Scalable storytelling

How RELX used storytelling technology to transform its owned media strategy and regain editorial control over its corporate narrative

RELX has a problem. The FTSE 100 information and analytics company is, to put it mildly, dull. Its pre-tax profits grow year-on-year, up a healthy 16 per cent in the first half of 2022. Its shares continue to tick upwards. And there was barely a whimper when its chief executive Erik Engstrom received a bumper package of £9.6 million in 2021, which included a variable payment of £7.6 million.

But while investors may celebrate RELX’s continued success, it has proved less popular with business journalists. Indeed, the company formerly known as Reed Elsevier, is so scandal free that the Financial Times once joked in its influential Lex column that it was part of an ex-FT index of successful shares that it never writes about.

It is an irony that is not lost on Paul Abrahams, chief communications officer at RELX, who spent 15 years at the Financial Times as a writer and editor but is now scathing about the paper’s seeming obsession with articles written to drive clicks. An editorial on RELX, which is also the eleventh largest company on the FTSE 100, is unlikely to achieve that.

‘We make our money as a media organisation by being very narrow and very deep. We provide information and analytics for a small number of people that is highly valuable and is worth a subscription for a year,’ he explains. ‘The FT’s coverage is very broad and very shallow. It puts out a lot of stories, but it monitors [readership] and that drives the sort of stories that it commissions.’

While Abrahams’ peers at organisations that are rarely off the front page might be envious of RELX’s relative anonymity, he views it as a problem. How does the business attract talent in such an environment? Where are the articles that spark pride within employees? And where does the smattering of retail investors in RELX learn of its work?

It was a frustration that was niggling away at Abrahams in 2018 when he read an article about Swedish serial killers on the BBC website. ‘It was about 2,000 words long, and there were different elements that were moving, which I didn’t realise at the time, but it is parallax storytelling technology, and I got to the end of it and thought That was an interesting experience. It was very immersive. It took you on a journey. And at the bottom, it simply said ‘powered by Shorthand’,’ he recalls.

Having spoken to the journalists at the BBC who used Shorthand, Abrahams bought a licence for RELX with which his team could experiment. ‘Previously, when we did an owned-media story, if we got 1,000 reads in a year then it was doing very well,’ he explains. ‘But we had just redesigned our website. We commissioned a former Sunday Times journalist to write an article about The Lancet [the weekly medical journal RELX has owned since 1991].’

Using the Shorthand platform, RELX was able to insert animated charts, interactive graphs and videos, and the reader could control their experience simply by clicking or scrolling. ‘It was a great piece of journalism, and it looked so much better than anything we had done before, and we got three times the number of reads that we usually got,’ recalls Abrahams.

Its success attracted the attention of the company’s internal communications team, who suggested a series of articles about working at RELX. It kicked off with a piece on flexible working, which attracted 20,000 readers. It was a Eureka moment for Abrahams and his team.

‘The joy of Shorthand is that you do not need any HTML skills. My team is only seven people, and everybody can produce these stories as opposed to having a bottleneck as we wait for somebody with HTML skills [to lay them out],’ he explains.

The following year, 2019, RELX produced 20 articles using Shorthand, which attracted an average 3,700 reads apiece. By 2021, its 47 stories were being read by, on average, 11,809 people and this year, its output of 45 articles – which Abrahams describes as ‘probably the limit of what we can do’ – are generating more than 21,000 reads. To put this in context, an FT article averages 10,000 reads.

Such growth has not been purely organic. As Abrahams’ team has experimented with Shorthand, so too its social media team has been playing around with a promotional strategy for the articles. As he admits, there is no point in just creating content – it must be amplified. The social media campaigns combine bold imagery with creative copy and micro-targeting.

‘We found with Twitter, we began to increase the number of reads,’ he says. ‘And then we started to do micro-targeting, so if we did a story about RELX in the Netherlands, we could target people who followed [Dutch newspapers] Het Financieele Dagblad or De Telegraaf or NRC Handelsblad, and we’d suddenly have 20,000 reads.

‘Or if we did a story on how we’re using virtual reality to teach nurses how to treat patients, we could target people who read Nursing Times or particular universities or geographies. We went from about 15,000 reads over a year to 74,000 in 2019, then 275,000, to 555,000 [in 2021, when RELX spent about $10,000 on paid social] and in 2022 we will have had more than 850,000 reads of our stories.’

My team is only seven people, and everybody can produce these stories

Abrahams has several stakeholder groups that RELX is trying to influence but essentially the focus is on commissioning articles that showcase business momentum, innovative products, people successes and ESG performance.

‘The articles are very well read internally. About half the stories are about what it is like working at RELX, and they are aimed at existing employees and potential employees,’ he explains. About 10,000 of its total headcount of 33,000 are technologists, where RELX is competing with companies like Google and Meta for talent.

