more sales. My persuasive communication will be much more successful, creating much more behavior change.

If we design our experience around this frame, we’ll create much more sustainable behavior change.

So, why doesn’t this happen more often?

“Moral reframing is not intuitive to people,” Willer said. “When asked to make moral political arguments, people tend to make the ones they believe in and not that of an opposing audience – but the research finds this type of argument unpersuasive.”

Most people tend to pitch from their own frames of reference, and moral frames are the least flexible.

But, understanding the audience and employing the audience’s frame of reference is the core of successful communication.

So, let’s get back to that Steve Job’s story.

Did he know something about Sculley? Did he know that Sculley had achieved wealth, respect and power and was now looking for a legacy?

Very likely. Jobs was an excellent salesman.

Or, did Jobs just speak from his own moral frame and it happened to work in this case?

Jobs was a true believer, so this is likely.

I tend to think it was both. Jobs thought he’d found someone who was ripe to be influenced by a moral frame they could share.

This is the tension between leadership and sales, between brand and response, that must be managed.

Excessive personalization tends to obliterate integrity in the brand. By attracting people who don’t share your values, you end up with a customer, an employee – or in Job’s case, a boss – who doesn’t really share your values.

And, bad things happen.

One approach that works particularly well in politics is to look for a larger frame. This is a way to get beyond my frame or your frame.

For example, Lincoln believed “if anything is evil, slavery is evil.” Others believed “slavery is our God-given institution,” while still others believed “slavery is an evil, but it’s not worth risking war over.”

Lincoln looked for a new moral frame that could be shared by more of his audience. He found several. The first was: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” This, from the Bible, spoke to a broad swath of Lincoln’s audience. He employed the frame he later used in the Gettysburg Address, when he argued that the Founding Fathers had already dealt with the issue of slavery, that they had worked to set it “on a course of ultimate extinction.”

At the time, respect for the Founding Fathers was very great – it was a moral frame shared by a large percentage of the audience.

So, in sum:

  • Speaking from your own moral frame is integrity, but it is often ineffective integrity.
  • Speaking from your audience’s moral frame is more effective, but it can be manipulative and hurt the brand.
  • Finding a frame that can include both the brand’s values and the audience’s too ultimately creates the most sustainable behavior change while it builds the brand.

For our client, Weight Watchers, which believed in healthy weight, healthy lifestyle and healthy community and then found that their audience had shifted focus to healthy lifestyle, we found that their frame was already broad enough to adapt, and all that was needed was to refocus the members themselves.

For Sallie Mae, we saw that “Let’s Make College Happen” could unite all the constituencies – parents, students, guidance professionals and Sallie Mae employees – all of whom are focused on making college happen.

TradeStation was obsessively focused on the most powerful trading technology while living the Miami lifestyle. When it became clear that the audience cared about both, rather than just the awesome technology, TradeStation widened the marketing frame, and the result has been like a beautiful big blue wave.

Frame like a master, and you’ll love the results.

This has been your Behavior Change Science Update: Moral Reframing.

Happy #InspiringAction

Behavioral Economist Wins Nobel Prize

Thanks to the brave and brilliant contributions of one renegade, economic theory as we know it has been changed forever.

Richard Thaler, the world-renowned behavioral economist who has long challenged the standard economic model, was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize earlier this month. His work, which Nobel Prize committee member Peter Gärdenfors simplified as “[making] economics more human,” has influenced our education system as well as government policy.

Thaler joins a small list of behavioral economists to win the award. Robert J. Shiller was among the winners in 2013, and Thaler’s longtime collaborator and friend, Daniel Kahneman, shared the award in 2002. Though they won before him, it is Thaler who is widely credited with bringing behavioral economic theories to the mainstream.

Thaler has dedicated his life to helping people understand how individuals make choices so that they can be led to make better ones. His best-selling book, Nudge, was the culmination of decades of behavioral science research, and was written to prevent people from making mistakes that can negatively affect their individual and collective well-being. That’s an inspiring mission, and one that resonates with all of us here at DiMassimo Goldstein.

We use behavioral change marketing to drive growth in brands and businesses that change lives for the better. We study the work of behavioral pioneers like Thaler to become experts at providing our clients with the strategies they need to drive profound behavioral change in the areas of healthy, wealthy and wise. Understanding human behavior is key to empowering brands to provide their consumers with a self-actualizing experience, — and that experience is what will ultimately inspire them to make better decisions and form more empowering habits.

This has been our mission for 21 years, and it’s never been more important than it is today.

We applaud people like Thaler for continuing to push the conversation forward, and for persuading more people to pay attention to human behavior. To read more about Thaler and his work, check out this article in The New York Times.

Congratulations on the honor, Richard, and keep up the good work!

The A-List Podcast: Episode 016 with Bobby Hershfield

This week on The A-List Podcast, host and DiMassimo Goldstein CCO Tom Christmann interviews Bobby Hershfield, Partner and CCO at SS+K. Hershfield started his career in account management before eventually shifting over to copywriting during his time at Wieden+Kennedy, and since then he has spearheaded the creative for some of the world’s biggest name brands such as Dell, JCPenney, Target, CNN, and Johnson & Johnson.

