By guest author Maghan McDowell from Vogue Business
The invite-only social media platform has become a way to create hype and find audiences for NFT projects. It’s the latest gateway for brands including Adidas and Gucci to enter the metaverse.
Luxury sneaker startup Cult & Rain is holding its first official presale for the brand’s Italian-made shoes, valued at more than
USD 1200, in February. A lot is riding on the moment. The brand’s sneakers are made only after they’re purchased, encased in premium packaging designed to act like a trophy case as well as a shoebox.
To build hype around the upcoming presale, the brand turned to Discord, the six-year-old platform that started with gamer chatrooms. It’s more fitting than Instagram or TikTok, says founder George Yang, who spent time as a designer at brands including Theory and Costume National, because of Cult & Rain’s NFT tie-in. The brand is digital-first, starting with 3D animations sold as NFTs. Each NFT of the 2000-piece collection that is purchased — only 100 of each “skin” will be sold — comes with its physical counterpart.
Discord is “like the heart and soul of an NFT project”, Yang says, adding that the brand originally tried to hire influencers, but that didn’t drive traffic. “Discord is its own ecosystem, like Instagram, Twitter, Reddit and LinkedIn all wrapped into one, with 24/7 engagement from people all around the world. The community is our backbone.”
Discord, which has roots in gaming, isn’t open-access; unlike other social platforms, people must have a link invitation to join each space, called a server. It has more than 150 million monthly active users and more than 19 million active weekly servers. Fostering a sense of exclusivity and desirability could be lucrative for brands seeking to legitimise NFT projects — if they achieve the necessary “clout” to be embraced by the NFT community, Yang says.
The platform has become a key promoter for brands’ NFT projects. Last Friday, Gucci shared an invite to its first Discord server via Twitter; the first 20,000 members of its Gucci Vault Discord gain “special roles” and the ability to access yet-to-launch NFT-focused channels. In two days, it had more than 28,000 members. Kering, Gucci’s parent company, is even recruiting for someone to manage its Discord presence. Nicolas Oudinot, EVP new businesses and Gucci Vault CEO says that opening a server on Discord dedicated to its online concept store Gucci Vault “means allowing everyone from creators to collectors to the purely curious to join the conversation on metaverse”.
On Thursday, Adidas launched a Discord server when it announced an NFT partnership with Prada. The Discord will largely promote Adidas’s Into the Metaverse project; previously, the brand had been directing collectors primarily through its own drop app, called Confirmed. In one day, Adidas attracted more than 30,000 members. Other brands to have Discord servers include Nars, The Hundreds, Sephora, Collegium and StockX, which is using Discord to house its recently launched NFT project.
“If there’s a Soho House of Web 3.0, it’s on Discord,” says Amanda Cassatt, CEO of venture studio and marketing firm Serotonin, which helps Sotheby’s and luxury fashion brands enter the metaverse. Cassatt adds that its software also makes it easy to introduce a token-gating mechanism, meaning that owning a certain NFT might automatically grant access to certain servers. “Leveraging Discord is influencer marketing in Web 3.0. Brands that are trying to build a community understand the value of building relationships within these gated communities because the existing communities are the ones that seed the new ones,” she says.
The brand opportunity
On Discord, brands can create their own servers to both attract NFT enthusiasts and share NFT projects with existing fans — either approach gains the NFT projects attention from an eager audience. Each server can have multiple customisable threads, or channels, similar to Slack, and Discord also allows for engaging via voice and video. Brands commonly have an “announcements” channel for official news, a “general chat” channel where members can discuss upcoming drops and meet each other, plus other themed channels of the brand’s choice. Sometimes, conversations on Discord aren’t related to the brand’s products at all.
Rtfkt has a thread for memes. Cult & Rain has separate threads for topics including giveaways, fashion contests, movie nights and member-created art. Adidas has a thread for suggestions; recent discussions include how an Adidas DAO might work, a suggestion to create a fitness channel and suggestions for a fashion show in Decentraland or The Sandbox. Gucci Vault has a thread devoted entirely to people saying “gm”, short for “good morning”, which has become a common all-day greeting for the NFT community. Gucci is wanting to be part of an authentic conversation, says Oudinot, and it’s investing in the community with the new hire. Responsibilities include overseeing a community of artists and “megafans” of its NFT projects, and staying on the “bleeding edge” of the community platform trends. To apply for the job, Gucci is asking applicants to submit information such as their Twitter account and favourite NFT-related memes, in place of a traditional resumé.
