Wednesday, August 17th, 2016 | 8 min read
In 2008, NASA scientists got some pretty incredible news. Their spacecraft, Phoenix, found water on Mars.
Doing things the old-school way, they might have released the news with a carefully timed press release. Perhaps even tipped off a few reporters. Instead, NASA did something different and unexpected: the organization announced the news with 116 characters.
Are you ready to celebrate? Well, get ready: We have ICE!!!!! Yes, ICE, *WATER ICE* on Mars! w00t!!! Best day ever!!
— MarsPhoenix (@MarsPhoenix) June 20, 2008
The @MarsPhoenix account soon gained 75,000 followers and became the eighth most followed Twitter account. The tweet was even recognized by Twitter and Mashable as one of the most memorable posts ever. While Phoenix was on Mars collecting data, NASA’s social media team used tweets to personalize the spacecraft, from its arrival (“I’ve landed!!!!”) up until Phoenix “died” from a lack of sunlight.
Fast forward eight years and NASA’s social media operation has expanded into a well-oiled rocketship that publishes content to 14 different platforms. Its main NASA Twitter handle has an astounding 17.4 million followers – plus a Shorty Award – as does NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover handle, which has more than 3 million followers.
When it comes to attracting followers, NASA benefits from its fascinating and (literally) limitless subject matter: space. But with that advantage comes the challenge of managing the sheer amount of content the organization generates and disseminates on a daily basis. And the need to provide guidance to the team that helps keep 500+ social media platforms going, as well as directly managing NASA’s primary accounts, all while building relationships with tens of millions of fans and followers from around the globe. A task almost as immense as the organization’s subject matter.
To pull it all off, NASA fervidly invests in building and maintaining a social media infrastructure.
NASA has 10 field centers distributed across the U.S., and a full-time social media person embedded within each one. These social media managers act as content producers, science “translators,” and bridge builders between social and other business functions.
There’s a specialized social team at NASA HQ to keep the whole machine running. They coordinate social media activities between all field centers, communicate key updates to the C-Suite, and provide training and enablement for their regional counterparts.
The whole social organization also leverages a unified social media platform to support their myriad channels, accounts, teams, and processes, and to enable them as they scale.
It’s a social infrastructure befitting the entity that put the first man on the moon.
Jason Townsend, NASA’s deputy social media manager, says the organization’s social media strategy has grown in “leaps and bounds” in recent years. And much of that success boils down to a simple, yet beautiful, concept – “brute force coordination.” By this, he means that communication happens regularly, across all teams, and across all levels. Not just from the top down, but also the other way around. “When we meet in the middle is where that social media magic sort of happens,” he says.
“We’ve also gotten to a point where people are starting to think of social media way earlier in the process when thinking of larger company-wide initiatives,” says Emily Furfaro, a social media specialist at NASA. “We work very closely with other functions to integrate social media into the overall plan.”“We work very closely with other functions to integrate social media into the overall plan.”
This collaborative approach helps facilitate compelling storytelling. According to Furfaro, the team discusses the content it’s going to release – and develops an interesting way to say it – before sending the messages back to the scientists to double check for accuracy. “We act as translators when we explain and decode complex science concepts and jargon,” she says. “And we work together to communicate these complex concepts in a way that compels the public to want to learn more.”
After every major campaign, the NASA team debriefs, reviews performance, and re-evaluates their tactics to ensure they’re telling stories in the most interesting and effective way possible. They’re also constantly monitoring and benchmarking the performance of all content assets, across all accounts.
This level of reporting and the depth of insights help generate and sustain buy-in from executives, who often encourage the team to test fresh approaches and harness new platforms to tell NASA’s story.
Townsend says when the team is evaluating a new network or strategy, it considers such questions as: Is there a new audience? Can they differentiate one account from one another? Is there a way to re-cast an existing account to cover a slightly wider breadth of content?
“At the end of the day, if you’re not measuring what you’re doing, you’re not succeeding at being able to improve, learn from what’s going on, and roll that up into your next actions,” he explains. “Having a core team that’s able to translate those goals into action is absolutely vital to the success that we’ve had here.”
Image source: NASA
As a government organization, NASA is prohibited from using taxpayer dollars to pay for sponsored content. No paid campaigns. No banner ads. Not even a boosted post. “Everything we are doing is organic,” Townsend says. At a time when most companies struggle with dwindling organic reach, NASA continues to soar thanks to it die-hard community of followers.“We’re able to take that arm chair enthusiast – someone who’s just casually following us – and turn them into a brand ambassador for NASA.”
During a government shutdown several years ago when the team was unable to publish content on social media, NASA’s followers stepped in and continued to discuss space news for the few weeks that the social team was inactive. Passionate social users created a hashtag called “things NASA might tweet,” and put out thousands and thousands of posts during the government shutdown. Topics covered NASA’s Juno spacecraft flying past Earth, a meteorite that landed in a Russian lake, the origin of mysteriously bright supernovas, and much more.
“The community has really been one of the greatest assets that the social media program here has built and brought together,” says Townsend. “We’re able to take that arm chair enthusiast – someone who’s just casually following us – and turn them into a brand ambassador for NASA.”
Social media is the latest chapter in NASA’s storied history of publicizing its activities and discoveries. Reflecting the spirit of the famed black-and-white moon landing broadcast in 1969, the NASA of today engages the public in real time with the goal of educating people – from all walks of life – not just on space, but also about its many other programs, such as climate change initiatives and aeronautics.
“A lot of kids growing up, they have the thought in the back of their head that, ‘One day I’m going to grow up and be an astronaut,’”says Townsend. “And while not everyone can grow up and be an astronaut, we want to reawaken the kid inside of them and inspire a little sense of curiosity and that sense of discovery.”