How Nate Silver Won the 2012 Presidential Election

As President Obama and Mitt Romney can tell you, it’s getting harder every day to win public attention — thus, the billions they spent on this year’s presidential campaign. Overall, the election of 2012 has shown that we’re at a liminal moment in how ideas and brands spread — and the winners have to thread the needle between the declining (but still powerful) broadcast era and the nimble, fragmented ways of digital communication. In the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama won media glory for his effective use of social media. But in this election cycle, the person who best leveraged all communication platforms — both online and off — wasn’t even a candidate. My vote goes to Nate Silver, creator of the New York Times blog FiveThirtyEight.

Silver, who has written for the Times since 2010, has become ubiquitous in recent months. The day before the election, a full 20% of the Times’ online traffic went to his blog. He’s amassed nearly 343,000 Twitter followers as of this writing, and recently published a widely reviewed book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t.

So — to use his metaphor — how is it that Silver himself has broken through the noise? He’s built a powerful brand through a savvy mix of old and new media strategies, which holds lessons for any leader.

Using online media as a catapult. The well-known problem with blogs is that anyone can start a blog. But if you’re an unknown with talent, that’s also the great opportunity. Following a path that’s proven successful for people like well-known blogger Chris Brogan, Silver began FiveThirtyEight as an independent blog during the 2008 election cycle. It was only after building up his reputation and fan base that the Times swooped in with an offer to incorporate it, as the Atlantic explains. Signing on with one of the most-trafficked news websites, with 26 million monthly visitors, gave Silver a boost in visibility that he likely couldn’t have achieved on his own.

Keeping it about the data. Given the overwhelming amount of data now deluging us, analytics is suddenly incredibly sexy — the hoped-for panacea that will enable us to make rational decisions in an irrational world. Silver has benefited from the confluence of his undeniable analytic skill and the rising fascination with Big Data gripping America. But when you’re able to demystify esoteric numbers (i.e., poll results) and shed new light on an important topic of public interest (the presidential race), you’ve got a winner.

Exploiting the power of the book. It may seem awfully analog for a successful blogger, but Silver’s secret weapon in cracking a new, broader audience was releasing his new book in late September, just as campaign fervor was reaching its peak. With a slew of interviews and reviews in prominent publications, he was able to introduce himself to new readers and further drive traffic. Books still represent the best “hook” available to create the flurry of intense media attention that’s necessary to break through a fragmented media marketplace.

In the coming months, pundits will hash out Romney and Obama’s communication strategies, seeking to extract lessons for 2016 on how to win public attention and support. But for businesses seeking to surmount an even more difficult challenge — how to build your brand when you’re starting from zero and are an absolute unknown — it may be Silver’s playbook that teaches the most.

This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website on November 7, 2012.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.