CMO of the Week: Discord's Tesa Aragones

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If Tesa Aragones had to thank one person for her current role as chief marketing officer at fast-growing social platform Discord, it wouldn’t be a direct colleague at the San Francisco-based company. It would be her nephew Izaak, a longtime video game player who was the first person in her network to introduce her to the voice, video and text chat app whose early roots are in the gaming community.

If Tesa Aragones had to thank one person for her current role as chief marketing officer at fast-growing social platform Discord, it wouldn’t be a direct colleague at the San Francisco-based company. It would be her nephew Izaak, a longtime video game player who was the first person in her network to introduce her to the voice, video and text chat app whose early roots are in the gaming community.

“He would show me his screen and the video game he was playing and how he would interact with his friends,” Aragones says. “And to this day, it's the only way he communicates with me, it's the only way we stay in touch. So, shout to Izaak for being my first Discord friend.”

The Discord experience immediately appealed to Aragones as it shared a lot of key attributes with her other most recent marketing roles as CMO at photography app VSCO and a 10-year career at Nike overseeing the marketing of platforms like Nike+, NikeID and Nike Training Club (the company’s first iPhone app). “What’s interested me throughout my career is building that bridge between digital innovation and brand marketing,” she says. “One of the things I was drawn to was that Discord’s mission is very user-centric and very consumer-focused. The other thing is I’m a sucker for digital communities, and Discord has millions of them so I get very excited about that.”

And since Aragones joined in September 2020, the company’s communities – or “servers,” as they’re known in Discord-speak – have only continued to expand. Monthly active users on the platform have increased by 50% from summer 2020 to August 2021, to 150 million, and revenue for the company tripled from the end of 2019 to the end of 2020, according to data provided by Discord. In a given week, there are 19 million active servers where users gather to discuss everything from games and music to dating and mental health. 

Though the vast majority of Discord servers are for micro-communities (95% have 100 or fewer members), there’s a short tail of mega-servers that host some of the platform’s most popular discussions – including Axie Infinity (inspired by the NFT-based online video game, with more than 786,000 members), Official Fortnite (783,000+ members) and Anime Soul Discord (625,000+ members). Music is also becoming a fast-growing vertical on Discord, with a recent Travis Scott server hosted by the superstar musician himself drawing more than 100,000 members alone on its first day.

Aragones has spent a lot of her first year on the job listening and learning from Discord’s super-users to help define the company’s brand pillars, which helped shape one of the company’s biggest traditional marketing campaigns to date -- the short film “Discord: The Movie,” which features A-list talent like Awkwafina and Danny DeVito and a storyboard straight out of the Discord community. “When you think about the way people describe us, it's definitely ‘Discord is original,’” Aragones says. “We’re not a social media service, it’s always been a place where you can talk with your friends using text, video or voice. But it's also a place where you feel like you can be yourself and there's an inclusiveness to that.”


Brand Innovators caught up with Aragones from a visit to her hometown of Detroit to learn more about diverse communities and voices at Discord, early metrics for the “Discord: The Movie” campaign and the company’s ongoing efforts to combat hate speech. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Brand Innovators: Discord has roots in the video game community, but has seen explosive growth in user activity in the post-pandemic period of the past year and a half. What other categories and communities are driving that growth, and why?

Tesa Aragones: There’s been so much growth in the past 18 months, but one huge area of growth that has been fun for me to watch is this rise of artists and music creators joining the platform. And it’s not just about simply engaging with their fans. Some of the artists that I speak to say they can't tour and they feel a bit disconnected from their fanbase, but there’s something special about Discord where you feel proximity. We’ve worked with artists like Lil Yachty and Kenny Beats, also artists like Travis Scott who launched his Cactus Jack server and broke the record for most users joining on the first day. 

Another one that’s close to my heart was Wyclef Jean and the artist MC Jin joined to do an AMA on our Discord hip-hop server about a music video and single they created around allyship for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. And they spoke on the hip-hop server about why that’s important and really purpose driven in that sense. And then we also have artists like Liam Payne from One Direction. He jumped onto Discord because he’s getting into the NFT game and he dropped his latest NFT with a few of his friends.

The other example of an artist who's just killing it is Grimes. She has an official fan server and she uses it in a really interesting way to tease out music with her fans and talk about upcoming album drops. And we just posted a video, she has a lot of fans where they love her creativity and one of the things we did was have her drop in and give them feedback on their work. it was her and a handful of super fans and where else can you do something like that? 

