Pandora lets free users sample its on-demand service

Watching a 15-second video ad unlocks a preview of the full Pandora Premium experience.

It's been just over a year since Pandora first gave an official glimpse of its on-demand music service, meant to go up against the likes of Spotify and Apple Music. And while there's a lot to like about Pandora Premium, it hasn't exactly shaken up the status quo -- most people use the free service to build stations based on songs, artists and genres they like. But the company has a somewhat intriguing strategy to give those free users a taste of premium.

Today, Pandora is announcing that free users can get a sample of the on-demand service by watching a 15-second video ad. After watching that ad, free users will unlock the full premium experience for a limited amount of time, which means they'll be able to queue up any song they want, build playlists from Pandora's catalog, check out the company's new curated playlists and more.

While it sounds like an obvious move to entice the free Pandora users (or are using the $5 Pandora Plus ad-free experience) to shell out $9.99 a month, chief product officer Chris Phillips told Engadget that "both tiers are critical to Pandora; we want to grow both." Rather than using the sample as a tactic to covert free listeners to premium, Phillips looks at it more as a for free users who don't feel the need to pay $10 a month to sample a specific song or album and still keep them using Pandora. "If you're not willing to pay, you just couldn't do that on Pandora," he said. "What we're excited about is delivering on that need and doing it for ad-supported listeners."

Starting today, when non-premium users search for a specific song (the most common way to start new Pandora stations), album or playlist, you can opt-in to watch an ad, which then lets you listen to your selection straight away. And after that, you can browse the entire catalog and look for more songs you want to listen to; the preview extends beyond just a single song. For the first listen, users will get an audio interstitial explaining that they're getting preview of the premium experience.

That said, Pandora doesn't know (or isn't saying) exactly how long that preview will last. "We're always testing and learning with this type of reward based situation," said director of product Jonathan Eccles. "It'll definitely be more than one song; we don't want you to get a taste for just a few minutes." Phillips noted the company will be A/B testing how long users get access for, so it's not a set time going out to everyone. Eccles said it'll be "more than people expect," which is both encouraging and vague.

While Pandora was keen to play up the benefit to free users -- the company says that the top request from free listeners is to play any song they want -- there's no doubt this could serve as an effective way to grow those paying for premium. Because users can build a music library and make playlists and share things with friends while using the premium preview, Phillips thinks this is an ideal way to slowly introduce people to the benefits of paying for a subscription. But Pandora also thinks that this will help Pandora be a more viable option for the music industry to promote music, as well -- Phillips notes that before, there wasn't really any benefit for advertising a new song or album through Pandora, because most of its user base couldn't play it. But that's different now. "[Labels] want to reach our huge audience, and being able to do that with our ad-supported listeners is a big deal," Phillips said.

As 85 percent of Pandora listening time happens on mobile, this feature will only be available on iOS and Android for starters. Indeed, there still isn't a web player for Pandora Premium, but Phillips said that a web app and updated tablet app would both be coming down the line. For now, if you have a Pandora account you haven't busted out in a while, you can give the premium service a shot by watching an ad starting today. If you'd rather give it a more extensive preview, the company is still offering a 60-day free trial.