Sabrina Sanchez
Apr 21, 2021

The download on Discord: How brands can take advantage of Gen Z’s new chat app

Everyone’s talking about Clubhouse, but Discord may be the new frontier.

The download on Discord: How brands can take advantage of Gen Z’s new chat app

You may be busy figuring out your Clubhouse or TikTok strategy — but don’t sleep on Discord.

The digital communications app has been around since 2015, but until recently, was used almost exclusively by gamers. That changed this past year, as Discord boomed in popularity among Gen Z as the pandemic changed consumer media habits. 

The app now has 140 million monthly active users and has raised over $300 million in funding. Microsoft was recently reported to be in advanced discussions with Discord for a more than $10 billion acquisition, but ended those negotiations.

But despite its attractive audience, few brands outside of the gaming sphere have made their way onto the platform. That’s likely to change, however, as marketers and advertisers become adept at adapting to new platforms that catch fire with their audiences. 

Gamers are still a strong contingent on Discord, but the platform now includes communities around coding, beauty, music, fashion and cars, creating potential for brands.

“There’s a reason why Discord has become a hot target for acquisition,” said Nathan Young, head of strategy at Deloitte Digital. “It’s poised to revolutionize the way friends connect in the same way Slack and Teams revolutionized how coworkers get work done.”

What is Discord?

“Imagine if Slack, Reddit, and Zoom had a baby. It’d look something like Discord,” Young said. 

Initially launched as a platform that allows gamers to talk to each other via audio chats while playing and streaming, Discord has evolved into a place where people can gather on “servers” to discuss various topics of interest. Similar to Slack channels, Discord users can customize servers around different topics, from science, to anime to technology. 

Servers can be set to public or private, accessible to anyone or through invitations, respectively. 

Users can engage with each other in different ways on servers, whether that’s regular messaging, video or audio chatting, or streaming. 

Discord recently also launched a Clubhouse-like feature, called “stage channels,” that allows users to tune into audio conversations happening on different servers. Stages can host up to 1,000 users, while voice chatting, which functions like a phone call, can host 5,000 users. 

Discord operates on a freemium model, with additional features such as customizable emojis, animated profile photos and higher quality streaming available to users on its paid tier, called Nitro. 

“Discord is about [creating communities] around a topic for people who have the same interests,” said Jake Bley, connections director of social publishing at VMLY&R. “It's like a modern day forum on your phone.”

What’s in it for brands?

Discord doesn’t sell advertising yet, but it still has potential for brands because of its focus on building and nurturing communities, said Amber Atherton, head of strategic communities at Discord. She added that Discord has a partner program, in which it works with brands to create their own servers.

“[Discord] is about coming together around similar interests,” she said. “For [brands], that means [users] can come in and hang out with other people who like the brand. The idea is that [anyone] can set up their own space to [chat with people] with the same interests.”  

Some brands are already testing out the platform organically. Coding company Kano, for example, created its own public Discord server after several customers requested it. What began as a Q&A forum has since evolved into a community for parents, teachers and children using Kano’s products, said George Cole, social media lead specialist at Kano. 

“We get feedback from parents and young people just chatting about their days and having natural conversations,” Cole said. “Some of the young kids who have jumped on the server are almost like [brand] ambassadors.” 

Users who join Kano’s server are met with a “welcome” channel that introduces them to the server. They can then navigate to other channels, including a chatroom for parents and teachers and a place to discuss product inquiries. Kano also has a gallery where people can submit photos of themselves or their children using its products. 

“There's nothing more important for a brand than getting feedback and being able to talk to customers easily,” Cole said. “Often, brands talk to focus groups. With Discord, you can do that on the spot and at the same time, build loyalty.” 

Another advantage for brands is that Discord is customizable, Deloitte Digital’s Young added. And while building an organic presence on Discord takes significant investment, the platform offers brands full control over the experience.

“If you can dream it, you can build it on Discord, even with limited technical skills,” he said.

Keep it organic

Other brands are testing the waters on Discord by joining existing public servers. Many are hosting thought leadership conversations or working with influencers to drive impactful conversations within a specific community.

With this strategy, “the key is to not sound like a brand,” Bley said. 

“You're entering someone else's house, so you play by their rules,” he added. “You don't want to own the conversation. You want to join it and have a voice there.”

Brands that want to try out Discord should start by “listening to what’s being said about them on the platform, and using those conversations to guide their own server strategy,” said managing director at Day One agency Jamie Falkowski. 

Moderation is key

Like with any user-generated content platform, moderation is an important part of controlling brand messaging on Discord. While open forum-style chatting can spark organic conversations between users and brands, it also presents a privacy and security challenge. 

Most Discord users are between the ages of 18-24, but children as young as 13 years old can sign up for the platform. To avoid privacy concerns, brands need to work closely with Discord to understand what personal information is being collected and how that aligns with the brand’s own policies, VMLY&R’s Bley said.

Discord’s policies officially ban children under 13 from joining the platform, and the platform will “take action” on the owner of a server that allows underage children to join. The platform also offers some automated tools to help with moderation, including bots that can send automated messages and block certain keywords if a user violates community rules.

The platform also launched Moderator Academy, which includes resources for server owners to learn how to properly moderate. It also publishes transparency reports, so users and brands can understand its moderation policies. 

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