USA Today offer: Pay for an ad-free version of its app

USA Today has quietly launched an ad-free version for users of its mobile apps who don’t want to see ads. The offering costs $2.99 a month after a free two-week trial and is part of a larger effort to grow consumer revenue at USA Today and Gannett’s other 109 local newspapers to offset declining print ad revenue.

USA Today realized that there was a market for the product after seeing “dozens” of comments in the app’s reviews section by people saying they would pay for an ad-free version, said Jason Jedlinski, vp of product development for the USA Today Network, who led the feature’s development. “Words like ‘interruption’ were coming up,” he said.

“This app, which used to be a good way to augment my news reading has become untenable with pop up ads opening in safari and video ads taking over with no way to exit,” one reviewer in the Apple app store wrote. “I would happily pay for the content- when I was in college I gladly bought the paper every day.”

An ad-free option has been effective for Spotify, but the model hasn’t caught on widely with other media companies, who have found that people use an ad blocker if they don’t want to see ads, but most don’t value an ad-free option enough to pay for it. Jedlinski said USA Today doesn’t expect subscriptions to ad-free to be a big revenue driver — he expects the percentage of sign-ups to be in the single digits of the 24 million devices that have USA Today’s native apps downloaded — but the hope is to learn things like what people are willing to pay for, how they’ll pay, what percent of users will sign up for the two-week trial and if subscribing leads them to spend more time with the app.

USA Today decided to roll out the offer in its app rather than its website for a few reasons. It’s easier to get people to subscribe to something when they’re in an app, where their credit card information has been stored. Users of the app also are heavier users than those of the website, so they may be more inclined to pay for an ad-free version. Also, people also can’t block ads in the app as they can on the mobile web, so it’s easier to test the response to the ad-free version.

Ad-free models present something of a conundrum to publishers. They need to drive more consumer revenue, but the risk is cannibalizing their ad business, which in USA Today’s case provides the vast majority of its revenue. Jedlinski said he wasn’t concerned about the impact on advertising as he expects most people to continue seeing ads and that USA Today was taking marketing the ad-free version in a low-key way.

“We see it as giving people a choice,” he said. “Millions of Americans, they’ll continue seeing ads as it is. It’s being realistic. We know not everyone wants to experience things in the same way.”

The ad-free option is just one of a variety of things USA Today is exploring to grow consumer revenue. USA Today introduced registration on its website, where people who enter their email will get early notice of news and special reports. Down the road, the newspaper may add other benefits like exclusive content or early access to content. USA Today hasn’t paywalled its site, but it has served messages asking people to turn off their ad blockers. In its local markets, USA Today Network already operates paywalls on its sites and has done more consumer-paid events and started to test membership programs.

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