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Shell opens up on the net

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by Adam Woods, 14.07.2008

Mounting criticism has made it crucial for Shell to engage with a broad audience, from green campaigners to Formula 1 fans. Adam Woods meets the man behind its digital strategy.

Few companies find themselves more conflicted by the raging environmental debate than Royal Dutch Shell. Along with its oil rivals, it has long been lambasted by campaigners over the ecological and humanitarian impact of its businesses.

These aren’t Shell’s only critics. There are the car-owning consumers, who have recently singled the group out for special criticism, contrasting its record profits with rising petrol prices; then there are the company’s own tanker drivers, whose strike over pay dragged Shell into the headlines once again in June.

Such are the pressures when you operate the second-largest energy corporation in a world increasingly obsessed with energy.

But during the past five years, Shell’s broad reaction to the rising tide of criticism has been a move towards greater transparency, particularly in the area of environmental engagement. Shell sees itself as an energy company now, not just an oil business, and its new digital strategy is an attempt to build a shop window for that positioning.

On an appropriately unsettled early June day in London, where sudden showers have already given way to high humidity by 9.30 in the morning, Simon Saville, Shell’s head of web communications, ponders the challenge of using the internet to make Shell’s voice heard above the climate-change catcalls and preconceptions. “Petrol, we know, is a low-interest category, and there is a lot of cynicism about oil companies and their motives and track records,” he says.

“I wouldn’t be in the job if I agreed with that, but part of my job is to try to open up so people can see that some of these preconceptions are not as valid as they could be.”

A new corporate website isn’t going to turn this situation around, but it can provide Shell with a platform for its point of view. In the past seven years, Shell has revamped its site three times – in 2001, 2003 and 2007 – but its latest overhaul, conducted with digital partner Digitas, is the most significant of all. “In 2006, we started to re-strategise and look at where we needed to go with,” says Saville. “We figured what we had was good, but not good enough. The old site was trying to be all things to all men, and as a result it was probably a bit bland.”

A new homepage was put in place last year, more or less to buy time while Saville’s team set about overhauling the information architecture of the site as a whole. Between 13 May and 3 June, the global domain and the local sites in the key UK, US and Netherlands markets, which account for 50 per cent of all the company’s traffic, were relaunched. The task of overhauling the rest of the 70-odd country websites stretches ahead.

Shell’s revised sites are designed to point the company’s various audiences towards diverse, relevant, sometimes rich content designed just for them. Which means that, the new-model homepage now encompasses every aspect of the company’s tense position at the heart of the environmental issue.

At the centre of the page, three of the four main links – those pointing to the Responsible Energy, Innovation and About Shell sections – are a clean, blue-green colour, and each makes some reference to sustainability, or carbon, or cleaner fuel. The fourth, however, is in a blazing yellow and, somewhat ironically, features a photo of a racing car.

In the tag cloud in the bottom-right corner are links to the annual report (the company made profits of more than £1.5m an hour in 2007), as well as to sections on The Energy Challenge and Exploration & Production.

This is the complex jigsaw that combines to create Shell’s public face in 2008. The Dutch multinational has to be a friend to motorsport fans, an ally to concerned environmentalists, a progressive voice in the global carbon debate, a profitable concern to shareholders and a source of (preferably cheap) petrol to all of those parties and everybody else.

Shell’s challenge is that though it has customers who frequently seek information about products, as customers do, it also has “publics” that expect to be told how the company is using its dominant position.

“In sheer numbers of people who come to our website, the bulk of them are petrol station customers, people looking for information about products and services or people looking for jobs,” says Saville. “We get much smaller numbers of people wanting to find out what we do as a company, whether it is journalists or the financial community or NGOs or governments – small numbers, but really very important.”

Saville isn’t the least bit coy about the care Shell has taken to cater for its environmentally concerned audience. “The things you see front and centre on the site are often about energy demand, big projects, climate change, sustainable energy – all those things,” he says, adding that the trick is then not to relegate the needs of customers to incidental status.

The corporate website needs to serve all those audiences, working equally well for consumers, B2B customers and jobseekers, and it needs to be there for what Shell calls its “special publics” and “concerned energy citizens”.

Energy citizens

These last two groups are the smallest of Shell’s audiences, but in some respects, they may be the most important. ‘Special publics’ is the company’s term for people and organisations in positions of influence: academics, government, media, NGOs, business leaders and the financial community.

Concerned energy citizens are a larger and growing band of ordinary people who are concerned about the future of the planet and who, to put it bluntly, want to know what Shell is doing about it. The more of these people who arrive at Shell’s global site, the more Saville hopes they will engage with the company’s efforts to turn things around.

A wave of content projects on the site aims to tell us all about Shell’s attitudes and innovations. Its website features several detailed ‘energy scenarios’ to sketch the energy options out for all of us. It has also embarked on what will be a series of moderated web sessions, largely aimed at its special publics.