Discord was intentionally designed for fast-paced, collaborative communication, says Rick Ling, group product manager at Discord, making it a natural forum for NFT and metaverse projects, which operate collaboratively and with community feedback.
Brands often tease products, building anticipation through contests that promise another VIP tier. Often, members join hoping to get on the “white list”, which generally means a list of people who get special access to NFTs, whether it’s buying them at a discount, getting first access or finding out details.
“Getting added to this white list is the new being ushered behind the velvet rope,” Serotonin’s Cassatt says. “The people that you talk to behind that velvet rope might give you access to opportunities that you might not find elsewhere, and when you get behind the rope of one of these Discord servers, it’s a gateway to more opportunities. There are so many entry points, and each of them will just take you to more entry points. That’s why people refer to it as the crypto or the Web 3.0 rabbit hole.”
This worked almost too well for artist Mason Rothschild, who wanted to promote the second iteration of his digital artworks inspired by the Hermès Birkin bag. Unlike the one-of-one “Baby Birkin” NFT that sold for $23,500 in May, be wanted to “democratise” access by creating 100 digital bags, says Jesse Lee, founder of Basic.Space, an NFT platform that worked with Rothschild on the Birkin-inspired projects. To do that, he created a Discord server to generate a white list of people who would be able to bid on the 100 digital bags. Membership on the Metabirkins Discord channel exploded to 20,000 members. The crush of engagement caught Hermès’s attention. After the brand ignored the first Metabirkin drop, Rothschild got hit with a lawsuit earlier this month. (The artist plans to defend the project in court.)
Still, digital fashion projects have found a home on Discord. DressX, the digital fashion marketplace that just partnered with Fendi, recently hired someone to manage its Discord presence full-time. Rtfkt, the digital fashion startup acquired by Nike in December, has 136,000 members. Digital fashion house The Fabricant is using its Discord server to share updates about its transition to a studio for people to create their own digital fashion. The Red DAO, the group of collectors who bought $1.9m in Dolce & Gabbana NFTs, has a Discord community only open to its own members.
Nars Cosmetics VP of global digital strategy Dina Fierro says that she spent a lot of time researching the space to help inform Nars’s metaverse projects, which include three gaming partnerships, an NFT series and another NFT project in the works. While “it can be challenging to navigate initially for those used to feed and algorithm-based social platforms,” she says, Discord is a hub for “extraordinarily engaged” Web 3.0 conversations, including marketing-specific servers and those dedicated to individual NFT projects and DAOs, or decentralised autonomous organisations who invest in NFTs.
Picking up momentum along with the metaverse
Most proponents don’t suggest that Discord will become the next Instagram, but it is a potentially powerful option for connecting more intimately with loyal fans while exploring metaverse projects. Already, brands have been diversifying social media strategies as dominant platforms get more expensive and as ad targeting is less specific. Other emerging spaces for fashion include Amazon-owned Twitch; Triller, a video-sharing app; and Clubhouse, which lost momentum when Twitter opened the competing voice-chat service Twitter spaces. Discord doesn’t make money through ads, says Amber Atherton, Discord’s head of strategic communities; instead, it sells paid memberships, which give access to features including custom emojis and enhancements, and it sells “server boosting”, which offers premium perks for server members.
In three weeks, Cult & Rain’s server reached almost 4,500 members with a high engagement rate. During a recent visit, more than 1,800 of those members were actively online, meaning that almost one-third of its community are engaged. Members communicate about a range of topics, from “digital shoe envy” and design previews to movies, quiz nights and art contests. Already, the brand has tapped 15 people to moderate the community around the clock and introduced a Mandarin channel. Most of its moderators are volunteers. In exchange, they get access to Cult & Rain’s white list.
However, creating and maintaining an organic presence can be quite labour-intensive, Cult & Rain’s Yang says, and the user interface is not necessarily intuitive: “Attracting members into our Discord was probably the hardest learning curve our entire team has ever experienced,” he says. “You have to know where the hidden doors are.” Cult & Rain director of marketing and communications Andy Griffiths adds that it took the team two months to understand.