That time I received death threats in a brand Discord community

discord community

I just went through a bizarre experience in a big brand Discord community where I received death threats and encouragement to commit suicide. When I go through something troubling and new in the marketing world, I usually write about it. So here we go.

Attacking the problem

I decided that I would write up this case study but NOT name the brand involved. I am here to attack problems, not people and believe me, somebody would surely lose their job over this incident (and probably did).

However, to appreciate the gravity of this situation, you need to know the context. I was threatened and harassed in a Discord community sponsored by a celebrated global brand. To make matters worse, while this product is enjoyed by everyone, it is widely used by teens and children. So, this is bad. One of the worst PR meltdowns I have ever seen. Let’s learn from it today.

The relevant Discord community

Let’s start with the business case for Discord. Why did this harassment occur there?

An annual study by Edison Research found that young adults aged 14-32 are swarming onto Discord to find communities. The number of those active on Discord grew from 26% to 42% in one year!

So if I were leading marketing for this company, I would definitely put my stake in the ground on Discord and attract young fans.

Community is nothing new. But if you open the lens much wider and view community as a brand-building powerhouse — especially with the Discord youth — you’ll see benefits like:

  • Brand differentiation
  • An emotional barrier to brand-switching costs
  • Conversations that reveal opportunities for brand relevance
  • Insights that lead to product innovation
  • Direct feedback on product performance
  • Rapid information flow
  • Organic brand advocacy
  • Significant gains in brand loyalty
  • Improved customer retention
  • Co-created products and services
  • Access to firsthand customer data

… and more — which is covered in my book Belonging to the Brand. That’s why I claim that community is the most overlooked opportunity in the history of marketing opportunities.

If you had an opportunity to work on a project that delivered those powerful brand benefits, you would certainly do it. The company strategy was on target. But the execution was disastrous …

Death threats in a Discord Community?

100 percent human contentI first heard about this brand community from a friend. It sounded like a lot of fun, so I eagerly joined as part of my ongoing education in brand communities.

The brand community had been formed in 2022, offered a few contests and giveaways, and then apparently had been abandoned by the company. And yet, there were a lot of active users who had turned the space into a dystopian world ruled by thugs.

I left a comment: “Looks like there is not much going on here. Maybe not a well-thought-out community?”

This innocent comment prompted the trolls who controlled the community. The attack on me included threats of physical harm and encouragement to livestream my suicide.

I have a thick skin, so honestly, this was no big deal. But I was shocked that this language was tolerated by a MAJOR brand community aimed at KIDS. This was a marketing nightmare.

How could a Discord community go so wrong?

As the Chief Product Officer at MAGNETIQ, my friend Tyler Stambaugh studies the culture of Discord. I mentioned my experience to him, and after visiting the community, he offered this analysis:

“I usually take a look at the announcements channel on a Discord channel to see if management has been active. The last brand communication was almost 18 months ago.

“If you’re going to abandon it (probably because someone in marketing could not describe the value to leadership) then you HAVE to close the server. They now have something toxic out there that is linked directly from their official brand channel (Twitter/X) and is completely unsupervised.

“It’s a massive PR miss and potentially destructive to the brand. I am sorry you had that experience. I saw the comments, and they were awful. The whole server just started ganging up on you. It’s a dark side of community and clearly the brand is not handling this responsibly.”

And then it gets worse

I joined this community because I had genuine affection for the brand. So I wanted the company to know that its community was out of control. In the ensuing days, I:

  • Sent a message to the Discord administrator
  • Sent a tweet to the general company account (this was re-tweeted several times, so they had to see it, right?)
  • Wrote an email to the company’s customer service account.
  • Wrote a second email to the company’s customer service account
  • Wrote an email to the media team, mentioning that I was going to feature this in a blog post
  • Wrote a second email to the media team.

Finally, after 10 days, I received an email from the company’s outsourced PR team, Weber Shandwick. Ironically, the company’s website states: “Brands can’t simply reflect culture — they must contribute to it. And to earn value, they must deliver it.”

This is a true and worthy goal. But it was not delivered in this case. At all.

The outfall

The Weber Shandwick executive said she was sorry for my experience and emphasized that the offensive content had been deleted. In fact, all the content on the site had been deleted. She emphasized that the community had a long list of rules that should have been followed. She cut and pasted the list of rules for me to read.

This was perhaps the lamest explanation ever. I was threatened in a brand community that had been abandoned and left to thugs … and she blamed the thugs for not following the rules? The brand had no accountability?

I was not satisfied. I wanted to know how this could have existed in the first place. Why would a marketing effort that imperiled customers be allowed to exist for a year and a half? And why did it take so long for them to respond to what could have been a disaster for a global brand? Her response: She referred me once again to the list of rules. What a terrible PR response from one of the premier marketing firms in the world.

Later that day, I received a second email from the SVP of corporate public affairs at the company sponsoring the community, telling me the Discord community had been “re-set” and that he was launching an investigation.

That was good to hear, but it should not have taken 10 days to get that response. In other circumstances, this toxic brand community could have been featured on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. 

The re-set

So what happened in the community?

Within hours of receiving the message from the company SVP, indeed the entire community was wiped out, including several chat rooms where people were sharing harmful content.

There was a new “ranger” in the community, enforcing community standards ruthlessly.

Many of the most dangerous trolls had been expelled, but enough of the original members remained to stage a protest. Furious comments included:

“What have you done? You’ve taken everything from us!”

“You walk in here and take our community and destroy our spirit!”

“This is no longer a community. It’s a brand mascot.”

Some promised to abandon the company and its products.

Lessons for me, and you

This was a useful wake-up call for me. Both online and offline, I’m surrounded by generous and smart professionals. But, alas, many corners of the web, especially in communities, are ruled by assholes. Good reminder.

Here are some marketing lessons from this experience. If you have a community, or are thinking of having one, pay attention!

  1. Everything you do, and everything you don’t do, is part of your brand. Marketing should own every touchpoint, including the community.
  2. Before you launch a community, have a plan. Who has single-point accountability? What are the responsibilities for content, moderation, and daily engagement? Who boots the trolls? What is the crisis plan?
  3. I understand that a community might be an experiment. You never really know what might happen until you try. But even an experiment needs to have governance.
  4. This brand community failed. Or at least the company is trying for a “re-set.” But in any case, if people don’t follow “the rules,” kick them to the curb. Your number one job as a community leader isn’t selling stuff. It’s creating a safe space for engagement. Period.
  5. Tragically, this brand has become too big to care. They are probably automated and out-sourced to the max, but when a consumer like me was crying out to help them legitimately, my plea was ignored. It is beyond rational understanding how a brand this big could be deaf even after I tried to reach them five times. Could this happen in your company?

By the way, this brand was in the news a few months ago for an insensitive marketing blunder. People seemed to largely overlook it because of the goodwill attached to the popular brand. But this incident would have been strike two if it had made it to the press.

The CMO of this company needs to re-think everything, including strategy, messaging, and agency relationships. Most of all, never consider your community an afterthought.

Need a keynote speaker? Mark Schaefer is the most trusted voice in marketing. Your conference guests will buzz about his insights long after your event! Mark is the author of some of the world’s bestselling marketing books, a college educator, and an advisor to many of the world’s largest brands. Contact Mark to have him bring a fun, meaningful, and memorable presentation to your company event or conference.

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Image courtesy Midjourney

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