Content pivot is a win-win for RELX

The information and analytics group has massively increased its audience and scored a clutch of awards after reinvigorating its content strategy with new tools and tactics, writes Sophy Buckley

Paul Abrahams is in a nice place. The award-winning former Financial Times bureau chief is chief communications officer at the FTSE 100 business-to-business information and analytics group RELX. Over the past few years, his team of just seven has easily beaten every single target they’ve been set, playing their part in helping RELX outperform its FTSE peers.

So successful is their comms strategy that they’ve won nine awards since 2021. In the past 12 months, they won all they entered – including Best Use of Digital Media, Most Creative Use of Owned Media Channels and Best Corporate Storyteller, North America.

Abrahams’ plan has been simple. Pivot from earned media – media coverage from third parties – to owned media, content created and published on channels he controls, such as RELX’s website and LinkedIn page. The idea is to communicate directly with RELX’s customers, shareholders and staff. His not-so-secret weapon has been the low-cost, easy-to-use web publishing software Shorthand.

“The beauty of Shorthand is it’s a no-code technology and it’s scalable. There’s no need for programming skills – all of us in the team can use it. You drag and drop the different elements for the page design, and we have a talented digital manager who takes the good stories we’ve created and turns them into great,” explains Abrahams.

“Before Shorthand, we needed HTML designers to publish and run the website. That created bottlenecks and was expensive. With Shorthand, anyone can publish, keeping the cost down and allowing us to push the frequency up.”

The numbers show how startlingly effective his owned-media strategy is proving. In 2018, Abrahams and his team published 12 stories about RELX on their website, accumulating some 15,000 reads that year; in 2022, with the help of Shorthand, they had pushed out 45 stories and notched up 865,000 reads.

“We’ve done this without any increase in spend,” he says, although he’s quick to point out that alongside Shorthand, the team has an annual budget of some $10,000 to spend on carefully targeted social media promotion, follows a rigorous editorial process and employs a mix of professional and in-house writers working on strong stories. Success is down to the whole, rather than one individual part.

“There’s no point in having beautiful content if no one reads it. You can’t trust to luck. You need to promote it,” says Abrahams.

No-code web publishing

Nevertheless, Shorthand has been pivotal to editorial success. According to Laure Lagrange, RELX head of media relations and content, she can easily take an existing piece of content, repurpose it using Shorthand and get the new version up on site as part of her normal working week. “It doesn’t take long,” she says.

She cites refreshing a story that had been on the RELX website for a while. “It was about how LexisNexis helps advance the rule of law around the world. I repurposed it with Shorthand and it got 10,000 reads. That’s content that was sitting on our website doing nothing. But once it was made more visual, it grabbed readers’ attention.”

For another story about RELX’s carbon-emissions data platform, Lagrange used Shorthand to produce animated leaves that waft across the page, pulsing graphics and a floating hot-air balloon to help attract eyeballs.

“Our annual corporate responsibility report would get maybe 3,000 downloads,” says Abrahams. “We turned it into a Shorthand story. It looked fantastic and we got 15,000 views.”

Good processes

Keen as Abrahams and Lagrange are to talk about Shorthand, they insist that the other elements of their strategy are just as important, saying the right editorial and production process helps them pick the right stories, ensure these are well written and signed off efficiently.

“We start with a briefing with the writer and business owners to articulate the structure of the story, identify the voices. We’ll preferably have at least one or two voices from RELX and at least one customer. Definitely no more than five voices for a 2,000-word article. The Holy Grail is to include a customer’s customer as they’re our end users,” says Abrahams.

From that initial briefing the writer will put together a synopsis, outlining the story structure. Only when this is approved and signed off will they start interviewing and writing. Once the piece has been submitted and edited, it’s laid out and those involved in its approval are sent a link.

“It’s important they don’t just see a Word document. We make sure they see it as it’s been designed to see – a beautifully presented story. This minimises the temptation to tinker.

“We also do serial approvals, not parallel. And give tight deadlines,” says Lagrange. Under this regimen, a story takes on average about eight weeks from conception to publication.

Great writing

Just as important is getting the style right – no jargon and no product promotion. “We want to share people’s struggles, what went wrong and how they overcame them, not produce marketing pieces about our products,” says James Weekley, head of internal communications at RELX.

As for who writes, about half the stories are written in-house – usually by the internal communications team headed by Weekley; the other half by professional writers in Abrahams’ network, including former journalists from the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and New York Times, and from content agency FirstWord. These tend to be business stories.

“FirstWord worked on about eight stories for us last year. They take over the process – writing, editing, subbing. The reach and quality of their network is great and they’ve helped us cover regions where we were struggling to find the right freelancers – like France and the Netherlands,” he says.

Targeted promotion

But writing and publishing the story is only half the process. “Once it’s published it’s about getting it read, so we promote it on social media,” he adds.

This element is so vital to success that Abrahams hired social media manager Tracy Rhine in 2018. “We had been experimenting on Twitter and Facebook, but we needed someone to own the promotion, someone who knew what they were doing. Tracy’s been transformational.”

With a budget of just $10,000 or so a year, the focus is on Twitter and LinkedIn and from an average spend of approximately $200 a story they expect to get about 20,000 views.

“Twitter allows micro-targeting according to who reads what and in what geography. We build a profile of potential readers for each story. For a law story, we’ll target people who comment on Law360, Legal Week or The Lawyer. A story on nurses using technology to help them pass exams was targeted at those who comment on the New York Times,” explains Lagrange.

Among the successes the team has had this year is a story about how small law firms can compete with large ones using technology. Promoted on Twitter, which according to Abrahams at less than a cent a read is more cost-effective than LinkedIn, it got 140,000 reads – seven times what they would expect. And the all-important dwell-time jumped 50 per cent to three minutes.

The right showcase

By the time the law story was published, the team had developed a platform to maximise the impact of all this good content. “We launched Perspectives, a new magazine-style, easy-to-navigate section on and within three weeks we had doubled our traffic,” says Abrahams.

Besides promoting the stories through social media, the team puts together a Friday update that goes out to RELX’s 35,000 staff. This draws attention to new stories, helping drive further engagement, and includes requests for participants for stories the team might be planning.

“We want to find the right people to include in our stories. Many of them are staff. This helps with advocacy, recruitment and staff retention,” says Weekley.  The numbers back him up.

The stories have also been used for government affairs as well as investor and media relations, helping to raise RELX’s profile externally.

For Abrahams, the stats including reader numbers and dwell-time matter and data are carefully pawed over to see if anything should be changed.

“We constantly look at what we’re doing, what’s working, what’s not, can we fix it. If not, we’ll kill it, take that budget and use it to try new things. We did a video experiment. It was effective, but not breakout like Shorthand,” he says.

There’s so much content competing for our attention, adopting an effective media strategy is more important than ever. It can’t but help that Abrahams spent years honing his storytelling skills on one of the world’s leading business newspapers. Shorthand makes applying those skills so much easier.

“We’re so much more in control now that we are an owned media operator. A lot of that’s down to Shorthand. We recently won Best Corporate Storyteller in North America. We were up against GE and HP [with huge comms teams]. We won. Unimaginable,” he says.