Managing the fifth risk

Posted by: Matt Saler

How Elexicon’s retainer service can help you manage risks to your marketing efforts in uncertain times

When rafting down a new river, it’s good to have an experienced guide.

I’ve been re-reading Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk. It’s a slim volume, but I consider it one of the most important books to come out in the past few years. Lewis masterfully demonstrates the critical role the federal government plays in managing an enormous portfolio of risks that no other entity has the resources or inclination to handle.

The “fifth risk” of the title is the threat stalking out of mind, crowded out by focus on more seemingly urgent threats one, two, and three—maybe four. Lewis writes about people whose job it is to think beyond the usual prioritized threats.

Many of these risks are things most people don’t know about or ever think about—things we can live our lives without worrying about because they’re being “handled.” For example, he writes in a chapter about the Department of Energy (DOE):

Roughly half of the DOE’s annual $30 billion budget is spent on maintaining and guarding our nuclear arsenal. Two billion of that goes to hunting down weapons-grade plutonium and uranium at loose in the world so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of terrorists. In eight years alone—2010-2018—the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration collected enough material to make 160 nuclear bombs. The department trains every international atomic-energy inspector; if nuclear power plants around the world are not producing weapons-grade material on the sly by reprocessing spent fuel rods and recovering plutonium, it’s because of these people. The DOE also supplies radiation-detection equipment to enable other countries to detect bomb material making its way across national borders.

So, basically, the DOE is why tales of a dirty bomb or homebrew nuke going off in a city or airport somewhere in the world are only told in fantastical spy movies.

In other chapters, he writes about the Department of Agriculture’s role in ensuring a stable and robust food supply—it doesn’t just happen—and the Department of Commerce’s role in weather forecasting through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—your Weather Channel app would be far less reliable without government data. He could have written a book five times the length and not run out of material.

I should say that part of Lewis’ project is to show how the management of those risks is often itself at risk for various political reasons, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.

The takeaway that I went to emphasize is this: The Fifth Risk argues persuasively you want people at the wheel, thinking about all the ways present stability can dissolve, and working to avoid those trip points so you can keep on living your life.

Basically, you want prevention over mitigation. But it follows that if prevention fails, you want the smartest, most experienced people on hand for dealing with the fallout.

That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot as the COVID-19 pandemic has derailed the world. The virus burst on the scene late last year as a major threat we didn’t prevent—but could have. Now we have to mitigate the threat, with measures that are far more painful than prevention would have been.

Now to Business

You know the #1 risk to your digital and traditional marketing efforts—which is not far off from saying you know the #1 risk to your business. Right now, after three months or more of economic upheaval due to the pandemic, it’s probably painfully obvious. You probably have contingency plans against it and risks #2-3, maybe #4 on the outside. But what’s the fifth risk? Is anybody managing that for you?

It’s also worth pointing out that not every business is facing the same challenges right now. Maybe consumer demand for your product or service has dropped to critical levels because of the pandemic and you need to adapt efficiently to a difficult market reality. Or maybe due to the unique changes to society brought on by the novel coronavirus, your product or service is in unusually high demand and you need to ramp up effective marketing and communications quickly. Either situation carries with it deep uncertainty about the weeks and months ahead.

Whether demand is up or down or just wobbly, it’s smart to have a rapid response team available for the fast-changing reality your business faces—so you’re able to focus on your core mission. Sometimes you have such a team available internally. Often, though, you need to bring that kind of expertise in from the outside. In the latter case, how do you budget for that?

Project or Retainer?

I talked recently with a client about a budget for work they are planning for the year. The question was whether the work would be project-based or funded from a retainer. I suggested a retainer would be a valuable insurance policy for needs that may arise around their goals.

My thinking: from a budget planning standpoint, there can be more uncertainty with projects. That’s because projects often risk expectations being set with unintentionally rose-colored glasses and assumptions about best-case scenarios. When a client and a vendor try to calibrate specific project spends within a fine-tuned overall marketing budget, we find it can be easy to leave too little room for what isn’t known. When you inevitably find out what that was, it can mean costly project overages.

And even if the project goes well and stays on budget, there’s always the question “what now?” A week later, the CMS or a plugin for crucial site functionality requires a critical security update that impacts functionality. The person trained and responsible for maintaining the site content leaves for another organization a month after that. The new Chief Marketing Officer wants to change direction by next quarter. The original project is over—how do you quickly account for these new needs?

