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As online communities like Discord grow, can brands use them to ‘enter culture’?

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By Sam Anderson | Editor, The Drum Network

November 23, 2022 | 7 min read

While major social players struggle, community-focused platforms such as Discord and Mastodon seek new audiences. We asked five expert marketers what the opportunities are, and how to capture them.

The logo of Discord

Can brands ‘enter culture’ through Discord and the new breed of community-driven social media? / Alexander Shatov via Unsplash

The idea of the internet as a gathering place for tight-knit communities is not new, but over the last few years the gathering places themselves have changed. Discord has grown out of gaming to become a major hub for all sorts of communities, and brands have started to take notice. Earlier this year, Reddit made a major stride toward major brand respectability with a Love Island deal. And amid Twitter chaos, even the seemingly-niche decentralized network Mastodon has seen user counts rocket.

But given the community-driven nature of these platforms, brand opportunities are not always clearly-defined – and there remains peril for brands that jump in clumsily. What opportunities are out there, and how can brands claim them with the kind of authenticity that communities demand?

Joe Flowers, content strategist, PMG

The hard part is the idea of ‘entering culture.’ A lot of the time, we hear from brands that they want to be culturally relevant, which is the new way of saying ‘I want to go viral,’ versus ‘I want to enter and affect culture.’ Those are two very different things. My recommendation is to take time, listen, be involved and be really considerate and intentional about what you’re going to do in an initial learning phase.

Whether you want to create a community, join a community or cultivate one, it starts with understanding your goal and purpose – to effectively enter culture and not just try to get this flash-in-the-pan moment of, ‘look, we got 1000 likes on something!’

Dan Jackson, creative producer, Jellyfish

Start with your end goal. Why do you want to be in these spaces? What is your purpose for even being on these platforms? It’s a case of knowing your objectives, and then being able to work backward. If you’re there just for the flash-in-the-pan instant moment, then you’re probably not in the right space. It’s a long-term investment that you need to be committed to.

You need to have something to say. If you don’t, it’s probably not right for you – but if you’ve got a message; if you’ve got an ethos about your company; if you’ve got a voice that you want to give to other people and give them the opportunity to have their say, then it’s worth looking into.

Meghan Stephens, senior director of strategy, Laundry Service

I would just say to any marketer tomorrow: first, join a Discord server. Then find something that resonates with you, join the server, start participating and see what strikes you. Then we’ll talk.

Rachel Greenspan, connections supervisor, social, VMLY&R

Step one: figure out what your brand wants to do and say. Step two: find out who you’re trying to say those things to. Step three: find those people on the internet. Step four: join them where they already are. It’s as simple as that. You’re not going to force people on to platforms they don’t want to be on, and you’re not going to meaningfully interrupt someone’s internet usage if they don’t want to see you there.

You have to align all of those things before making the decision of where it makes the most sense to invest.

Robbie Murch, founder, Bump

We’ve got a five-step process – the ‘community marketing blueprint.’ You’ve got to recognize that, as a brand, you’re contributing as a corporation; you’ve got to contribute to that community through an economy.

Number one is to gain a nuanced understanding of the group; do your research and find out who they are. Two, get community leaders to co-sign; get the most important representative ambassadors to back your campaign and make sure that you can provide value for everyone within it. Three, get them to co-deliver it; don’t just involve them in the strategy, but also deliver the whole campaign. Four, find long-time allies, not short-term sponsors. No one likes a flash in the pan; you’ll look like a cash grab – too often in music, for example, alcohol brands do this with no long-term understanding of what they’re talking about. Finally, iterate: do it again and again to show you’ve actually got skin in the game. Otherwise no one’s going to take you seriously.

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