The GNI Digital Subscriptions Lab — a partnership of Google News Initiative, LMA and FTI Consulting — just released two substantial reports outlining how local news publishers can harness the power of digital subscriptions by focusing on the right KPIs and building a long-term strategy for growth. The 10 participants in the Lab have been testing everything from new approaches to newsletters, retention efforts, membership models, pricing strategies and more. 

We caught up with Ben Monnie, director of global partnerships at Google, who is involved with the Google News Initiative Subscriptions Lab at the ground-level, to discuss Google’s involvement in the 9-month project.

1. First, tell us why it was important for Google to develop the GNI Subscriptions Lab and partner with groups like LMA?

The internet is reshaping the news industry. User choice has exploded. Digital evolution is the new norm. And all the while, sustaining quality journalism has never been more important to our society.

This challenge requires Google to work together with the news industry more than ever to connect people with high-quality journalism that helps them better understand the world. That’s why we launched the Google News Initiative last year: our largest company-wide effort to help journalism and the people and organizations who create it. We committed to building out our foundation of products, programs and partnerships to benefit the ecosystem and investing $300 million over three years to energize those efforts.

A key pillar of this initiative is helping news publishers evolve business models to drive not just sustainability, but growth. Given my prior experience helping launch and grow the metered model at The New York Times, I firmly believe that digital subscriptions are a critical part of this. While many large, national newspapers have successfully implemented digital subscriptions as a part of their revenue mix, we recognized from our conversations with publishers and industry groups the need at the local level.

This is the genesis behind the GNI Subscription Lab, which we launched in partnership with with LMA and FTI Consulting in spring of this year. The goal of this intensive, nine-month cohort-based program is to develop a sustainable and thriving business model for local news — powered, in part, by digital subscriptions. We’ve assembled a group of ten local news publishers representing different regions, sizes and ownership structures to accelerate their digital transformation and create a sustainable consumer revenue stream.

Partnering with groups like the LMA, who bring expertise and valuable relationships across the local news landscape, has helped us identify the most pressing challenges for local newspapers and develop a program that creates an actionable path forward. Jed Williams and Nancy Lane have been terrific partners from the get-go; they have consistently made this program more energized, relevant and frankly, fun.

I participated in the Sulzberger program at Columbia with Pete Doucette, the former head of consumer revenue at The Boston Globe, and thought he would be a terrific person to lead the day-to-day work of the GNI Subs Lab. He, Ken Harding and the rest of his colleagues from FTI Consulting have been amazing partners throughout, in the truest sense of that word. They have executed a full diagnostic evaluation of each participating publisher across key success metrics, identified short-term opportunities, and built longer-term roadmaps. They’ve worked with scores of news organizations over the years, and I trust their expertise, judgment and wise counsel.

Between FTI’s deep analytical horsepower and practical business guidance, LMA’s strong relationships and knowledge of the local news ecosystem, the strength of Google’s own insights and technology solutions, and the collective wisdom of the 10 GNI Subs Labs publishers, it’s been an incredibly high-functioning environment.

2. A big part of this project is expediting a total business transformation from print-centric to a digital-first businesses, with consumer revenue growth as the key channel to achieve this. Have you been able to see the beginning stages of that transformation occur through this project?

An important starting point in the Lab was identifying the digital subscriptions maturity level of the participating publishers. We measured the performance of each publisher against specific success metrics and benchmarked those results against the cohort, as well as the broader industry.  That exercise opened everyone’s eyes — about what metrics to prioritize, how they fared versus the other companies in the GNI Subs Lab, and who was doing it well that they could learn from.

It’s been exciting to see the green shoots of progress emerging from the participating partners.

The Buffalo News, for example, recently added a newsletter sign-up modal to the first page view of its site to improve email capture. This small adjustment has made a significant impact on its subscriber base, with a 140% increase in its total newsletter list size, and a 12% increase in digital-only subscribers in less than three months.

While this test is part of a longer-term strategy to use newsletters as an engagement tool, it’s encouraging to witness how experiments in the short-term are able to set the foundation for future growth.

3. Establishing, measuring and then acting on KPIs seems to be a critical part of this project. What sort of general KPIs are being examined through this project and have there been any interesting or surprising learnings from those KPIs?

Based off the benchmarking report, we developed KPIs that span the subscriber journey — from areas like traffic and subscriber engagement to conversion and page speed. This has helped provide a framework for better understanding overall performance and areas of opportunity.

For example, under the user experience benchmark, we identified page speed as a critical factor in driving propensity to subscribe. In addition to identifying where each publisher ranks in relation to peers in the Lab and across the industry, we set performance goals for page speed across desktop and mobile using the Google PageSpeed Insights tool to help guide progress moving forward.

This is where peer collaboration surfaces as a key component of the Lab. We designed this program from the start to enable participating publishers to learn as much as possible from each other — from comparing progress against KPIs to sharing best practices. This approach has surfaced new ideas and new growth opportunities, and created new relationships among people who might never have crossed paths.

4. Are there any tests underway as part of this project that have you excited or intrigued?

A challenge facing many of the participants is the wide variety of technology solutions that publishers rely upon across all aspects of their digital consumer business, from paywall provider to data management platform to payment tech vendor to email newsletter provider — and the level of effort it can take to get the technology to work for you as opposed to the other way round.

The creativity we’ve seen despite the limitations of the technology has been inspiring. As a product and technology company, Google is investing in solutions to help news organizations be successful, including Subscribe with Google and our Propensity to Subscribe pilot, which is in closed-beta. But we recognize that low-tech efforts like our Labs can create opportunity until the product and tech is there. For example, with Gatehouse, we partnered on a light propensity model to help them segment their users in Google Analytics 360, which is used to govern their digital subscription strategies. The early signs are really exciting.