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Interview: why NASA’s social media is out of this world

NASA’s social media is just as inventive and compelling as their space missions. We talk to their social media team at Headquarters to find out more.

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

In 1969, six hundred million people watched as Apollo 11 landed on the Moon.

Today, we don’t need to wait to tune in. We can check in with NASA any day, any time, and see what’s going on among the stars. And thanks to NASA treating social media like the next frontier, this content is fun, relatable, and engaging.

NASA was one of our top picks for brands last year on social media. So, we were thrilled to touch base with NASA’s own social media version of Houston, John Yembrick and Jason Townsend. John, NASA’s social media manager, has been actively involved in NASA’s social media presence since 2009, and Jason, deputy social media manager, since 2012.

 

How has social media changed NASA?

 

John: Before there was social media, I was a public affairs officer working in communications, and the only times we talked to the news media, they would only talk about the big things that NASA was doing — a space shuttle launch, landing, or something going wrong.

But in general, a lot of our news didn’t get covered and the public didn’t know what NASA was doing. One of the main things about social media is that we were put in front of the public, in a way that made sense to them. It was revolutionary to us.

Now, we see these stories take off and I wonder how many people know about this because of the things we’re putting out there on social media.

This discovery video from NASA drove over 130,000 likes and reactions, 68,000 shares, and 29,000 comments. 

The numbers don’t lie. We put our new conference out on Facebook Live and we reached hundreds of thousands of people that probably wouldn’t have seen it otherwise.

 

NASA has over 500 distinct social media accounts. How do you manage all of their content cohesively and in a timely fashion?

 

John: It’s not easy. NASA is a massive organization, spread throughout the country with ten field centers. There’s NASA headquarters in Washington D.C., where we’re based, and content is constantly flowing in from all these places.

Jason and I oversee the entire social media presence of the agency. So you have ten field centers, and each field center has a social media lead. Also at Headquarters, we have Public Affairs Officers, who manage content in their various areas. We have about 530 accounts across the agency right now on social media.

It’s a bottom-up approach, where all those accounts and programs work directly with their center leads. When new content comes in, we have a really strong calendar to tell us when stuff is coming down the pipes.

This really helps us because when we have a big announcement happening, we can ask what kind of products are there going to be? Are there going to be animated gifs, are you working a short video for this?

 

NASA seems to have a presence on every platform, from Tumblr to Snapchat. How do you pick which platforms to try?

 

Jason: Each of those platforms has been strategically chosen because either it brings a new audience or it has a feature set that really links with the content that NASA already has.

So Instagram’s a very logical fit because of the visual nature and the imagery we [already] have. We look to Instagram to showcase a photo each day. It’s everything that comes from either us traveling aboard the International Space Station, or spacecrafts that are orbiting distant worlds, or telescopes that are studying the cosmos and everything that’s going on out there.

 

But other platforms bring special audiences to the table. We’ve recently joined Pinterest, which has a largely female demographic that uses it. That was really appealing to us because one of our big focuses is trying to encourage girls to study science, technology, engineering, and math as a topic at school, and eventually a career in life, because that is the future of NASA, the future of our country, the space program, and so many other industries.

We really want to make sure that we are putting content in front of audiences that we want to be speaking to, and making sure that NASA is present as a part of those conversations, wherever those people are.

 

What would you say NASA’s core themes are, or the message to its followers?

 

John: A lot of times we post things that are just pretty images of space too. Usually there’s content behind it.

We try to wow people with some of our imagery. A lot of people aren’t necessarily interested in some of the science, so you build an audience by joining the conversation, but you also build an audience by having compelling content out there.

We do a lot of posts trying to inspire, we do try to educate, but at the end of the day, our job ultimately is to inform the public of the work that NASA is doing.

Jason: We’re definitely looking for what will help us engage people who don’t necessarily think that NASA has some relevance to part of their life. There’s literally something at NASA for everyone.

There’s all sort of technologies [like] medical technologies that benefit people, that are used in hospitals across the country, that people may not know are a result of the space program. Every time someone goes off to fly, there are technologies that make flying safer and fuel-efficient, that are on there from NASA.

 

NASA pinterest aeronautics

So there are little examples of this and that’s why we try to connect the dots… connect with people who many not realize that NASA has such an impact on their life.

 

 

How do you include your followers in the back-and-forth conversation that is social media?

 

Jason: User-generated content is actually very challenging for us. A lot of what we’re doing right now is behind fenced-off government bases, where the general public really doesn’t have a ton of access.

So, we try to bring our followers along and use tools like Snapchat and Instagram Stories that unveil the things that are just not generally open to the public.

We try to create a unique experience for our users by taking them behind the scenes and getting them access to world-renowned experts on topics like science and engineering that doesn’t exist anywhere else, and the unique perspective that only comes through NASA.

