By KIM BELLARD
By the time you read this, Microsoft may have already struck a deal with the messaging service Discord. VentureBeat reported two weeks ago that Discord was in an “exclusive acquisition discussion” with an interested party, for a deal that could reach at least $10b. Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal each quickly revealed that the interested party was Microsoft (and also confirmed the likely price).
Me, I’m wishing that a healthcare company – hey, TelaDoc and UnitedHealth Group, I’m looking at you! – was in the mix.
Let’s back up. If you are not a gamer, you may not know about Discord. It was launched in 2015, primarily as a community for gamers. Originally it focused on texting/chat, but has widened its capabilities to include audio and video. The Verge described it: “Discord is a great mix of Slack messaging and Zoom video, combined together with a unique ability to just drop into audio calls freely.”
Zoom meets Slack meets Clubhouse.
As you might infer from the potential asking price, Discord has done quite well. It has over 140 million monthly users, and, despite having no advertising and offering a free service, generated $130 million in revenues last year (through its “enhanced Discord experience” subscription service Nitro). OK, it still isn’t profitable, but a December funding round gave it a $7b valuation.
As of right now, Discord is nearly inescapable in the gaming space. It takes about a minute to open a new public or private Discord channel for any given topic, complete with voice chat, image hosting, and browser access.
The pandemic helped growth, as it did for gaming generally, as well as for services like Zoom, but Discord leaned into the moment and broadened its reach. NPR says: “What started as a community for gamers has in the past year become a hub for virtually everything: conferences, karaoke, book clubs, group therapy, homework help, sneaker trading andanalyzing Wall Street stocks.” Popular Science believes: “If you’re interested in a topic, there’s almost certainly a subsect of people talking about it on Discord right now.”
Discord CEO Jason Citron told NPR: “You can text chat, voice chat, video chat seamlessly, switch between them on your phone or on your desktop. And it’s great for playing games together, studying homework, hosting an online book club or even a karaoke night.”
He went on to explain:
We surveyed 20,000 of our users and asked them questions like, ‘What is the biggest misconception that people have about Discord?’ The resounding answer was that the biggest misconception is that Discord is only used for gaming.
So in 2020, we relaunched the company to tell the world how people on are doing so much more than playing video games. And with everything that happened with COVID, it dramatically accelerated that transition.
It’s fairly clear why Microsoft wants Discord; it is big in the gaming business through Xbox platform, but weak in the social media space (especially since its efforts to acquire TikTok seem to have petered out). Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told Bloomberg recently: “Creation, creation, creation — the next 10 years is going to be as much about creation as it is about consumption and about the community around it, so it’s not creating alone.”
Or, as VentureBeat put it, Microsoft’s objective with Discord is “community, community, community.” Discord has them and Microsoft wants them.
While most analyses of Microsoft’s interest focus around the gaming world, Bloomberg sees a broader play:
And as more young people grow up with operating systems, email, chat apps and productivity software from companies like Apple and Google, owning a community popular with that age group could acquaint them with Microsoft in a way their elders have been in the past because of Windows and Office.
This is where I substitute “Microsoft” for TelaDoc, UnitedHealth Group, or other healthcare companies.
The healthcare world is awash in good feelings about telehealth, convinced that the pandemic has demonstrated that telehealth’s time may finally have come. More people have tried it, more healthcare companies have embraced it, and more people agree that it is going to play a major part of healthcare’s future. Virtual care models are exploding, both existing ones like TelaDoc or AmWell and a host of newcomers.
Patient communities have been around as long as there have been online communities, such as PatientsLikeMe or a host of Facebook-based ones (although the latter not without controversy). But communities built on a multi-faceted messaging platform, and that is popular with young people – no, we haven’t seen that in healthcare yet.
People could use Discord to securely message with their physician or other healthcare professionals, or to be part of ongoing or episodic health-related communities. It may not have been designed for healthcare, but 2020 has shown us that Discord could easily be adopted for it.
Christophe Jammet, a managing director at Gather, told Bloomberg: “Microsoft buying Discord would be a really strategic move—it shows that Microsoft understands the power of community in the context of the pandemic.”
Do any healthcare companies understand the same thing?
Even more important for healthcare, remember that Discord is ad-free, and that Mr. Citron stresses:
From the beginning, privacy has been built into Discord…We believe that people’s data is their data and that people should feel comfortable and safe to have conversations and that their data is not going to be used against them in any way that is is improper.
That’s the attitude we should expect healthcare services to have.
Microsoft would have many challenges if it were to acquire Discord, especially ensuring that users believe that it would remain agnostic towards gaming platforms and not (overtly) favor Xbox. Yahoo Finance says: “By continuing to offer Discord as a neutral service, Microsoft could engender more good will from gamers while also getting its name in front of PlayStation and Nintendo players.”
The healthcare version of that could be: “By continuing to offer Discord as a neutral service, UnitedHealth Group could engender more good will from patients while also getting its name in front of CVS/Aetna and Anthem members.”
I have long advocated that healthcare desperately needs to prepare for its future by learning from the gaming world and by figuring out how to appeal to younger people (who may not yet be actively engaged with the healthcare system). An acquisition of Discord by a healthcare company could accomplish both those goals with one acquisition.
The questions are, though: what healthcare company sees that future — and is prepared to outbid Microsoft for Discord?
Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.