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There are few businesses or organizations that have such a great, established social media presence as NASA.
All their updates, the content they share and the great bond they have with the community are so natural that it may seem that they don’t have to put any effort at all into it.
But they’ve put so much effort and work into creating and maintaining all their accounts across all channels.
How do they do it? What NASA did to become one of the top, most recognizable social media brands in the world?
Finding the right voice
One of the first signs of NASA’s social media success happened when Veronica McGregor, who is the head of communications at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, came up with the idea to report on the Phoenix lander in a unique way.
Instead of simply stating what was happening to the lander, Veronica decided to post the reports in the first person, making it seem like the lander itself was talking to the people on earth.
Tonight, go outside and look up at the crescent moon. That "star" just above the moon isn't a star, it's Mars. I'll be waving :)
— MarsPhoenix (@MarsPhoenix) June 8, 2008
Message after message, the lander sent more and more messages about its current state and whereabouts. Everything happened in a believable and a playful manner.
And people absolutely loved it.
McGregory hit the jackpot with her handling of the Phoenix mission. From that point on, nearly all rover, lander or satellite missions were handled this way.
You’ve probably heard about the Curiosity rover tweeting selfies from Mars.
No shame in my #selfie game. These pics help my team see the state of hardware over time. http://t.co/kQmYm7dUJ9 pic.twitter.com/CtSQODPofA
— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) October 13, 2015
The missions that didn’t use this style got far less attention and engagement from the social media audience.
What made the 1st person reporting so successful? It made space exploration fun.
It was no longer a closed-doors club of insider lingo and communication requiring two PhDs to make something out of it.
Everybody could participate. No matter from what walk of life you were from, the information provided in those updates was for everybody.
And it made everybody really engaged.
The right content for the right channels
You could say that it’s awfully easy for NASA to sport such a great run on social media as they have access to unique content.
I mean, come on, they have access to pics from out of space! How do you beat that?
But getting the right content, which in itself is also very important, means nothing if you can’t share it on the right channels.
Right now, NASA has over 480 social media accounts, with its flagship Twitter account @NASA that has over 34 million followers.
However, it wasn’t always that organized. John Yembrick, who, along with Jason Townsed, is currently at the helm of NASA’s social media, had it way worse in the past.
In his #SocialShakeUp15 Keynote, John mentions having to go to news outlets and radio stations and hand out CDs with materials on NASA’s undertakings.
Currently, they have a plethora of social media channels that provide them with a much larger audience.
They seem to have a knack for picking the right kind of media for the right channels. Just check out the things they are sharing on their Instagram profile.
There’s noting better than seeing an new update on NASA’s Insta account just after you woke up and were having your morning cup of joe, juice or tea.
The previously mentioned updates from sentient rovers and probes seemed like a much better fit for Twitter, where they garnered a loyal following of fans anticipating new micro-blog updates every day.
No need for special budget
You probably imagine that there’s a huge pot of gold behind all this amazing stuff NASA posts on social media. An army of marketing specialists, content writers and social media ninjas tying everything together.
Nope, NASA spends next to nothing on social.
In fact, the only real ‘costs’ of their social media success would be John’s and Jayson’s paychecks. Apart from their salaries, there’s no real budget!
How do they manage to produce so much stuff then?
Well, anyone in the agency who can lends them a hand. They have various NASA employees helping them various mission related-accounts.
They have real astronauts participate in the whole social media buzz, which is one of the coolest ideas ever. There are around 30 NASA accounts that are handled entirely by astronauts and not social media managers.
Day 236. A sheet of #clouds blanket our beautiful #Earth. #GoodNight from @space_station! #YearInSpace pic.twitter.com/bwoQx2TCHf
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) November 19, 2015
The social team helps them out in terms of making sure that their links always work, that their messages are well-formatted, but apart from that, the astronauts do everything else themselves.
The astronauts decide what to post, how often they should do it. And this personal approach really shows in those updates.
One of the most memorable social media astronauts (how’s that for a title ninjas?) is Commander Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut known for singing David Bowie’s Space Oddity, well, in space and other shenanigans.
Everything is also fairly decentralized. There are no strict guidelines to handling the social media profiles. Everyone has a lot of creative freedom and most of the time it’s up to staff or astronauts to decide what to do.
What should you learn from all this: If you have people who want to help with your social media, let them.
And when you do, make sure you allow them to create their own, unique take on the whole shebang.
Get influencers on board
How do you make your social media reach spread even further? Find people with similar interests and have them along for the ride.
Over the years, NASA has created a great community among its social media followers. As the community became more and more engaged, NASA came up with the idea of meet-ups.
They started inviting top community members that helped the most with posting to visit their offices. The guests received a full-fledged service and a tour, worthy of a United States Senator.
Now, the meet-ups have grown to a bigger format called NASA Socials. People who actively contribute and share NASA’s posts can enter a raffle to visits NASA.
Thousands of users flock to participate but few are selected.
The success of this approach could be observed during the US government shutdown when the agency went silent for a bit.
People started using the hashtag #ThingsNASAMightTweet to keep the space-fearing information going.
It worked really well and people interested in space exploration didn’t have to listen to silence.
In gratitude, NASA started using the hashtag #ThingsNASACanTweet to thank all the participants.
Once you have a community that will have your back when you need to shutdown, you know you’re doing something right.
Look and learn
One thing you can do immediately to learn more about NASA’s social media strategy is to start following the NASA Social channel, which is used to show how NASA connects with people on social media.
If you have a moment, you should also definitely check out John’s keynote where he discusses NASA’s social media operations:
Lot's of good stuff in this one and, even though the agency has space in its name, it's really down to earth.
Photo courtesy of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center via Creative Commons.