NASA QA Snapchat

A recent NASA Snapchat story let users see astronauts answering questions about life on the International Space Station.

 

A lot of the user-generated content that we do end up seeing are things that come from our museums, that are of history from our past. We treat that as a great starting point to talk about the rockets that we’re building now that are going to bring us farther into deep space than we’ve gone before.

 

How does NASA decide which trending conversations on social media to take part in?

 

John: It has to have some space connection, it has to be NASA related. So if it has a NASA connection and has people talking about it, it makes sense for us sometimes to be involved in that conversation. It is stuff that we talk about strategically, what makes sense for us.

Movies like the Martian, for example, NASA actually worked with the film. Our planetary scientist, was helping to talk about factual aspects of the film while they were actually filming.

Jason: We’re always looking for opportunities to be part of the bigger, overarching conversation that’s happening on social media, because there’s a certain audience that already follows NASA and they’re kind of naturally gravitating toward us.

But there’s definitely other audiences out there that if NASA was part of a conversation that they’re talking about, rather than them coming to us, we’re able to put information in front of them. A lot of times they end up following us because they got interested during the conversation.

A great example of this is Sharknado 3, when Syfy Channel was playing that, a lot of folks were kind of asking, why is NASA talking about Sharknado 3?

 

Well, we actually study storms and monitor them. The plot of Sharknado 3, without giving too much away here, is that a storm of sharks wind up in space and the space shuttle is used. So we talked about the real research we do on these storms, monitoring of migration patterns of whales that we watch from space for, how we study ocean health, and things that directly affect shark populations.

We had a lot of people start following us that night because we joined that conversation. It is strategic in getting our content in front of other audiences that are not your traditional space audience.

 

How do you prioritize content? What informs your strategy?

 

Jason: We have a lot of content coming out that we prioritize on what we think the news value of certain content is, based on what other content is around it. If we’ve had a lot of Mars content all in one day, and we get another Mars story, then maybe that’s what should go up instead of talking about airplanes all of a sudden. Because we attuned our audience to today we’re talking about Mars.

There are also higher level moments that are a challenge, because we’ll realize we need to do something around a special day or a national news peg. We’re constantly evaluating and constantly shifting things around.

John: We look at everything, we scrutinize it and we have discretion to what we post and don’t post. For the most part, it’s Jason and me on the main NASA channels, and we decide what gets posted and what doesn’t.

I think that that has driven a lot of change at NASA where people are creating better things with a more social focus, because they know that’s a requirement for us.  

 

What’s a challenge?

 

John: Just recently, we took part in a conversation. There were seven new earth-like planets that we announced and Twitter users started a hashtag called #7Namesfor7NewPlanets. We joined that hashtag and by doing so, people thought that we started the hashtag.

So, there was actually a cautionary tale there, that we need to be careful on our wording on posts sometimes to not give the impression that we’re the one instigating this sort of thing. There is a connotation that because we are so big, that this was our story.  

 

Jason: Trying to piece together using language and using words that the public will understand is a very important part of our job. We want to make sure that our content is relevant and relatable.

If we put out stuff that says we’re going to go out for a EVA today, well, an EVA in NASA speak is extravehicular activity, but the rest of the world is going to know it as a spacewalk. So, the reaction would be very muted and people would be like, don’t you mean spacewalk?

That’s the great thing about social media. Whenever there is an issue, they don’t understand or it’s not clear to them, they can always write back to us, and we can immediately reply.

If we notice a lot of folks aren’t understanding what it is, we can always rewrite it and post it again where maybe it’s a lot clearer the next time. It’s a great feedback mechanism and a great way to engage with our followers.

 

What are you most proud of?

 

Jason: I think after each major thing that happens here at NASA, any major announcement, the internet usually goes wild for a lot of it.

It’s those sorts of moments that we see where we see how the internet reacts to the news that we’ve had, and that actually makes us very, very proud of the fact that we’ve had such an impact.

 

NASA curiosity rover
(courtesy of Business Insider)

People are either, making cool gifs about things or they’re putting things out there that are a twist on our content and so it’s neat to see how people react and take in what we announce.

 

What’s something someone might not know about NASA’s social media?

 

John: We can’t pay for advertising, or promoted posts, because we’re a government organization.

We rely entirely on content. But because we’re so visually oriented and we’re talking about space exploration and discoveries all the time, we’re able to reach a huge audience across all of our platforms, without paying a penny to promoting posts or advertising.

You see our news becoming part of a larger conversation, more than any other organization that I can think of. That speaks volumes about the content itself.

Only NASA can really do the things that it can do—sharing images from space, from looking down at the earth from space, images of Saturn from our spacecraft orbiting, finding distant galaxies, and finding new planets around distant stars.

This is very unique to NASA, so it’s really an obligation of ours to share this information with the world.

 

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