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Brand Strategy Metaverse Fast-Growth Brands

How Discord doubled down on community to grow brand beyond gaming


By Chris Sutcliffe, Senior reporter

February 17, 2022 | 9 min read

Discord isn’t quite a household name... yet. Its rise as a community platform has, however, forced much of the social web to evolve to keep pace. In The Drum’s latest Deep Dive, Marketing Secrets of Fast-Growth Brands, we explore just how it became one of today’s most influential digital brands.

Discord's growth is wholly down to its community focus

When the pandemic struck, many communities were left scrambling for ways to communicate. Businesses turned to various video meeting tools such as Slack and Zoom as a means of talking to teams together. It was a riot of trial and error – and something of a surprise to the hundreds of millions of Discord users who had been accessing just such a service for years.

Initially launched in a basic form in 2015, Discord is a combination message board, VoIP service and community hub. Its integration with any number of gaming channels – most recently direct integration with PlayStation – meant it was the de facto destination for groups of gamers clustered in communities. Beyond that, other tech-savvy groups set up their own Discord servers organized according to the desires of the community into topics, with the ability to message people wholesale or set up calls for smaller groups.

Within six years the service grew to an average of 150 million active users a month, 50 million of those joining over the past 18 months. Those users are a marketer’s dream – self-selected to appear in communities, highly passionate about the topics they choose to follow and consistently engaged on a single channel. Those audiences are being monetized directly through Discord – or through some of its many strategic partnerships.

Kelly Liang is Discord’s senior vice-president of global partnerships. She tells The Drum that its success in expansion and creating brand partnerships to date is still based on that audience focus: “Over six years ago, Discord started as a space that provided friend groups a better way to talk before, during and after playing video games. Enabling great gaming experiences continues to be a central part of what we are as a company, and that is seen through the launch of some of our recent partnership integrations.

“Last year, we announced a collaboration with Sony focused on bringing the Discord and PlayStation experiences closer together on console and mobile. Starting with account linking and displaying game play, we plan to roll out additional features over the next year that will make the gaming experience on PlayStation Network even more interactive, social and fun.”

While that integration with gaming communities is its foundation, Discord quickly recognized the fact that its community tools would benefit wider user cases.

Ting Zheng, client strategy lead at PMG, believes that those lessons learned from its early years are benefiting Discord’s recent growth: “We do a lot now through voice chats; Discord came up as a new platform for gaming specifically and it is now being used across other communities from studying to hobbies. And so, I think that there’s going to be a proliferation of new ways of engagement.”

Liang notes that gaming communities now represent a smaller proportion of the totality, with 78% of its surveyed users saying they either use Discord primarily for non-gaming purposes or a combination of gaming and other purposes, demonstrating how much its user base has evolved since its inception. It raised $500m with the express purpose of evolving its business beyond gaming in September last year.

Growth through inclusivity

Last September, Discord’s former chief marketing officer Tesa Argones told The Drum that her remit upon joining was to make inclusivity the core of the business. It was, as she noted, as much a commercial imperative as a social one – one that avoids intrusive ads in favor of more pertinent efforts to appeal to its users.

Liang agrees, stating: “Communities and the creators who build them are at the heart of what we do at Discord. We continually innovate to improve our service based on their feedback and the needs of growing communities. For example, we’re currently testing premium memberships, which would allow creators and community owners to have the ability to gate part or all of their server behind a paid subscription.

“This is currently a closed experiment with a small number of communities, but we’re already seeing many of our creators offering this type of experience through third parties and we’re responding to feedback that a more native experience would be helpful.”

The success of that push is evident from both the communities Discord now caters for and the marketing partnerships it has developed. Last year, in collaboration with clothing company Meta Thread, it developed a range of clothing designed for its users. It also partnered with artists including Grimes and Awkwafina to promote the Discord brand itself.

Liang explains: “We have partnered closely with a variety of brands, each with unique goals for building their communities on Discord. This past year, we also hosted two fantastic events that helped over 40 leading creative agencies better understand the power of Discord and educated them on how their clients can activate on our platform.

“When we engage with brand partners, one of the key messages that we make clear is that brands need to connect with their consumer base in a manner that’s authentic to them. Building a community is vastly different from running a campaign – your community is an evergreen space where customers, fans and users can come together around many shared interests, including of course engaging with the brand itself.”

Next steps

The move from purely gaming-related interests to something more inclusive, both in terms of the content created and the communities served, is very similar to Twitch’s trajectory. The difference is that while Twitch’s content is primarily broadcast streams, Discord’s core ‘product’ is the communities that exist on the platform. It stands to reason that its efforts to monetize that audience, then, do not follow the traditional means of serving advertising slots in interruptive places within the app.

Instead, it is forging its own path, both though its premium subscription package, Nitro, as well as a mix of various non-ad revenue sources that add value to its users. Some, like its server boosting add-on, allow communities to purchase extra features and perks for their personal Discord groups. It’s a passive means of generating income that meets its users on its own terms.

Discord is also ahead of the curve when it comes to the next great buzzword for marketing – the metaverse.

Piers Fawkes is founder of PSFK. He said: “There are already metaverses in existence and I think probably the biggest metaverse today is Discord. We have this massive chat community beast happening, which is a metaverse – it just isn’t Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of his perfect future.”

The sheer fact of Discord’s existence has forced other platforms to keep up, both with its technical achievements and its ability to cater to communities. But while its erstwhile rivals are content to play in the ballpark of the duopoly and eke out what they can from primarily advertising revenue, Discord itself is doubling down on community revenue. And while it may have been given a boost by the pandemic, the influx of new users suggests Discord has significant headroom for growth yet.

For more Marketing Secrets of Fast-Growth Brands, check out The Drum’s latest Deep Dive.

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