A monthly retainer is a recognition of the inherent messiness of life and work, projects and marketing. It can encompass all that is good about a project budget while offering ongoing stability and certainty.  It can position an expert agency to manage risks an organization may not have the resources or expertise to manage itself, while offering flexibility to change direction that a project-based approach lacks.

The marketing department challenge

Effective marketing translates to increased sales and profitability. To get there, you need a highly-skilled team with expertise in several key areas, as well as the right technology. Depending on the size of your business, it can be difficult and costly to make the right moves in the right sequence to build that team and bring on the right tools.

If you manage a team with marketing responsibilities within a larger organization, you may have budget, hiring, or internal resource usage limitations that restrict you in similar ways.

The marketing and digital retainer solution

An Elexicon retainer matches your marketing needs with the skills and technologies necessary to meet those needs, at a predictable cost.

We do this by:

  • working closely with you, within an overall strategy and toward set goals, with regular communications and monthly reports.
  • providing a skilled roster of experienced staff, using proven tools that are ready to plug in.
  • sharing a vested interest in the overall success of your organization—we’re always thinking ahead about what can and should be done.
  • letting you mix and match skills to goals on a month-to-month basis, making sure you only pay for what you need, when you need it.
  • harnessing the momentum that’s made by being constantly engaged, thereby avoiding the frequent startup time and costs that come with the estimate process for tactical needs.
  • offering a discounted hourly rate due to the annual commitment of the retainer

This partnership means you always have the resources and confidence to set and achieve marketing goals. A retainer approach allows your needs and costs to stay synchronized (even when needs change from month-to-month), and delivers the talent and tools you need, when you need them. The talent and tools specifically manifest in our full slate of services.

Stay vital to being vital

Our user interface design and user experience services ensure that you’re thinking through every aspect of your customer journey and user flow, whether you have a software or SaaS product, or an e-commerce ecosystem for your physical products. Your development teams may be collaborating with your sales and marketing teams to deliver the features that help the product sell, but do they help the sales “stick?” We help map out the big-picture and long-view of your user’s relationship with the product, to identify where they may be running into frustrations, and opportunities to boost customer delight.

Customer delight is especially important in times like these, when folks need to prioritize what they’re spending money on, and are thinking about what subscriptions and memberships they find vital. Your user interface and digital experience is vital to being vital.

Laying a foundation that stands the test of … anything

With our strategic services, we help our customers not only envision the big picture and the long view, but plan it and map it out. We build and iterate early product prototypes. We research, refine, and report on your digital traffic and optimize audiences. We place the right messaging and content in front of the right prospects and customers at the right time. All of this establishes a solid foundation for customer loyalty, and a clear strategy for acquiring more of those ideal customers.

Teamwork makes the dream work

All of this works on a project basis, but is particularly powerful with the continuity of an ongoing retainer relationship. Such a relationship forges the kind of bonds of teamwork that only come with practice.

With the right resources in the right place working together in the right way, you can finally accomplish things like:

  • Refreshing your site’s design
  • Updating your logo and branding
  • Setting up a digital ad and remarketing campaign
  • Getting a handle your site’s security (i.e. stopping that spam)
  • Standing up an email campaign for the first time
  • Developing a new type of communication page for your customers/audience

You can probably add to that list.

But what does it cost?

If you’re thinking “I’ve just finished my pandemic lockdown rewatch of Mad Men. Retainers are expensive. I don’t have room in my budget for a retainer,” let me put your mind at ease: a retainer is what you make it. You can, of course, do more with more. But even if it’s just a way to ensure you have somebody to call when something goes wrong with your website, that’s okay too. We’re confident you’ll see the value because we know from experience that retainers work.

If you’re ready to make a safe investment in your digital marketing, if you’re ready to have your marketing risks managed—#1-5 and beyond—by an experienced team dedicated to your success, get in touch.


Knowledge is power

Posted by: Matt Saler

How Elexicon helps our clients empower their customers with the knowledge they need to accomplish their goals

I recently heard Elexicon’s Creative Director Mike VerStrat cite the aphorism “knowledge is power” to distill the essence of how we add value for our clients. He pointed out that our work is fundamentally about helping our clients organize, optimize, and deliver knowledge for their customers.