And just last month, we partnered with MTV and sponsored the VMA Awards to speak to the audience’s interest in music. I always love watching that because it's so creative and we had two of their nominees come onto Discord and do AMAs with some fans.  We had Paul Roberts, who actually won for Best Choreography for his work with Harry Styles on the video for “Treat People With Kindness,” and a woman named Tanu Muino, who won Best Direction for her work with Lil Nas X on “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” People really love hearing from fellow creators, so it’s definitely a place where if you like an artist or you’re an artist yourself you can find your tribe. 

This summer, you introduced "Discord: The Movie," a short film campaign featuring Awkwafina, Danny DeVito and other celebrities explaining what Discord is. How did you identify the talent you used for this campaign, and what did your media strategy look like for distributing it? 

One of the things that I wanted to do and asked to do in joining Discord was help relaunch or reset the brand. We wanted to make sure we could invite more people into it, and we didn’t set out to create a series of commercials. We actually started off by having conversations with consumers and saying, “What does Discord mean to you? As a marketer, what do we stand for?” And doing that insight work we had the most amazing answers from consumers – they are super creative, they embrace their own weirdness. 

So we quickly aligned on a concept that could be a great way to celebrate the people that make Discord so special. We took it a step further and said we want to take your description and turn it into a vignette in our movie. They helped us with writing the script, with casting, even direction. We had a server where they could have conversations with our director and were very much part of the film. That's why at the end of the film we gave them credits. So it was really an invitation to tell people what Discord is and within the film itself, we have people that are familiar faces like Danny DeVito is in the spot because our consumers find him very relatable and he’s kind of an icon that transcends time. And we have Awkwafina, she's a Discord user but she's also a gamer. A lot of times if you watch her show “Nora From Queens,” she’s playing video games, but it also speaks to the growth of girls in gaming. And the other person is MrBeast, who really speaks to our core audience of gamers. 

But then you'll also see people speaking to our music fans like J Balvin and Grimes, Bretman Rock who represents our larger LGBTQ+ community on Discord, and Marques Brownlee who’s a YouTube tech influencer. The common thread you’ll see is they all embody our playfulness, and the spirit of being original and relatable. So once we created the movie, we asked ourselves: how do we want to show it? So we said, “Let’s partner with a few platforms to get it out there in its full form.” So YouTube, Hulu, Snap, TikTok -- we did a few takeovers there, we leveraged the movie on the server with the NBC Olympics at the time, and we’ve continued to run versions of the movie that we’ve put into smaller vignettes which you may have seen around the VMA takeover on Spotify and Vevo as well as some outdoor work around subway stations like the Barclays Center in New York.

Any initial results or feedback you've seen thus far? 

It’s been really fun to watch, especially since this is Discord’s first big brand campaign. We’re still a bit early in the process, but I’ve been really pleased to watch our brand strength numbers grow over the past year. In 2021, our brand awareness has gone up 1.5x, and our brand consideration is  up 1.4x year-over-year. If you’re a marketer you know brand strength metrics are tough to move, so I’m very pleased with that. We’ve also been tracking word-of-mouth since we launched in July, and we’ve seen people talk about us more favorably. What’s exciting to see is our product helping to solve the amazing need to find a sense of belonging. And the more people know about it, the more we can help.

Discord doesn't sell ads, but instead offers premium video and other services to clients. What do those offerings look like, and any examples you could share of companies using them?

Our business model is built around a subscription product we have called Nitro, which is our primary revenue source. We want brands to have a successful experience on Discord, but we are currently not charging for them. But to your point, we have a lot of brands that have been coming to Discord and setting up their servers to have an always-on communication with their audience where they can share content with them, have a conversation and just hear what’s on their minds. And just by using text, audio and streaming they can actually create connections that might be small where they want to learn more about their customers or bring experiences to a larger group. 

A few examples – there’s a company in Detroit called StockX, and they launched their server with a five-day event for streetwear. We had Chipotle host a hiring fair on Discord, and as you can imagine we have a lot of students on our platform. And everything just keeps evolving. It’s been interesting to see how creative brands are getting. A company called Gym Shark Fitness, an apparel and accessories company, they launched their official server and created their own moment with a Well Being Week, and really used Discord's product to reinforce what they stand for. They provided guided workouts through Discord, health and nutrition seminars, and AMAs with some of their athletes. And just last month Netflix, who doesn’t have an official server, tapped into their largest fan-run server and hosted a channel event right after their inaugural fan fest Tudum. There’s also interesting brands like All Saints, NBC, Skittles – they’re constantly innovating, and we love to see it. We want consumers to consistently have a great experience on Discord so we’ll partner with brands to help them set up their server and talk about the importance of moderation to keep their fans safe. 