Last year, it launched its Real Energy site, which is easily found from the global or local home pages. In this section of the site resides rich content about Shell’s Gas-to-Liquids fuel programme and the new Snake Well Drill, which is capable of boring horizontally to find scattered, hard-to-reach pockets of oil.

“Both of those stories are about our core business,” says Saville. “They both demonstrate the persistent, can-do attitude and creativity of the individuals involved. We were trying to find ways to bring those to life on the internet.”

Much more content will follow, but content is already the third stage of an ongoing strategy, which began, in Saville’s terms, with the platform and the people. Shell upgraded its IT infrastructure several years ago, but it has latterly worked hard to unify all of its various company sites under the banner, in a project referred to internally as One Shell.

This in itself has been no small task. “A company like Shell is a complicated thing,” says Saville. “We have more than 100,000 people, more than 100 countries, 46,000 petrol stations. We do everything from oil and gas exploration through to bringing it to refining and production, as well as new things such as wind farms and solar energy. It is a business which is as broad as you can imagine.”

The people were, and continue to be, the second phase. Shell has a web presence in all of its significant markets and will continue to be present everywhere it operates, from Guam to the Ivory Coast. This means creating a website of at least a single page, and usually several hundred or a thousand pages, always in the local language, with relevant information for that market. “The trick is to make sure you have good web management professionals doing the work,” says Saville. “This is not a thing for amateurs or IT folk or part-timers.”

That is where the process now stands, and as Saville fulfils his unenviable worldwide recruitment task, further content and communication will continue to come forth. “The platform and the people are only enablers to the content, which is really where the rubber hits the road, ” as he puts it.

Saville has served Shell for 23 years, including a period as its global brand manager throughout the second half of the 90s, but he was not born and bred a marketer.

He earned his degree in chemistry and spent more than a decade of his early career developing catalytic converters, then oils and lubricants. “My early days were spent developing additives for engine oils – really designing new molecules and testing them in engines, seeing what happens,” says Saville, who adds that his scientific background continues to serve him well.

“If you are dealing with a company’s website, it is very helpful to have a perspective on the company and some perspective on its business and strategies.”

This is probably why Saville’s account of Shell’s forthcoming challenges focuses as much on the terms of the global energy crisis as it is does the role of the web. “Our analysis is showing that, put simply, the world needs more energy, less CO2,” he says. “The era of easy oil is over, and the world’s population is going to grow from 6.5 billion to nine billion by 2050. The challenge of providing energy for that population is significant enough, but to do that and reduce the CO2 as well becomes even more difficult.”

Energy challenge

This is the essence of what Shell refers to as the energy challenge, which it is working hard to communicate through the web and by other means. Saville acknowledges that it isn’t necessarily an easy message for many people to take on board.

“People want to hear that renewables alone will fix the problem, and our view is, that is not going to happen,” he says. “People want to hear that it’s all going to be all right and they can go on driving their cars as they always did, and that is not going to happen either.”

According to Alexa rankings, Shell’s is the most visited website in its class, ahead of its immediate rivals, BP and Exxon Mobil. But Saville concedes that is not yet a major destination in terms of total web traffic, and there is a need to engage much more broadly if Shell is to communicate the story it wants to tell. This is another project – the process of seeding content elsewhere and drawing traffic to the site. “We get something like 0.001 per cent of all daily pageviews of people who downloaded the Alexa tool bar,” he says. “So yes, the Shell website is important, but let’s not get carried away.”

Shell has good reason to want to be heard in the climate debate. According to a recent green study conducted by Havas Media, the oil and fuel sector is perceived by global consumers to have done more harm to the environment than any other.

But the same research also revealed that most markets are looking to large corporations for leadership on this issue, most of us having lost faith in the ability of governments to tackle climate change. And though the world needs the corporates to step up, it doesn’t trust them much. “It is a cynical age we live in,” says Saville. “There is a lot of distrust of big companies. Bloggers and wiki entries are more trusted than corporate websites, if you believe some of the studies. It is an interesting trend, because it is not obvious that the bloggers are more knowledgeable than governments and companies.”

With its ongoing web project, Shell is demonstrating one facet of its willingness to change and to be seen to change. “Underpinning this is a process of changing the way the world sees us,” he says. “We are opening up and telling a story of an integrated company with a clear position about what it wants to do.”

CV: Simon Saville

2005: Head of web, Shell International

2002: Head of group communications, Shell International

2000: Vice-president, communications, Shell Internet Works

1996: Global brand standards manager, Shell International

1992: Retail fuels differentiation manager, Shell International

1990: Senior technical adviser, Showa Shell

1985: Senior research scientist, Shell

1981: Senior research scientist, Johnson Matthey

1981: Degree in Chemistry from University of Oxford

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