Listen in as Hershfield talks about what makes an all-star account person, working with former A-List guests Eric Silver, Ty Montague and David Angelo, and why he ultimately took a pay cut to become a creative. Full episode and show notes below!

Show Notes

  • [0:00 – 1:19] Intro
  • [1:20 – 3:59] Hershfield talks about what it was like moving around a lot as a child, how he had to adjust, and meeting new people
  • [4:00 – 5:18] How Hershfield first discovered advertising from a Tom Hanks movie
  • [5:19 – 6: 53] Creative Writing at the University of Michigan, applying to letterman, and graduating in a recession
  • [6:54 – 11:01] Getting his first job at DDB in account management, being let go and having to work as a video store clerk before finally getting another job at Chiat\Day
  • [11:02 – 13:29] Working with Eric Silver, Ty Monague, David Angelo at Chiat\Day
  • [13:30 – 17: 34] The first “virtual office” and taking creative classes
  • [17:35 – 19:00] What makes an all-star account person?
  • [19:01 – 23:31] Hershfield’s mentors in account management, the feeling you get after he was let go, and the story of how he hung around until he was rehired
  • [23: 32 – 27:00] Accepting an offer at Wieden+Kennedy, the difference between New York and Portland, and how the culture at Wieden focused on the work and not the lifestyle
  • [27:01 – 31:19] Moving to New York to take a pay cut and shift to the creative side
  • [31:20 – 35: 24] Thinking irresponsibly and the different line of thinking you have to adopt to be a creative
  • [35:25 – 39:44] Working Albert Brooks for his first commercial
  • [39:45 – 43: 35] What it was like working under Ty Montague and the benefit of tough love
  • [43:36 – 47:20] Managing a team, being a mentor, and when you know it’s time to become a creative director
  • [47:21 – 53:47] What Bobby looks for in a young creative, what made Gerry Graf a special teacher, and the many advantages of attending Adhouse
  • [53: 48 – 54:43] 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

Welcome to the Direct Age.

People have never had access to so many amazing tools for connecting with organizations and services that can inspire them to achieve incredible things. Not so long ago, “consumers” were out there. Marketers needed to learn about their customers and their preferences from “the channel,” the sales team, or from expensive market research. They needed to be recruited through retail or sales. It was hard to know much about them as individuals. Today, your customer holds you in her hand. Texts you. Tweets you. You are the button she pushes. You are the apps she launches. You are the tool she uses to get from here to there. Physically. Emotionally. Mentally. You are your customer’s utility. Today, consumers have unprecedented direct access to the organizations that serve them. Equally, companies have unprecedented direct access to their customers and prospects. The direct age is the age of interactive selling. It’s the age of collaboration. It’s also the age of social customer service. If your service and your story works best for inspiring action in the customer, and if that action becomes habit, then you win.

We inspire greatness in individuals and in the companies that serve them through great direct experiences that inspire action.

 

(more…)

The A-List Podcast: Episode 015 with Omid Farhang

In the fifteenth installment of the A-List Podcast, host and DiMassimo Goldstein CCO Tom Christmann is joined by Omid Farhang, the chief creative officer at experiential agency Momentum Worldwide. Over the course of forty-five minutes, Farhang quotes the Wu-Tang Clan, talks about growing up as the child of an Iranian cowboy, and shares some of the most valuable lessons he learned working under and alongside the biggest names in the industry. Full episode and show notes below!

  • [0:00 — 1:36] Intro
  • [1:37 — 8:05] Farhang tells Tom about growing up the child of an Iranian cowboy, and the pressure he felt to become a doctor or a lawyer
  • [8:06 – 11: 53] How Farhang discovered advertising, and the emotions that ran through his head when he first walked into the Chiat\Day office
  • [11:54 –  18:14] How the Honda “Grrr” spot inspired him to go into advertising
  • [18:15 – 20:55] Wanting to be a writer and going to ad school with a sense of purpose and urgency
  • [20:56 – 22:55] How the definition of titles is changing in the industry, what he learned from the Wu-Tang Clan, and how he has been influenced by comedy and hip hop
  • [22:56 – 27:25] Starting as an intern at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, living in a basement, and the benefit of writing 200 headlines
  • [27:26 — 31:18] The lessons Farhang learned working as a young creative on Miller High Life
  • [31:19 — 36:12] Farhang walks us through his plea to Alex Bogusky for a full-time gig and why he dropped out of ad school without a job
  • [36:13 – 38:37] The interview process toward becoming a first time CCO, Momentum Worldwide, and the power of an honest business relationship
  • [38:38 – 41:00] Working with the children of NBA superstars for SAP’s “The Simple Report”
  • [41:01 – 46:00] The benefits of freelancing, releasing ideas into the wild and experiential advertising
  • [46:01 – 47:50] What “Malicious Obedience” is, and how young creatives can avoid it
  • [47:51 – 48:45] 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