To that point, hate speech and user safety have been ongoing concerns with Discord communities. What are some efforts you've helped accelerate with the trust & safety team to help curb some of these issues?

Trust and safety has always been a priority for us and continues to be central to who we are as a company. We have a zero tolerance approach to hate speech and illegal activity, and with that we want to make sure we do everything that we can to become aware of that type of interaction by removing content, shutting down servers if we have to. 

We recently welcomed Sentropy to Discord, which is a company that has a platform using AI software to fight abuse and harassment on Discord. And in addition to that, we have been working with a community of moderators and server admins who help to create those safe spaces to help people find belonging. So last year we launched the Discord Moderator Academy where we have a curriculum and a program to provide moderators with tools they need to keep communities safe.

What are some efforts Discord has introduced in the past year to accelerate diversity, equity & inclusion, and how have you helped support those through your work as a marketer?

That’s another topic that’s very important to me. I fundamentally believe that as marketers we must champion diversity on our teams, on our external teams, and it helps us to improve how we relate to our consumers. But it also helps to ensure our brands really show up in an authentic way in the world. “Belonging” is actually part of our mission, we try to create an inclusive workforce and since I’ve joined the company I’ve really been focusing on making sure that we live up to this mission. I support it wholeheartedly and do whatever I can to champion for it. 

And as one of the people of color on the leadership team, it’s also very important to me. Since I’ve joined we’ve hired our new head of inclusion, diversity and purpose, Emmy Negrin. And not only did we hire them, they have a team of three. This didn’t exist when I joined, and Emmy and their team work on diversity as well as our hiring process to ensure that 50% of the candidates who make it to the finals stages must be from under-represented minority communities. That’s really important, and it’s the right thing to do. 

And from a marketing standpoint, we like to use our voice to amplify these commitments to diversity. For example, we use our blog to riase awareness of anti-racist causes, and we enourage concrete action. We have content that we’ve published around fighting hate and discrimination for the AAPI community, like the Wyclef and MC Jin example, or to show our support of the LGBTQ+ community like during Pride, we did our first mural in downtown San Francisco, on 3rd and Harrison. We also partnered with a couple drag queens from “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and I did an AMA with them on the Skittles server. It was so fun and really helpful -- we had all these people writing in who gave really good advice. They were also very vulnerable about their stories and using their platform to help young people in the communities learn about how they got started, how to be brave, or what to spend money on. I learned not to spend too much money on makeup, but do spend money on a good wig because you can wash it or you can boil it.

What are some guiding principles that best define you as a marketer?

I’m a very consumer-centric marketer. [Nike co-founder and chairman emeritus] Phil Knight used to tell us “When you commit to listening to the voice of the athlete and their potential, you realize your own.” And I always think about that when I think about consumer-centric marketing.

I also really believe that we need to prioritize diversity. As a woman and a person of color who’s first-generation American from Detroit, it’s always top of mind for me. How I can help others rise? And mentoring is also important to me as a personal pillar, helping others rise. I often tell the people I mentor, “It’s really important that you find the confidence in yourself to measure your success by your personal growth.” Maybe it's all those years spent in Nike Training, but I think that progress is the best way to measure your own success. And if you fall into the trap of comparison culture, comparison really is the enemy of joy. 

The last thing I would say is one of the other things I like about Discord is it aligns with my personal mission to empower the next generation to move the world forward. When you’re working with the marketing team and watching them hone their skills and connecting with our young userbase, they’re also becoming young storytellers. 

What Discord server would I most likely find you on in a given day?

I do all my work on Discord. I’m also a sneakerhead, so I spend a lot of time on the sneaker server and just watch out for hot drops. Sometimes when I have presentations, I try to get something fresh. I was meeting with some folks last month in California and I busted out some fresh Jordan citrus-colored Jordan 1s. The sneaker server is one of the first places I joined and can share some of those stories.


Andrew Hampp is an entertainment marketing consultant for Brand Innovators and the founder of consultancy 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, California.

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