The last part of that phrase got me thinking—something like “knowledge … is power … power … energy … knowledge is energy? We’re an energy company (but not that one).” YMMV, but that’s where my mind went. So.

The Energy Business

Energy companies are in the generation and transmission business. The same is true for Elexicon. You want the knowledge you’re developing, organizing, and delivering to act like a sort of energy, galvanizing your customers to make a purchase or set an appointment or otherwise use your product or service. We can help with that. We also deal in a kind of infrastructure maintenance to support both generation and transmission.


In the context of a website, content is electricity—it’s necessary for the site to run. And as in regular life, the source of the electricity matters. Is it cheaply produced but toxic in the long run like a spewing well of crude oil? Or is it carefully adapted to the need and sustainable like a wind turbine off a windy shore? Is the byproduct of its production going to pollute the surrounding air and blunt the cognition of its users? Or is it suited to the local topography and prevailing winds, enabling fresh air for smooth comprehension? Elexicon strives for the latter in both cases.

We could help a client get up and running with cheap fuel, but the long-term damage that can do to a brand is never worth it. We’d rather carefully sight out the project and craft an energy solution that is suited to the landscape.

The most important thing in this context is that the customer gets what they need and feels good about the source. Our content services, including strategy, writing, editing, and management, ensure you deliver clean energy to your customers regardless of medium.


Energy is no good to anybody if it’s not transmitted where it’s needed, when it’s needed. We understand that. We build delivery systems that get your knowledge where it needs to be, whether on a website, social media platform, trade show booth, or executive report—when it needs to be there.

We can redo your existing wires with a website overhaul or just update them to get up-to-speed with a rebrand. And if the need is an all-new hookup in the form of a spin-off brand or product launch, we’re there too. Whether the infrastructure already exists or needs to be built from scratch, our branding, strategy, design, development services can make sure your project connects.

The Grid

The real life Grid is a hodgepodge network that requires constant upkeep to avoid a system-wide shutdown. It’s in desperate need of modernization. Elexicon’s energy production and delivery systems are held together with more than duct tape and chicken wire. We use modern frameworks that lay down a strong foundation, enabling simpler upkeep and reduced reliance on costly workarounds. And we work with reliable, stable hosts that help us avoid systemic risks analogous to power lines perilously close to tree branches. But if a tree branch falls on a line on a unusually windy day, we’re there to repair the line and restore service.

A bit of a sidenote while on this topic: in terms of real life energy used, we strive to ensure the work we do is lean and makes efficient use of the world’s energy while directing our customers to responsible hosts.

Reducing Energy Loss

Another feature of the real life energy grid is energy loss due to transmission over long distances and at various points from generation to point of service. For our purposes, this translates to anything that increases bounce rates, prevents user action, and, in most cases, reduces time on site. We work to avoid energy leeches in our work, working hard at optimization to enable your users to feed off the energy you produce, interacting with or reacting to it—even adding to it via social media or user-created content.

Power to the People

The phrase “knowledge is power” is a translation from the Latin “scientia potentia est,” where “potentia” is “power.” Without getting too deep into the muck trying to be cool with root words, it’s worth noting the connection to the English word “potential.” Knowledge begins as potential. We can help you make it more than that.

Whatever product or service you offer, you want to enable customers to do something. Like a real energy company, that’s our goal too. We enable you to empower your customers with the knowledge they need to accomplish their goals through your product or service.

What can we help you power?


Ignite your website

Posted by: Matt Saler

Because I’m the Astronomy Guy at Elexicon, I’m once again going to use my work as an excuse to post about Space.

Here’s a breathtaking photo of the Orion Nebula.

I’ll let Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy (now at Syfy) describe what you’re seeing:

This image of the Orion Nebula is one of the largest and deepest ever taken. It was done using the HAWK-1 infrared camera attached to the Very Large Telescope in Chile, an 8.2 meter telescope that can see celestial objects in extraordinary detail. This image is not exactly what was released by the European Southern Observatory originally; the observations were remastered by astrophotographer Robert Gendler to bring out more detail and to really shine a light (so to speak) on the phenomenal beauty of this immense stellar nursery.

