Discord was conceived as purely a chat app for gamers who wanted to communicate with fellow players while playing. Of the 150M monthly active users, roughly 1/3 are active in communities on Discord dedicated to topics other than gaming: Memes, fashion, cryptocurrencies, shared learning and, even, karaoke. Merely a passing fad or an indication that Discord has enough in the tank to expand and evolve into a marketing platform? OMR took a long look at Discord, what the app’s brain trust is doing to attract brands, what new business models are being birthed on the platform and what makes the “Slack for Gen Z” tick.

“Ads are too intrusive, consumers dislike them in general and don’t want their data shared with brands.” Those quotes stem from a Wall Street Journal article with Discord founder Jason Citron, in the wake of which several other outlets have been quick to anoint Discord as the “anti-Facebook”. Be Discord’s aversion to ads as it may, behind the scenes it is pursuing a different marketing strategy: reaching out to well-known brands to convince them to join the platform—but not as advertisers, but as operators of branded communities.

Discord hires experts in branded communities

“We are working with a load of epic brands to centralise their communities on Discord and ultimately tap into the vibrant, engaging and creative users who live on it – If you’re interested please let me know.” That’s from a post shared by Discord manager Archie Prescott on Linkedin three months ago. That post coincides with headwear brand New Era setting up its own server (Discord parlance for forum communities) with Prescot’s support. Here, New Era fans can show off their collection of caps and outfits to others, engage in spirited discussions about US sports (New Era is the official hat company for the NFL, NBA and MLB) and in the future possibly also be able to take part in live audio events.

The New Era server on Discord

Before joining Discord, Archie Prescot was a member of the team at US startup Zyper, a software company that “connects brands with their ‘superfans'” and then sets up branded social networks with them. In January 2021, Discord acquired Zyper. Three months later, Zyper founder Amber Atherton (now in the employ of Discord) led what appears to be the first workshop for brands on Discord.

Inevitability thanks to zoomers

Back in September of 2020, Discord CEO Jason Citron announced that Tesa Aragones had joined the company as its new CMO. The Detroit native is an industry vet, having spent time at Nike, among other places over the course of her 25-year career. While at Nike, she oversaw the creation of the “Nike Training Club,” one of the company’s most popular digital communities. It all seems to point to Discord ramping up its efforts to get brands to open up dedicated servers on Discord.

And it looks like it’s working: Just this past June, sneaker and streetwear marketplace StockX (here’s StockX founder Josh Luber in the OMR Podcast International) launched a Discord server during its annual community events StockX Day. “It’s a move that felt inevitable,” said StockX chief marketing officer Deena Bahri to Business of Fashion. “We know Discord is the new platform of choice for Gen-Z and young Millenials.” In its series of “Cultural Talks” on Discord, StockX has spoken to reps from Complex, New Balance and 100 Thieves; currently, there are over 20,000 members to its server.

The Drake and Among Us bump

As noted at the top, Discord originally stems from the gaming sector. In 2013, co-founders Jason Citron and Stan Vishnevsky begin making mobile games together—with little success. Their voice-over-IP product, however, does resonate among gamers. The product, which allows gamers to chat while playing, is dubbed Discord and is launched in 2015. The app also has a text chat function and allows the users to establish servers, on which various channels can be created and to which hosts can be named. Discord’s UX is reminiscent of Slack.

In the first couple of years after launch, the app grows in popularity through various gaming-related subreddits and with the support and engagement of well-known Twitch streamers. More and more users switch to Discord from competitors Teamspeak and text-based “Internet Relay Chat.” Every now and then growth skyrockets thanks to viral gaming moments or celeb streamers. In 2018, for example, Ninja, a superstar streamer primarily known for playing Fortnite, set a record with playing the game together with rap superstar Drake in front of 600,000 pairs of eyeballs. During the stream Ninja makes Drake install Discord. Then in the summer of 2019, “Among Us” blows up and is nearly single-handedly responsible for a daily download spike approaching 1M—Discord ascends to 6th in the US App Store.

Discord is old news in in-game marketing

It’s not really surprising to learn then that Discord has long since become standard for game marketing. The most popular servers are dedicated to games and are officially being operated by respective publishers. There are also several large servers maintained by popular gaming streamers, such as TommyInnit and MrBeast. Other popular server topics include memes, internet culture, anime and music, where members number in the 6-figure range.

The most popular Discord servers

(Swipe left on mobile to view the entire table)

Rank Server Name Topic Members
1 Fortnite Game 827,000
2 Genshin Impact Game 800,000
2 Minecraft Game 800,000
2 Valorant Game 800,000
5 TommyInnit’s Discord Streamer 727,000
6 MrBeast Gaming Streamer 700,000
7 Roblox Game 604,000
8 Rocket League Game 596,000
9 Rainbow 6 Game 585,000
10 /r/wallstreetbets Trading (Subreddit) 582,000
11 Lofi Girl Music 580,000
12 Anime Soul Anime 576,000
13 PUBG Mobile Game 546,000
14 Apex Legends Game 544,000
15 The Lounge Gaming, Anime, NSFW 525,000
16 Emoji.gg Custom Emojis 524,000
17 Las Nevadas Minecraft 522,000
18 Nookazon ACNH marketplace 517,000
19 Animal Crossing New Horizons Game 507,000
20 Mythpat Streamer 500,000

Date: July 29, 2021
(Research: OMR / Sources: Discord.com, Disboard.com, Disforge.com & Top.gg)

Maybe it is the fact that the Discord-Team has expanded the feature set of the app over the years which attracted more and more non-gaming users to join the app and to get gaming-focussed users engaged on non-gaming topics. After polling Discord users for about a year on how they use the app, Discord CEO Jason Citron published a blog article in which the clear answer was that “for a lot of [Discord users], it wasn’t just about video games anymore.”

From Karaoke to gardening

As such, the company changed its slogan to “Your Place to Talk,” a year later came to the more abstract “Imagine A Place.” To spread the message about the new company motto, it dropped a short film with Discord users and Danny DeVito.

Discord is a place for everyone, Citron wrote in May 2021. “With over nineteen million active servers of all sizes, Discord has become a place for study groups, karaoke nights, plant parenting advice, learning about cryptocurrencies, and simply a place to talk and hang out with your people whoever they are.” In June 2020 Forbes reported that over 30% of all users are engaged on the app for something other than gaming.

Hypebeasts hustle in “Cook Groups”

Does that mean that Discord is worth a closer look for non-gaming brands? Last year, numerous such brands did in fact begin experimenting on Discord. Candymaker Skittles launched its own server in June 2020, tequila brand José Cuervo launched a campaign on Discord with several big-name musicians and this past November the Sacramento Kings launched a server for its fans.