‘One of the ways we compete is our social purpose. We help the rule of law. We provide access to knowledge, which allows civil rights lawyers to win cases, for example. But we talk to talent acquisition about the story of stories that they would like us to commission,’ he explains. ‘They told us that they get quite a lot of questions about what our strategy is, so we commissioned a business journalist from the Wall Street Journal to interview our head of strategy.’

The remaining stories are about the business, which target the investor audience, politicians, and policy makers. The topics are driven by feedback from RELX’s investor relations and government affairs teams. One article, for example, was about RELX’s acquisition strategy and how it uses acquisitions to grow the business, another was about data for good.

‘We have a clear idea of which audience we are trying to influence, and then we commission the stories with the messaging that we want to deliver.’

But over the past year, the content strategy has further evolved. A special section has been carved out on the RELX website to showcase more than 100 Shorthand stories in a magazine style environment, called Perspectives. Three weeks after its launch, traffic to the site had more than doubled.

He admits that he studied GE’s GE Reports, which launched in 2008 in the wake of the financial crisis as a series of blogs to counter negative stories about GE Capital, with a focus on its technical research and expertise. It is now a fully-fledged online magazine, staffed by professional journalists, and attracts more than half a million readers a year.

But, apart from gaining readers, has the new content strategy made a difference? Abrahams believes it has improved employees’ understanding of the business. Every three years, RELX conducts an employee opinion survey across the whole group, which is supplemented by Pulse surveys of some divisions every year. One of the questions posed is Do I understand the strategy? Positive responses have ‘really gone up’.

‘We really target advocacy as for recruitment recommendations are the most cost-effective method. We’ve seen a double-digit percentage increase in advocacy over the four years we have been using Shorthand,’ he says.

Advocacy was previously the weak point in its employee opinion survey. ‘It was the reason we targeted advocacy, but it has gone up by 30 percentage points, which is huge. Now I am not saying that Shorthand is the only reason for that,’ he admits. ‘We also have a newsletter called the Friday Update which goes out at 2pm, which normally has a Shorthand story as the lead.’

But Abrahams can also see that when he shares a Shorthand story on LinkedIn, it is widely read by the journalists who follow him, which has prompted articles. ‘But that wasn’t really the primary purpose of this,’ he explains. ‘It was to disintermediate the journalists and to target those stakeholder groups we wanted to influence in a direct way.’

At a supper for FTSE 100 directors of communications, he was surprised at how many were critical of newspapers and wondering how to manage errant journalists. ‘Why are we still playing this game? My chief executive has never done an on-the-record interview and never will. His view is that the results should speak for themselves. We never make predictions about what we’re going to do, but just incrementally each year improve and deliver,’ says Abrahams.

But that does not mean to say that there are no lines of communication with the media. RELX hosts breakfast meetings with senior editors and Engstrom. ‘And I spend quite a lot of time with my colleague Laure [Lagrange] speaking to business journalists and editors making sure they are clear about what we are doing even if they choose not to write about us,’ he adds.

We went from about 15,000 reads of our articles over 2018 to more than 850,000 in 2022

He is also exploring different ways to use Shorthand across the group. It is currently being used by 14 different businesses. ‘As we’ve rolled it across the business, some have adopted Shorthand. For example, Reed Exhibitions had 180,000 reads this year. Other parts, we never got out the gates because IT said it wasn’t a priority or there were security concerns,’ he adds.

A story about small law firms using RELX’s AI technology to compete with larger law firms initially generated 25,000 reads, but when it was promoted by LexisNexis, RELX’s legal business which has almost 60,000 Twitter followers – more than four times that of its parent company – who are predominantly small legal firms, that mushroomed to more than 130,000 views.

The cost of promoting this content was relatively small. RELX spent just $230 to generate views, with an average time of one minute 30 seconds spent on the article, while LexisNexis spent $1,000, which had a click rate of 14 per cent and readers spending an average of four minutes and 30 seconds perusing the piece.

Some divisions have used Shorthand to bring to life reports that previously would have been displayed as flat PDFs. Readers can enjoy the immersive experience, but then download a more formulaic PDF in exchange for their contact details. An initiative with LexisNexis generated more than 2,500 business leads. ‘That is much more than they used to get purely from their website,’ he adds. ‘So, we know we can use it for marketing as well.’

But Abrahams believes there are some rules that must be followed to ensure that RELX’s content strategy remains on track. Too often, articles on corporate websites get bogged down by approval processes or they become sanitised (or de facto marketing guff) when lawyers or marketers insist on getting involved.

His solution to the former issue is to limit the number of individuals featured in an article, which simplifies the approvals process [and makes the content easier to follow], and to limit the touch points with the interviewees to two. The first when the interview is taking place. The second for the approvals process. This cuts out potential toing and froing or debates as interviewees seek to amend their views or add to them.

The approvals process should also be limited to a handful of people, perhaps no more than five. RELX has a driver (Abrahams), one approver and three reviewers per article. Abrahams also suggests showing approvers and reviewers the content in its final form rather than as a Word document, as this leads to fewer changes.