There’s some important science lurking in this image, but there’s something I want to point out first. The glowing part of the nebula is actually just a small part of a much larger complex called the Orion Molecular Cloud. It’s a dense, cold cloud of gas and dust, invisible to the eye, and stars are forming in it. A clutch of stars happened to form near the edge of the cloud, and once they switched on after birth their intense radiation began carving enormous cavities in the gas, chewing away at the material in the cloud.

Because they’re near the edge, they eventually ate a hole on the side of the cloud. In a sense they popped the bubble, blowing out the cloud at their location, which happened to be on the side of the cloud facing us. When we look at the Orion Nebula, we’re actually seeing a dimple or divot scooped out of the denser material. The lower density and much hotter gas filling that dimple glows brilliantly, creating the nebula we see.

This image actually shows that extremely well. Redder material is denser, and the blue glow suffusing the nebula is lower density, hotter gas, tracing the shape of the cavity. It’s an extraordinary glimpse literally inside the nebula.

In other words, you’re looking at a star factory. This video from the Science Channel explains what goes on inside that factory:

The TL;DR version: when gravity clumps enough material together, pressure can build to a point that the atoms of that material fuse together. Those atoms then release their energy in a chain reaction that ignites as a star. A star is a perpetual series of nuclear explosions balanced by the contracting force of gravity—until the fuel runs out.

How star formation relates to content strategy

We sometimes see attempts to trigger website ignition by throwing all available website-y material together in one collection of web pages. Unfortunately in those cases, physics isn’t taking over just because staff bios, a company history, and excerpts from brochures about products or services are gathered together.

Without strategic planning and intentional organization of content, you can end up with a loose mess of material adrift in a nondescript corner of the universe—er, the internet.

Here’s the thing: those clouds of dust in the photo above are the same material that ignited to become stars. The clouds are reflecting light from nearby stars or radiating heat from those stars as light—they’re not giving off their own light.

A website that is similarly just a loose association of website-y stuff is also defined in contrast to other, ignited websites using similar material—competitors. And it won’t look as good as a cloud of space dust backlit by stars.

This applies at the page level, too. For example, efforts to make the homepage ignite can lead to unusable clutter that drives visitors away or leaves them with an unclear path to what they need. You don’t want a page like that standing in contrast to the ignited homepage of a competitor.

The lesson: you won’t get ignition with your website without some intentional arrangement of the material. You want the web equivalent of the atomic fusion that ignites a star.

But also remember: once you have ignition, you won’t have the balanced forces of chain reactions and gravity holding it together. You need a plan in place to keep the fires going.

We can help with that

Elexicon’s content strategy services can help you figure out what you have and what you need, as well as how it all should be arranged to achieve a stable, lasting ignition. Together with our design and development services, we can help you achieve a clear, usable, and human-centered experience for your users.

Your website can shine on its own. And, hopefully, outshine the rest of the stars.


Mapping Your Dark Matter

Posted by: Matt Saler

I’m the kind of person who will immediately pick up any book of Hubble Space Telescope photos or read about galaxies in my spare time. I make Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog a daily must-read and have a sky map app on my phone’s homescreen. I’ve currently got two different space photos set as my desktop background on two monitors.

I don’t claim any real level of expertise, but I’m fascinated by this stuff.

I mean, look at this mosaic of the Andromeda Galaxy:


If you look at a hi-res version, it looks pixelated, but it’s not. Those are stars. Mind-blowing, huh?

This post isn’t just an excuse to post some great space photos, though it’s at least partly that. Here’s another:


That’s our galactic center, including the region containing a supermassive black hole in the white area on the right.

But that’s just the stuff we can see.

Dark Matter

My amateur interest in space recently got me thinking about how something we can’t see, a concept in astrophysics called dark matter, might relate to my professional interest in content and the work we do with it for our clients.

I’ll let Neil DeGrasse Tyson explain what dark matter is:

The too-long-didn’t-watch version: it’s something we know must exist, but don’t know much of anything about. Yet.

