A Tale of Two Digital Membership Programs: Steppenwolf and SFJAZZ

Jamie Alexander

Director, JCA Arts Marketing

Jamie helps cultural organizations understand the behaviors of their audiences and create data-driven strategies to continually engage them.
December 14, 2020

With the ever-increasing popularity (and necessity) of digital programming during the pandemic, any marketer would be thinking about how to develop a loyal digital audience. That instinct, paired with the need to continually engage audiences during the halt of in-person performances, has prompted organizations to develop new and innovative membership models for digital programming.

Two such organizations that are leading the pack in digital memberships are Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and SFJAZZ in San Francisco. The companies offer two very different types of memberships, though each are reaching their audience goals through these programs and uncovering fascinating insights.

We had conversations with leaders at both organizations, Javier Dubon (Marketing Manager at Steppenwolf) and Barrett Shaver (Director of Development at SFJAZZ), and were fascinated by what they’re learning. Here, we compare and contrast these membership programs, and share early results.


Here’s a quick overview of the two programs:


We asked both organizations to share their goals for their digital memberships, and learned that they were surprisingly similar. Both are focused on engaging current audiences during shutdowns while removing barriers for new audience members.

Steppenwolf noted that its institutional priorities have shifted due to both the current pandemic-related government restrictions and police brutality, and the resulting social justice movement. The company saw digital memberships as a powerful tool to continue to engage its most loyal audience members (particularly its members, which are the equivalent of subscribers at Steppenwolf). It also saw digital membership as threshold for a new, diverse audience, as the platform has the potential to remove barriers of participation.

SFJAZZ’s goals were similar. While the company had plans in place to create a digital membership for some time, the pandemic and ensuing shut-down of live performances put the implementation of the digital membership into warp speed. During the pandemic, the goals of the membership are to develop revenue to support artists and the organization, and for SFJAZZ to stay connected with its patron community. For the long-term, SFJAZZ plans to extend the brand of the organization on a national and international level with high-quality presentation.


Steppenwolf chose a one-time cost for a season of digital access because the team wanted to replicate a typical subscription model, though simplified. They didn’t want to offer a variety of membership options, which often makes decisions difficult for the patron, and management difficult for the internal team. Like a typical subscription, the digital membership gives the patron access to a new performance each month, so the experience is an ongoing journey through the season. But, unlike for a typical subscriber, access to each show lasts all year, so patrons can watch on their own time. This is a true benefit of the program, as Steppenwolf can sell memberships all season and members won’t miss any shows that went up before they joined.

SFJAZZ originally questioned whether digital programs should be behind a paywall or widely available. Seeing the challenges that artists are facing to make ends meet currently, the company decided to provide a paid membership, as well as a tip jar that allows viewers to make additional contributions that are split between SFJAZZ and the artists. SFJAZZ wanted its digital membership to be in line with other streaming subscriptions, like Netflix, so the company started out with a monthly membership. However, high attrition rates for the monthly membership caused the team to add an annual membership as well.

It was also important to SFJAZZ to create a digital space that mirrors the experience of being in their physical center and being part of the SFJAZZ community. The company wants to encourage the same spirit and connection between artists and live audiences in the virtual space. Hence, the digital membership offers a variety of experiences and ways to engage with the music, such as livestream and on-demand concerts. The company also offers a chat functionality for streamed archived concerts, where fans can engage with the artists and other SFJAZZ staff directly. There is a strong contingent of “regulars” in the chat who are very familiar with each other—even though they’ve never met in person!


Both organizations were pleasantly surprised with the growth of digital members upon membership launch in 2020, as well as with the proportion of members who came from outside their geographic areas. At Steppenwolf (which has 8,000 total members in December 2020), roughly half of its 2,000 virtual-only members were from out-of-state and new-to-file. Digital members come from 20 different countries and all 50 states. This is extremely exciting to Steppenwolf as it forges new relationships and adds a new pool of potential donors. For those new digital members who are in-state, Steppenwolf is already making plans to get them through their doors upon reopening.

SFJAZZ has experienced the same influx of national and international audiences. In November 2020, SFJAZZ had 11,000 total households who had been members at some point in 2020, and 50% of those digital members live outside of the Bay Area (in 30 countries!). On top of that, 80% of the viewers have not been to a concert at SFJAZZ in the last two years. The digital membership not only allows an access point for those living outside of San Francisco, but also for those San Francisco residents who have not frequently visited the physical venue.


Both organizations have had fantastic feedback so far.

Here are some responses from Steppenwolf’s digital audience:

“It’s a little bit of heaven to be able to access Steppenwolf now that I no longer live in Chicago.”

“I have greatly appreciated how Steppenwolf Theatre has done so much to create content for their subscribers during this time. I am thrilled to make this donation and continue to hope for that time when we can all be together again to experience in-person theatre at Steppenwolf. Thank you!!”

“Thank you for continuing to look for creative ways to share your gifts, and I’ll look forward to the day I can return to my seat in the mezzanine.”

Here is a sampling of responses from SFJAZZ’s digital audience:

“Standing ovation from my living room! SFJAZZ is the best membership I’ve ever had!”

“We weren’t sure if the concert was going to be very enjoyable via computer or TV, but not only did it work, it was fabulous!”

“LOL, I legit have the show streaming on my Mac, iPad and iPhone!! Not missing a thing! Show, chat or noth’n!”


At Steppenwolf, an unexpected effect of the digital membership is that marketing has been more involved in the artistic process than ever before. The marketing team shares metrics (like video engagement and watch-times) with the artistic team to determine artistic decisions, such as length of the content. The feedback that marketing receives from the audience is also helping to shape the artistic experience: the marketing team learned that people were having a hard time contextualizing the character’s names in the company’s radio plays. As a result, the company has started to create more content around radio plays—such as character profiles—to help with understanding.

SFJAZZ determined that the marketing materials for digital events must include language that speaks to the experience itself. The company found that when its new physical space opened in 2013, the marketing language used on promotional materials directly affected the audience conversations that could be heard in the space. Strangely, the same has been true for digital events and conversation around them. As an example, an early news article on Fridays @ Five cited how the company included audience noise prior to the show starting (when promotional slides were running) and piped in the chimes to notify patrons the live digital concert is about to begin. From that point forward, the SFJAZZ team noticed more people mentioning the crowd noise and chimes in the chat and email comments.

Perhaps not unexpected, but equally interesting, is that SFJAZZ’s digital events with the highest attendance (at 2,500–3,000 viewers per session) are Fridays @ Five—a program on every Friday night. The company found that the routine performance sets people on a rhythm that they can count on, and people caught on to this early in the pandemic. Other on-demand events have less than half the viewership of Fridays @ Five.


Steppenwolf is navigating a variety of options for how to handle digital programming when a traditional season returns. The company is looking to use digital tools to create a hybrid in-person and digital season, and is debating whether in-person performances should also be offered in a digital format. Though there are complications to staffing both an in-person season and a digital season, the company does believe there is value in offering virtual programming for reaching an untapped market—whether it’s a film production or a digital reproduction of an in-person experience.

SFJAZZ wants to build a flow between the digital and live experiences. They hope that, no matter their location, people will still make it priority to come experience the concerts and community in person—and the digital medium can be a way to promote that experience.


If you need a third-party perspective on digital memberships or insights digital audience behavior, we can help. Contact us and we’re happy to provide a free, hour-long consultation with you.