Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Stretching The Reputation Equity of Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight.com

Attempt At New Category Creation By Brand Extension

Nate Silver, who grew his reputation equity and became a pop culture icon as elections forecaster, creating two respected brands, on March 17 launched his new ESPN-backed FiveThirtyEight.com.

Since then, has Silver broken the brand promise of data analysis rigor on which his personal reputation equity has been built, as well as that of FiveThirtyEight, through a case study example of brand overreach?

Indeed he has.

For those unfamiliar with Silver, after focusing on baseball statistical analysis early in his career, in 2008 Silver identified a market gap in election forecasting and established FiveThirtyEight as an independent blog. His forecast of the 2008 U.S. presidential election accurately predicted the outcome in 49 of 50 states, and his forecasts for U.S. Senate races were accurate in each contest. 

In August 2010 the site became a licensed feature of The New York Times online. During the 2012 U.S. presidential election FiveThirtyEight correctly predicted the vote winner of all 50 states, cementing Silver's golden reputation in election forecasting. 

In 2013, Silver partnered with ESPN, leading to the latest evolutionary step of FiveThirtyEight, recast as a data journalism platform.  

The two brands Silver nutured and grew in reputation equity are, of course, his personal brand and that of FiveThirtyEight. Both are award winning, with the reputation equity of each deepened into lofty respect among baseball and political junkies, and beyond. [This writer, as both baseball and political junkie, is a long time fan of Silver and FiveThirtyEight.]

Silver's personal brand reputation is based on his disruptive foresight and "products" he created for use in baseball - PECOTA - and in election politics - FiveThirtyEight.

The growing brand equity of FiveThirtyEight is an extension of Silver's personal reputation growth, as FiveThirtyEight does not exist without the brilliance of Nate Silver.

The Nate Silver brand position over time evolved to a simple client benefit, whether forecasting baseball games or forecasting election results, Silver demonstrated time and again an unnerving accuracy.

More recently, in the uncertain world of election forecasting, among its public Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight came to stand for one very clear promise: Reliable Certainty.

The relaunch of FiveThirtyEight offers a case study of attempts at brand extension and category creation. Number cruncher able to forecast election outcomes with precision, seeks to expand his elections forecasting reputation into a broader range of newsworthy topics.

To achieve this new reach, the latest version of FiveThirtyEight is divided into what at first glance viscerally feels as a profound version of USA Today, mimicking the USA Today sectional format in sections labeled Politics, Economics, Science, Life and Sports

The key to Silver's strategy in stretching his hard won reputation equity is found in repositioning FiveThirtyEight as a data journalism platform.

What precisely does the term data journalism mean?

Beyond the data analysis necessary for producing elections forecasts, as Silver explains it he wants to aggressively expand his reach into a wide range of topics with journalism rooted in statistical analysis.

Exceeding the imprecise trivilization as journalism style of what too often passes as today's News, FiveThirtyEight promises data-driven stories, including the role of critiquing "incautious uses of statistics when they arise elsewhere in news coverage."

Two days after the March 17 launch of FiveThirtyEight, Silver found himself plunged into a yet to abate firestorm prompted by a "data journalism driven story" authored by Roger Pielke, Jr. Disasters Cost More Than Ever — But Not Because of Climate Change drew a deluge of negative, occasionally dramatic reaction, prompting Pielke Jr to issue a follow-up and Silver to commission a rebuttal, which led at least one publication to conclude that Silver's brand is now arguing with itself. Silver admitted some 80 percent of commenters "weighed in negatively" on the Pielke story, and for related reasons Silver's FiveThirtyEight issued an apology on behalf of Pielke.

Let's briefly examine the Roger Pielke Jr story and its impact on the answer to our brand overreach question more closely.

First, in full disclosure I know Roger. He and I served on a corporate board of directors together some years ago. Although our interests have not converged since and we have fallen out of touch, in our business sessions Roger's was always a thoughtful voice, one genuinely well intentioned, even when we disagreed. So it is with surprise to see the incoming directed against him in the past three weeks. Roger's is a voice worth listening to.

That said, the Pielke Jr story reveals a faultline in FiveThirtyEight's promise based on existing pre-launch reputation, and execution on that promise.

Which prompts the question, does the Pielke Jr story's use of data rise to the level of an "...incautious use of statistics when they arise...in news coverage" as many claim, a portion of FiveThirtyEight's brand promise as discussed above? And if so, is this incaution the causal factor in Silver's broken brand promise?

In our view, both questions are irrelevant.

The reason is that although clearly unintented, Silver "set up" Pielke Jr for the overall negative response he and FiveThirtyEight received, rather than vice versa.

While the Pielke Jr story exposing the gap between brand promise and brand delivery, Silver has thus far failed to demonstrate a full understanding of his concurrent role with that of Editor In Chief of FiveThirtyEight, that of Chief Reputation Equity Officer [Chief Brand Officer].

This gap - brand promise vs. brand delivery - was exposed as Silver, in not calibrating expectations beforehand, did not anticipate how his reputation equity would not allow for the expectation of anything other than reliable certainty from the new FiveThirtyEight. This is true even though, as Silver explains in a 3,551 word manifesto, he has in the past engaged in data driven journalism beyond elections forecasting.

Silver componded this shortcoming by making a series of classic mistakes - the first in not imagining, prior to launch, the worst thing that could happen to his new endeavor. 

And in not creating a quick public response plan contingency if the worst were to occur. 

And in not phasing the launch of FiveThirtyEight to support the setting at least early stage public expectation.

And in not offering simple clarity as to precisely what the new FiveThirtyEight would deliver, rather than the 3,551 word explanation.

Evidence of these misjudgments is demonstrated by Silver's slow response to not only reaction from the Pielke Jr story, but also negative reaction to the launch itself.

FiveThirtyEight's launch serves as the latest example of any number of brands attempting growth at a too fast too soon pace.

The result?

At least a short term drop in the reputation equity - brand equity - of Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight. 

To become long term if not managed effectively.


Silver fell short in one key duty, that of setting audience expectations for the new FiveThirtyEight prior to launch.

Now post-launch, he must effectively do so.

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