Phil Plait goes into slightly more detail:

Dark matter was discovered a long time ago, when it was found that galaxies that live in clusters were moving way too fast to be held by the cluster gravity. They should just simply shoot away, and clusters would essentially evaporate. This implied that clusters of galaxies were either very young and hadn’t had time to dissolve — which we knew wasn’t true; they’re clearly old — or there must be a lot more gravity holding them together. We can add up all the light from the stars in the galaxies and estimate their total mass, but what you get is only about 5-10% of the mass needed to hold clusters together. So most of the matter making up the clusters must be dark. Otherwise we’d see it.

It’s also what gives galaxies their rotation speed—without it, galaxies would rotate slower.

Dark matter is an essential piece of the cosmos. The problem is that we can’t observe it directly, which makes learning more about it difficult. But we’re working on that.

Cosmologist Sean Carroll recently explained why it’s important to study dark matter, despite the fact that we can’t see it:

Only 5 percent of the universe, by mass, is the ordinary stuff out of which you and I are made. So, if you care about understanding the universe, 95 percent of it is dark matter and dark energy. If you want to know how the universe works, you have to understand that stuff. (my emphasis)

Carroll went on to say,

It’s very annoying to us, as scientists, because we know it’s there. We know how much of it is there. We know where it is. But we don’t know what it is. We don’t know what is actually making up the dark matter. So the more we can study its properties, how it collects, how it evolves over time, the more of a hope we get to understand what it is made out of and why there is dark matter at all.

Those comments from Carroll come from a news piece about a dark matter map scientists with the Dark Matter Survey released earlier this year (below).

dark-matter-with-cutouts_custom-9046c457721f2b25e3558c0a11aabe4b0eceb985-s800-c85The team of scientists used computers to painstakingly study 2 million galaxies in a miniscule patch of sky, detecting tiny changes in apparent shape in those galaxies caused by dark matter’s gravity distorting their light.

The reason for making this map is that quest for knowledge about the universe Carroll talks about above. Maps like this help scientists make sense of what we see out there, whether it’s how galaxies form, move and evolve, or how they collect together in clumps. Maps like this helps scientists take dark matter into account.

What does this have to do with content?

At the start of many web projects, content is like dark matter. It’s something—text, data, graphics, video, audio—both agency and client know exists, but it’s not fully understood. We know it’s essential to the website, that it makes up the largest chunk of the site’s mass, that without it the site wouldn’t work or hold together very well.

Despite that, it’s easy to get caught up in what I’ll call the luminous material, the design and development. Those are the stars and galaxies of the web, the stuff that’s easy to see and conceptualize—and they’re essential pieces.

However, design and development without a full accounting of content is like cosmology in the days before the discovery of dark matter. At the time, scientists’ theories for galaxy rotation and clustering didn’t match up with observation. Model galaxies would fall apart, because dark matter wasn’t part of the equation. The models had to adapt for the presence of the stuff in order to work.

The same is true for websites: you need to understand your content if you want to keep your site from falling apart or spinning too slowly.

Fortunately, we can observe content directly. If we take the time, we can catalog it, organize it, adjust it, cull it, create it, plan for its future, and more. In other words, we can build a dark matter map. We call this map content strategy.

Content strategy is an essential component to any successful website project. A good content strategy will tell you what you have, why you have it, what you need, and where you’re going with it. It will align with and inform your goals, making them achievable from where you are now. It will turn your dark matter into a fully-known piece of the puzzle.

We’re interested in helping you discover what makes up your dark matter. Together, we’ll plot out how it collects and evolves. And we’ll help you plan for its future.

What can we map for you?


How to Make the Most of Twitter

Posted by: Matt Saler

Last week, Calvin came across a three year old post listing tips for getting the most out of Twitter. Some of the advice is outdated (#1 was written before Twitter launched its official Retweet feature, for example), but overall it holds up. The author even called the Upworthy-ification of headlines on the web, though I would argue we’re entering a period of backlash against those.

If you want the “too long, didn’t read” version, skip down to the last point: Be Conversational.

There the author hits on the essence of Twitter: it’s a conversation, more akin to a water cooler gathering than the tabloid magazine parallel the author uses. Twitter is like no other social media platform in its ability to capture the Zeitgeist of a given moment, whether it’s a TV premiere, award show, big playoff game, or the final inning of a no-hitter.

Most importantly, it can bring the world in on what is going on in a particular place or story that isn’t being covered or broadcast anywhere else.

If you plug and engage that conversation in a genuine way, the other tips for using Twitter will fall into place.

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