The insights shared below come from participation in the GNI Subscriptions Lab. Through Accelerate Local, we invite expert practitioners from among the 10 GNI Subscriptions Lab participants, or from other organizations, to share key important topics relevant to subscriptions success

Through the Google News Initiative Subscriptions Lab, ten local media organizations have been testing, learning and sharing findings related to growing digital subscriptions. We asked Kelli Dakake, director of audience/passive channels at Hearst Newspapers, to share some of the tests she and her team have learned from through the GNI Subs Lab.

Read more insights about the critical publisher benchmarks for digital subscription success described in this Q&A and the digital subscriptions playbook crafted through the Lab.

What has been your biggest takeaway so far from participating in the Subscriptions Lab?

The biggest takeaway for me is always sharing and learning from other publishers’ experiences and experiments. We are all working together to grow digital subscriptions to local audiences and altering our society to put a higher value on local journalism. If I could add another big takeaway, it would be the benchmarking and roadmap exercises specific to our newspaper on where our biggest opportunities are and how to shrink the gap.

Were there any notable surprises from FTI Consulting’s benchmarking of Houston’s audience/subscriber data? What changes did it spark within your organization?

Although we have a two-site strategy, we were still surprised at how low our unique visitors to households metric was compared to others. We know that the two-site strategy hinders us on top of funnel growth, but don’t think we realized how low it was compared to the benchmark. On the flip side, we were pleasantly surprised to see how well we are doing (relatively) in capturing emails and driving known users. From this, we are launching two big initiatives around driving more referral traffic from our free site to our paid, especially since we know this traffic also converts at a higher rate than other referrals.

What specific opportunities are you pursuing in the testing phase of the Lab as a result of cohort roadmap development?

Per my statement above, we are testing two initiatives:

1. Newsletter signup/registration wall for highly engaged users
2. Refined approach to recirculation content on

Taking a closer look at a couple of specific initiatives — tell us about your incognito browser test. What are the goals of the test, and what early results/learnings are you seeing?

Goal: The main goal for the incognito browser soft gate was for lead generation and email capture.  Based on Blueconic, roughly 13% of our traffic is detected as browsing in private mode. If we can get 5% to sign up for newsletters we will be able to send them down our prospect onboarding journey to see what else we have to offer.

Results: Despite the browser updates that occurred post-launch, we are still seeing roughly 2% signups. In addition, we’ve had unexpected success with increasing premium visits directly from the specific newsletter compared to the prior period. Of those that have signed up, engagement is also high at 45-50% for Houston and San Francisco.

We are continuing to monitor its effectiveness especially with more browser changes coming, but for now plan to keep it going.

Hearst has talked about starting membership programs in specific markets. Can you share more on what membership will include, and how you’re rolling this out?

Subscription plans with loyalty or membership programs are becoming an increasing consumer business model in disparate industries. Hearst Newspapers will lead the media industry with our membership center.

The membership center goal will be to reduce member churn, provide a platform for pricing with a strong value proposition, increase content engagement both organic and paid, all through an integrated one-stop system for members.

The membership model will also be used to change the culture from a one-sided ‘subscriber’ payment model, to a two-way member model that has mutually beneficial aspects for both consumer and company.

We surveyed the Albany market where we are rolling out our POC in Q4 about membership benefits.  Of the 2,400 people that responded, almost 70% said they have utilized membership benefits when offered them and greater than 90% rated the membership experience as neutral to positive.