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Inside Discord’s risky push to position itself as the anti-Facebook

Discord’s new campaign—’Imagine a Place’—pitches all the freedom and community, with none of the privacy or security issues.

Inside Discord’s risky push to position itself as the anti-Facebook
[Image: Discord]

Discord wants you to imagine a place where friendship isn’t a request—it just sorta happens. Or a place to enjoy cookies without spilling your data.

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These are taglines from a new brand campaign from the social app, which lets users create “servers,” essentially chat rooms dedicated to a certain topic or type of conversation. Founded six years ago, Discord now has more than 150 million active monthly users and is popular with gamers, podcasters, and, increasingly, people who want to discuss everything from local politics to gardening.

Unlike most other social platforms, Discord doesn’t revolve around a feed. Each user’s profile is like a house, and the servers are the rooms, typically used for different things. The app garnered some attention last month for hosting Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for a live chat. (It also recently entered the mainstream business discourse when Microsoft was said to be interested in acquiring Discourse for at least $10 billion.) On Thursday, the company launched a new feature called Stage Discovery, a clear play for the live audio trend kicked off by apps such as Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces.

But even as Discord makes a clear play for community and connection, it’s still a social platform that is plagued by the same issues as its counterparts: racism, harassment, abuse. The marketing challenge will be balancing content safety issues while still pitching itself to a broader audience as a warm and fuzzy place of belonging.

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[Image: Discord]
“When you think of other social media platforms, they seem very much a broadcast platform,” says chief marketing officer Tesa Aragones, who came to Discord last fall from VSCO. “You post something, someone might see it a couple of hours later or the next day. What we were hearing from our users is that [Discord] felt more human. You can watch an event on another platform where you’re one amongst thousands of people, but about 90% of our servers have less than 15 people, and that makes it more intimate.”

Tesa Aragones [Photo: Discord]
Aragones worked with ad agency AKQA on the new campaign, but the insights, and even some of the taglines, came from actual users. Back in December, the brand asked users, What does Discord mean to you? “People were talking about their interests, and the people they find based on those interests, in small groups,” says Aragones.”That’s where the playful brand value we have comes in. ‘Imagine a Place’ came from our consumers saying that Discord is what I bring to it. You put things in there and people who share [your] interest respond.”

[Image: Discord]

The power of the community pitch

If Discord’s pitch sounds familiar, it should.

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The notion of finding belonging is an idea that Facebook has been pushing with Groups, including in a Super Bowl spot last year. The challenge for Facebook is that the image it projects is very different from the one that exists IRL, where the social giant is known for not fact-checking political ads, mishandling Instagram passwords, and being a platform for misinformation, all while profiting from users’ personal data.

Reddit has also leaned in on the power of its communities through marketing, most notably perhaps in its five-second Super Bowl ad, which was a wink to the wallstreetbets subreddit, and a celebration of its relationship with users.

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Americans spent an average of 82 minutes per day on social media during the pandemic year of 2020, a seven-minute increase over 2019, according to eMarketer. This benefitted Discord. Its user base doubled last year, according to Aragones. Every month, Discord users are active in 19 million servers, with 50% of them in at least three servers, and 25% taking part in eight or more. Voice is also a big component, with 40% using Discord’s voice chat and spending an average of around two hours a day on it.

No advertising, no problem? Not exactly

The company doesn’t serve ads and relies on its Nitro subscription service, which offers higher quality streams, custom profiles, and the ability to upload larger files. Its revenues have tripled over the past year to $130 million, up from $45 million in 2019. While it was originally built as a place for gamers to gather and communicate, now 80% of its users come for nongaming purposes, compared to just 30% a year ago.

[Image: Discord]
Discord’s new campaign is aimed at further broadening that tent.

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“There is a huge opportunity for the brand,” says Aragones. “You’re going to see our media in different places, and we want to celebrate our users and continue to invite more people in. Part of this campaign is showing people what we’re all about and the type of experience they can have on our platform.”

This campaign aims to frame the platform as the ultimate destination to connect with other people. It’s also pushing an image of privacy, swift responses to user complaints, and a more rigorous policing of hate speech and unsafe content. Yet Discord—like every other social application—still has problems even in the areas it purports to be a panacea for.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the FBI got a warrant for the Discord account of the leader of a white supremacist group, after chats suggesting the leader encouraged violence at the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally were leaked on a left-wing media site. Discord later banned servers promoting neo-Nazi ideology.

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In its latest Transparency Report, covering July to December 2020, Discord says user reports of issues such as harassment, cybercrime, and exploitative content were up 50% over the first half of 2020. Of course a lot of that has to do with growth. As the platform adds users, it will undoubtedly see an uptick in these types of reports. The company now says 15% of its workforce is dedicated to trust and safety and monitoring unsafe content.

[Image: Discord]
To the company’s credit, its numbers are better than those from Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok, according to a new study from Thorn, a nonprofit that builds technology to defend children from sexual abuse. The percentage of minors, for example, who have had a potentially harmful online experience on Discord was 7%, compared to 17% for Facebook, 18% for TikTok, and 26% for both Instagram and Snapchat.

“We take it very seriously,” says Aragones. “With our moderator program and moderator academy, we’ll help servers build it in a way that will be safe for the community members. If we have a mission around creating space for belonging, we want to make sure we can stand by that.”

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The company is clearly trying to show all the ways its value lies in being the anti-social network. For now, though, a truly safe, ad-free, data-secure platform for real interactions is still a figment of our imagination.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.

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