Discord and brands—how marketing strategies are evolving on the chat room platform

Discord and brands—how marketing strategies are evolving on the chat room platform

A year ago nearly 20 ad agencies gathered for a virtual event hosted by an upstart chat room platform called Discord. The so-called “agency day” was intended to introduce the advertising community to the application’s service, which was experiencing growing popularity amongst prized digital audiences, including gamers, NFT collectors and Gen Z.

What began as a toe-dip into a promising, yet uncharted marketing territory has, in 12 months, blossomed into a go-to media channel for names such as Chipotle, Wendy’s, Macy’s, Samsung U.S. and Adidas. No longer are brands pondering whether they should create their own Discord communities (called servers)—they are. The focus today has shifted from the forest to the trees, where brands weigh which individual features to include in their servers and details that could marginally entice more engagement.

Increasingly sophisticated functionality, including bespoke bots and fans-as-moderators, is seeing new attention from marketers, as well as offering a plethora of side channels to support all interests at all hours of the day.

“We've moved from what was probably more of a test-and-learn mentality to now looking at what else we can do, what types of new marketing activities,” said Jeff Danley, director of innovation at ad agency VMLY&R. Danley was in attendance for Discord’s “agency day” last year.

It is unclear just how many branded servers are currently on Discord, which was founded in 2015. But major brands such as Macy’s have joined in recent months. The maturation of how brands are approaching the platform is in part due to the rise of Web3 marketing, which exploded in the past year as adland embraced technology like NFTs and the metaverse. These communities tend to gather and socialize on Discord and, being tech savvy, demand a certain wealth of features, from automated bots to a plethora of engaging content.

This demand also emerged out of inconvenient necessity. Malicious hacks on Discord servers have substantially increased, with over $22 million having been stolen from users via scams during May and June alone, per analysis from Web3 security firm TRM Labs. When even notable NFT communities such as Bored Ape Yacht Club and Nouns DAO suffer from these attacks, users start to expect improvements in security from established companies.

In June, clothing brand Lacoste experienced a phishing scam in which a user posted a link to a fake NFT mint on the brand’s server, and was able to steal users’ assets. The attack occurred within a week of the server’s launch.

Brands have also needed to grapple with an unpredictable partner in Discord. The platform’s chief marketing officer, Tesa Aragones, departed the company last November. While Elizabeth Hamren, Discord's new chief operating officer, will oversee several teams including marketing, a direct CMO replacement has not been appointed. 

Some brands, like Chipotle, have built relationships with Discord and received help when setting up their servers. Others, like Macy’s, have not—an indication that the platform is less interested in courting advertisers than it was last year. Indeed, Discord has yet to announce whether it will host an “agency day” this year. The company declined to share more information, per a spokesperson.

With a bare bones-server no longer acceptable, brands are providing their communities with myriad and multifaceted tools. 

Bots are accounts that use AI to automate tasks in a server. They can welcome new members, post memes or polls, ask questions to keep a conversation fresh and assist in moderating content. Many are publicly available to use and offer both free and paid plans, the latter of which can often be purchased on Patreon from anywhere between $4 and $40 a month.

Some brands have created their own bots to enable a more unique experience for their communities. For example, Wendy’s developed a bot that roasts users, inspired by the restaurant’s derisive personality on social media. The construction only required a bit of Python programming, which was conducted by developers from VMLY&R, said Danley. And once it was installed, Wendy’s made it available for other servers to download into their own servers. 

Another area of improved functionality can be made through moderators, often referred to as “mods.” Mods are human accounts that guide conversations on the server and provide useful information, such as being transparent about news and announcements. They can also assist bots in sweeping the server for fake or malicious accounts and expelling them. 

Most brands appoint in-house staff to be mods, but others, like Samsung U.S., see any type of passionate user as a good candidate, including fans.

“Mods are people that understand how to drum up conversation,” said Tammy Pepito, senior VP  of social and consumer experience at agency Razorfish, which helped Samsung U.S. launch its server back in June. “Discord is very different from social in that it's not a customer service channel, so [moderating] is not just responding and closing out a ticket—it's about trying to keep that conversation going so that the community members can develop relationships with the mods.”

Pepito suggested that when planning for bots and mods, brands should work with a Discord subject matter expert—someone who knows the ins and outs of Discord features, a reputable list of moderators and the overall architecture of the platform.

“Having a subject matter expert is really crucial to make sure that we're utilizing the best bots that won't leave us susceptible to hacks and to raids,” she said.

One thing Samsung U.S. learned early about Discord is that it does not operate merely during business hours, said CMO Michelle Crossan-Matos. Users want to have conversations through the evenings and early mornings, and with members representing areas all over the world, time zones effectively carry no meaning. 

What brands have realized is that in order to keep up with this sustained chatter, they must offer activities around the clock. One popular method has been through building niche side channels, which essentially silo topics and interests into their own categories. 

Nearly every Discord server has the basics, such as a “welcome” channel for new members, a “community guidelines” channel stating the server’s rules and a “general chat” channel, among a few others. But some branded servers go beyond this foundation: Samsung U.S. offers a “gaming chat” channel where users congregate over a passion for video games; Bud Light Next offers a “buy-sell-trade” channel where users promote and coordinate NFT purchases; RadioShack offers an “ad contest” channel, asking users to share their own advertisements for the tech retailer-turned-crypto exchange.

By breaking down discussions into navigable departments, a brand can invite more uninterrupted engagement with its server. It could also enable a loyalty play by gating certain channels, said VMLY&R’s Danley. For example, using the NFT-based model, a brand could reserve access to a special giveaway channel for those who own one of its NFTs. This opens the door to many new opportunities, including drops at all hours of the night and exclusive content. 

Listening to the desires of members is how brands should decide which channels to offer. While Macy’s—which launched its server less than two months ago— provides only the basic channels, the retailer is open to creating more in the future if that’s what its community members want, wrote Tim Stalker, VP of communications planning and media strategy at Macy’s, in an email.

Another tactic for serving users 24/7 is simply by coordinating a steady stream of opportunities in related ecosystems, such as the metaverse or out-of-home, and waiting. Members use Discord as a kind of real-time focus group, said Crossan-Matos, and they tend to return en masse to the platform to discuss upcoming or recent experiences.

For example, members of the Samsung U.S. server bombarded the chat in late June during the brand’s 837/NEXT event for NFT.NYC. The experience included a tie-up with Nouns DAO, and Discord offered an easy place for users to share their custom Nouns-Samsung avatars.

“When you're in a few metaverse platforms, Discord is where it brings it all together. It really is like the glue,” said Crossan-Matos.

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