John Yembrick is NASA's Social Media Manager.

John Yembrick is NASA’s Social Media Manager.

With more than 6 million Twitter followers and multiple Shorty Awards, NASA’s social media chops are universally acclaimed. How did that happen?

John: We were on Facebook very early on and in 2008 we were on Twitter, so that helped generate a large audience for us.

During that time we were putting out live information – whether it was about the Phoenix Mars Lander or it was space walks, so that really captured people.

It doesn’t matter what the brand is, the stuff that we’re putting out is extremely unique.

Our content is so rich. No one else does the things we’re doing. We do live coverage of a comet slinging around the sun, for example. It doesn’t matter what the brand is, the stuff that we’re putting out is extremely unique.

NASA’s approach to social media is also unique. It has more than 500 channels and its employees pretty much run the show. How does that work?

Jason Townsend is NASA's Deputy Social Media Manager.

Jason Townsend is NASA’s Deputy Social Media Manager.

Jason: Our social media team at NASA headquarters is two full time people and then each of our ten NASA field centres also has at least one social media lead. A lot of those account managers are nowhere near full time on social media.

They have regular day jobs, so to speak. They’re scientists, they’re engineers, they’re people that are doing hands on work within each of the programs and missions that they represent online.

That’s where our strategy of having multiple accounts comes in. It’s kind of a pyramid effect, where you have a lot of niche-oriented accounts that are mission-driven. Maybe they only have 3,000 followers, but they’re the 3,000 followers that we want to be talking to on a regular basis.

The next layer up is our centre accounts at each one of our NASA centres, which talk about projects that are happening at their location in a broader brush. Then we have a main flagship account, @NASA, where we’re disseminating a broad based aggregate view of everything that’s happening at the agency.

We always reference the mission account or the program or project on @NASA, so that way people can start following a particular account and get information.

This approach is beneficial because we can talk to different audiences using different accounts with different versions of the same content so that we can hit as many people as possible.

How do you deal with the lack of control with this model – isn’t that much freedom risky?

John: We get asked that a lot because 500 social accounts sounds crazy for any organization.

Some brands like Pepsi only have a few accounts and that’s all they really need. But if you have something like NASA – we have hundreds of missions. Having so many channels gives these little missions a voice they didn’t have before.

So yes, there is some control we’re relinquishing by approving all of these new accounts, but we coordinate together, we have distribution lists where we talk to each other, we have video conferences every quarter where we share best practices, so it isn’t like we work in a vacuum.

It’s a little hard communicating with so many people, but that said, nobody knows what’s going on with these missions better than the people working directly on them. They should be publishing their own content. So far it’s worked out very well for us.

Space has always been a popular subject, but with social media rocketing astronauts like Chris Hadfield to internet stardom it seems like social is doing a lot for the “space brand.” What do you think?

John: When I started at NASA abut seven years ago, before social media, I saw NASA doing all this stuff. We had NASA television, we had an award-winning website, we had blogs, we had images and yet I’d read articles every now and then by commentators saying what an awful job NASA does telling its own story.

When the space shuttle retired, everybody said NASA is going out of business, but in a lot of ways the work we’re doing on social is starting to permeate.

We’re looking at the surface of Mercury now, we’re finding new planets around stars, we have a spacecraft that’s going out to Pluto for the first time, there’s the Mars Rover. These are big things and now social media is putting it out there into the public world.

And news media is finding out about these things through social as well. It’s hard to pinpoint, but I like to think it’s been a huge influencing factor to getting NASA’s brand out there.

Jason: I agree that’s a huge part of it. I also think that we’re talking directly to the public now.

Instead of them having to come to us, we go to them with our content and we tap into that child within each adult that says, “Hey, this is something really cool about our place in the universe.”

NASA also hosts social meetups, which use offline events to build audiences online. How do you see the value in this approach?

Jason: We put out an open call on all our social accounts and on our website for people to come and visit NASA and go behind the scenes and talk to people, in the hopes that they’ll share that experience with their community.

It’s one of those moments where we’re able to provide access that people don’t usually get. People can take pictures and tweet out, or they can ping their followers and fans and say, “Hey I’m about to speak to the chief engineer of the Mars Rover, what do you want me to ask him?”

There are so many moments where we are able to use this face-to-face opportunity to take the online world offline but then put it right back online when people start sharing.

It’s a pretty incredible experience. A lot of people have said it has converted them into lifelong fans.

 

Social media has changed the way PR works for brands. Has it affected NASA’s communications team, beyond being more active on Facebook?

John: We’re proactively encouraging the blending of traditional and social media. They’re both outlets to get information out there and so we’re working hard to see the blending of those worlds.

We’re giving some of our NASA social participants accreditation that allows them to be embedded with traditional journalists, to sit in on news conferences, to ask questions during our media briefings and go out for the same media photo opportunities.

We’re beginning to piece the two worlds together in a way that works to amplify what NASA has going on.