Setting the (Potrero) Stage for Success

By Robert Sweibel · May 20, 2021


A highlight reel for a recently soft-(re)launched membership program whose value proposition and attributes align closely with the organization’s values and capacities–a primer for anyone thinking about the future of loyalty


I made my home in the San Francisco Bay Area for 20 years before my 2015 finally returned to New York City. While I led marketing for some of the region’s largest institutions there, I routinely consumed offerings from smaller, scrappier companies that dot the cultural landscape. I like it all.

One such organization is Potrero Stage, a 99-seat state-of-the-art performance space on Potrero Hill, a San Francisco neighborhood that’s equally artsy and techy. Run since 2017 by PlayGround, a leading playwright incubator, Potrero Stage serves as home to several other of the Bay Area’s most adventurous producers of new work, among them Crowded Fire Theatre, Golden Thread Productions, and the Playwrights Foundation. Collectively, the companies of Potrero Stage draw tens of thousands of patrons annually.

The Brief

In 2018 Potrero Stage launched a membership program–nominal fee to join, discounts thereafter–designed to build audiences and revenue for the venue and its resident and guest companies. 

With funding from The Wallace Foundation, Potrero Stage aimed to refine and re-launch the program for a post-COVID audience. They invited my firm to achieve that objective. So proud. 

Our initial discovery meetings established a vision for the program built on respect for the cultures, concerns, and capacities of the resident and guest company stakeholders. Distilled here to its essence, the program had to be flexible—easy for them to customize and easy for them to administer—and of course it had to generate audiences and revenue. And it had to work for in-person and digital shows because, who knows?

Pretty straightforward. Interestingly, sometimes the Devil’s not in the details, but rather in the lack of details. Among our obstacles, beyond Covid:

  • Despite the resident companies’ shared ticketing system and affinity for metrics, each had limited and disparate data.
  • There’s a lot of talk, but there aren’t many membership programs out there. Neither is there much research on the subject. Are these programs unappealing or just untested?

Further, we articulated our goals and KPIs for the program—increase frequency of attendance, yearly dollar value of consumer (YVOC), and depth of engagement among Potrero Stage audiences by way of a refined membership program.

The Big Idea

Surveys and focus groups revealed that only 22% of respondents were aware that the membership program existed. A first-rate marketing opportunity, for sure… if you’ve got a first-rate product.

Is this the place where I admit that I have reservations, both as a marketer and a consumer, about the potential of membership programs, or reward programs for that matter, to supplant the subscription as the leading loyalty model in our industry? Oops. Said it.

Driven by my own skepticism, I looked to develop a better value proposition than, “25 bucks up front gets you half-price tickets later.” Feh. Because by their own admission, members were enticed only slightly by savings. What really appealed to folks—people with self-professed creative interests if not aspirations—was the opportunity to be part of a community.

If we could fulfill that aspiration, we’d be delivering the actual goods. And that’s when we had the “Aha!” moment that led to:

Potrero Stagers: a community of theatergoers and artists actively engaged with the companies and theatermakers of Potrero Stage. 

We placed the community at the center of the value proposition, not the program, because community drives Potrero Stage’s mission. 

We rooted our product strategy around the volume of participating producers and events, and offered people an invitation to become part of a multi-theater creative community with artists at the center.

And we built a low-cost, pay-as-you-go program that reduces the financial barrier to participation.

And we harnessed this orientation toward community to develop benefits, customized by resident and guest companies within a more general framework, that activate Potrero Stage’s mission and values.

Membership unlocks a variety of benefits from the many companies who call Potrero Stage home, including unique opportunities to engage with the artists, companies, and new works presented there each year.

And we made direct payment to artists for participation in member events intrinsic to the program. 

So, what’s the parallel to draw from a 99-seat theater for any organization? The promise of success lies in aligning program attributes with organizational values and capacities. Potrero Stagers distinguishes itself—and it gets reflected back in the audience—because it accomplishes that. It’s the magical loop toward which we all should strive.

The program soft-launched May 1 and we’re planning for a fall, in-person launch. I’ll report back in the months ahead.In the meantime, I encourage you to consider these questions in the context of your own organization: Do you know what really distinguishes your business? How do your programs activate those qualities?