How Nate Silver Won the Internet (and You Can Too)

Statistician Nate Silver is living proof of how the web has fundamentally changed business--and the world. You can learn from his story.

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This fall, Nate Silver–political predictor and baseball sabermetric man–will bring his statistical knowledge and predictive analysis chops to ESPN. Not surprisingly, this news caused quite a stir in the media community, particularly given that 20 percent of online traffic to The New York Times website during last year’s election was attributed to his blog, FiveThirtyEight. The biggest free agent signing in the world of sports occurred off the playing field, and experts worldwide commented on what the acquisition meant for FiveThirtyEight, for ESPN, for the Times, and for journalists everywhere.

I had a different reaction: I think Nate Silver demonstrates how the internet has fundamentally changed the world. He was an unknown guy with no existing platform, sitting on analytical genius, and leveraged blogging and social media to grow an empire in just a few short years, putting both ESPN and The New York Times in his back pocket. He’s statistical proof that you don’t need a big budget; you just need to know your s$*t. Nate Silver won the internet, and here’s what you can learn from his story:

Nate Silver doesn’t just understand data; he understands storytelling.

Marketers, sales people, and founders alike tend to rely heavily upon data to make the case for products, services, or pitches. As an MIT guy myself, I clearly love the bent towards numbers and stats. And yet, what Nate Silver understood early was that data must be baked into a broader and better story that is digestible, adds context to current public debate and discussion, and is easy to understand even for folks who don’t crunch numbers for a living. A spreadsheet would not have attracted millions of daily uniques.

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He built his own brand and audience.

My friend David Meerman Scott is fond of saying that in the modern marketing economy, everyone is a publisher. He’s spot on: publishing unique, recognizable, and brand-relevant content is paramount for any business, large or small–and Nate Silver recognized this trend early. Instead of focusing solely on guest posts in large media outlets, Nate built his blog audience over time until it became a point of leverage for his negotiations with The New York Times and now, with ESPN. Building your own audience instead of renting someone else’s is a fundamental principle of inbound marketing, and very few people have built bigger online brands for content than Nate Silver.

He has a sense of humor.

Most people know Nate Silver is a baseball and political whiz. But over the last several months at the Times he wrote about health care spending and the IRS, so clearly he has the statistical chops to take on any debate. And yet, he’s not too serious for his own good. He once analyzed OkCupid data for a New York Times Magazine story, and broke down the ratio of OkCupid users seeking long-term relationships versus one night stands.

He takes big risks.

In addition to being a prolific stats guru and writer, Silver is a talented poker player, which may explain why he isn’t afraid to take big risks. He could have chosen to predict just the overall result of the election instead of putting his reputation on the line by predicting the results for all 50 states, for instance. Similarly, staying at The New York Timeswould have been a very safe, respectable option for him, and he could have continued to grow his brand there for years. Instead, he shocked the world by choosing ESPN and selling the rights to FiveThirtyEight to the world’s largest sports brand. In exchange, he got more creative autonomy and the ability to write about the things he cares most about, following in the footsteps of sports columnist Bill Simmons and Silver will be able to write about and analyze the topics he cares most about with fewer editorial constraints, and get one of the largest marketing vehicles in the world to help him attract attention and eyeballs to his site.

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The internet has changed the world drastically, and it impacts how all people live, work, and buy significantly. Only 71 companies remain today from the original Fortune 500 list (Source: Built to Last), and over 70 percent of Fortune 1000 companies are expected to fade away between 2003 and 2013. The world today is now one where data, speed, storytelling, and social sharing win the day. If you want to be a disruptor, take a lesson from Nate Silver. You no longer succeed in the media business–or any business–by taking out ads to say how great your company is. The internet has leveled the playing field for companies and people bold enough to stand out as a signal among significant noise. Companies (and individuals) who win, live, and breathe relevance with remarkable content stand out from the pack, and Nate Silver is living proof.

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