Pandora Goes Ad-Free, for One Hour

Pandora has expanded its marketing capabilties with the addition of a new ad product called Sponsored Listening. The new offering will allow users to listen to music without being interrupted, in exchange for engagement with brands.

Sponsored Listening will work by clicking on a banner ad. This will prompt users to watch a short video or visit a website. Afterwards, the ad will stay in the background of the screen for the next hour, during which music will be nonstop.

On average, Pandora’s 76 million listeners use the service for 20 hours a month. Mobile apps account for about 80 percent of that, so Sponsored Listening will start off exclusively to these, though the solution will eventually make its way to desktop.

“Advertisers benefit from Sponsored Listening by earning increased attention, engagement and time spent with their brand,” says Lizzie Widhelm, vice president of digital at Pandora. “One of the major shifts I’ve noticed in my eight-plus years at Pandora is that advertisers are thinking less about impression-based marketing and thinking more about how they can earn consumer attention.”

Pandora offers an ad-free experience to its paid subscribers, but the platform has reduced interruptions for free users before. In 2012, Pandora partnered with Lexus to deliver one day of music with significantly fewer ads, but this will be its first time doing so at scale.

“What’s interesting to me is that Pandora isn’t giving up on banner ads at a time when content marketing is king,” says Tessa Wegert, communications director at digital agency Enlighten. “The program tells the consumer-advertiser relationship like it is. There’s an exchange that takes place: free digital content for giving consideration to an ad, and Pandora is embracing that.”

Thomas Mueller, chief experience officer at Siegel+Gale, thinks listeners’ engagement will depend on whether the ads are targeted.

“I’d love to see an intelligent social value exchange with brands with something to say to me,” he says, noting that Pandora’s ads don’t seem particularly segmented.

Spotify is currently doing something similar, giving users 30 minutes of free music if they watch a video ad. Mueller thinks Spotify has the advantage because of social logins.

“I log into Spotify through Facebook,” he says. “If those promoted or radio ads get information from that intelligence, something like, ‘Hey Thomas, REI is running a 25 percent discount on Trek bicycle equipment,’ that’d probably catch my attention.”

Sponsored Listening is currently being beta tested by Fox, which is promoting two of its TV shows, with Sony soon to follow. It’s too early for any feedback, but the solution is scheduled to roll out for all advertisers during the second half of 2015.

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