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Brands Matter Reason # 183: Nate Silver and the New York Times

Brands matter online even in an era of technology

How much do brands matter in a digital media world? Well, a lot. And today’s biggest news story illustrates why.

News broke today that data savant Nate Silver is leaving the New York Times for ESPN. I won’t bore you with the details (plenty of others have covered the news), other than to say I’ve long admired Silver’s work and am a big fan of his book “The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t.”

Not in media? Don’t follow sports or politics or anything else Silver and his team cover? Doesn’t matter.

What does matter is the value of Nate’s brand.

Now, Gary Satell at Forbes believes that Silver’s use of algorithms to predict things is the reason Nate matters, noting “Whereas before, human behavior was a domain dominated by liberal arts majors, its increasingly becoming a field for mathematicians.” And I’ve suggested for some time that “geek marketers” increasingly matter to brands and businesses, so I don’t want to dismiss Satell out of hand. In fact, I expect to talk about this a whole lot more in the coming days and weeks.

However, I don’t think that’s the lesson we should take from Nate Silver’s big move.

The lesson is more about how much brands matter in the digital world. “Traditional” marketers have known this for years. But sometimes we digital folks lose sight of this fact.

Nate Silver built a successful, albeit niche brand by writing passionately about topics that engaged his interests. And by doing that, he engaged his audience. Yes, the algorithms and math differentiated him from his competition (or in the words of Tim Peter Thinks 2013 All-Star Blogger Seth Godin, made him remarkable). But it was his remarkable brand that the New York Times lost and ESPN gained.

Think about it. It’s not an algorithm that matters here. The Times can’t simply replace Silver with another “numbers guy” (they already have at least one other in the form of the Freakonomics guys). Because adding another “numbers guy,” solely for the sake of having a “numbers guy,” would seem more “me, too” than remarkable. Silver’s success wasn’t about his success with numbers; it was Silver’s brand story that really matters (although, to be fair, numbers were a key component of that brand story).

In short, brands matter, even in a digital world.

Please, please, please don’t take this to mean that numbers and software and technology don’t matter (please). I remain a fan and think we’ll continue to see significant change in all phases of marketing due to analytics and technology in the coming years.

But it’s the people who most effectively use their tools—whether technology or great writing or outstanding products or improved customer service—to build great brands and tell a great brand story who will reap the rewards.

Interested in learning more about e-commerce and digital marketing? Register to receive a free copy of my new special report, “Digital Hotel Marketing in a Multiscreen World,” produced in conjunction with Vizergy, here. While it’s targeted to the hospitality industry specifically, most of the lessons apply across verticals. And, if that’s not enough, you might also enjoy some of our past coverage of strategy, digital marketing, and e-commerce, including:

Tim Peter is the founder and president of Tim Peter & Associates. You can learn more about our company's strategy and digital marketing consulting services here or about Tim here.

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