A digital influence in today’s “pop-culture” oriented society is something NASA needs to be actively seeking to infiltrate.
By Jonathan Stroud
Imagine a corn farmer whose family has been growing corn for generations, when one day, a black substance begins to seep up from the ground, killing the crops. The farmer’s initial reaction would be to get rid of the substance, not understanding its value as oil. Now imagine social media is the oil and NASA is the corn farmer.
“I believe NASA is currently under-utilizing social media for outreach”
A Twitter follower count of 18-million is impressive, but with 313 million active users, NASA is only followed by 6% of Twitter handles overall. I believe the organization that is tasked with sending humans to Mars and progressing our knowledge of the universe should at least be in the “Top 15 Brands” and regularly discussed across social media platforms. The 100-most-followed Twitter accounts consists mostly of well-known celebrities as of Aug. 22, 2016; Kim Kardashian ranks in the top 15 at number 11 with nearly double the amount of followers, compared to NASA who ranks in at 69th place overall.
Last week NASA hand-selected social media influencers to attend the RS-25 engine test, along with traditional media outlets. Seeing this as an opportunity to expand the support for space exploration and knowledge, I attended as an ambassador for Journalists For Space. The NASA Social event consisted of behind-the-scenes admission to NASA Michoud Assembly Facility and NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center, allowing entree to areas many NASA employees have never been before. This behind-the-scenes access was a great way to engage people with the day-to-day tasks of engineers and operators as they work on the technology that will be sending the first humans to Mars.
Five ways NASA can maximize its Social Media presence
- Be generous with the Favorites and Retweets: A simple “favorite” or “retweet” can go a long way in today’s digital sphere. As seen below, a simple favorite from the International Space Station research facility promoted social media user @HeyBrenanabread to make it her banner. According to NASA Social participant Kathleen Pulito, who runs the social media for the Jamaican Bobsled team, “it is fun and easy to engage with an online audience,” she told Journalists For Space, “I love interacting with fans on Twitter. It’s the favorite part of my job! When I ‘like’ or ‘retweet’ a fan’s tweet, I go back and check their profile the next day. If I do my job right, touch fans, then I usually see a tweet along the lines of ‘OMG, The Olympic Jamaican Bobsled just RT [Or liked] me!’ I enjoy making an impact in people’s lives. People love being acknowledged, it makes them feel good. It invests them in your brand making them feel a part of things.”
- Longer Snapchat & Instagram story feeds. During the #NASASocial RS-25 engine test the Journalists For Space Snapchat feed (SnapsForSpace) was twice as long as NASA’s Snapchat feed. Why? Instead of spending time responding to nonconstructive feedback given by social media users, as exampled below, NASA should explore how to engage a broader audience. Focusing on positive engagements on social media will increase the overall level of productive feedback given to the agency.
In order to increase the brand awareness, NASA needs to continue to create more meaningful content on a daily basis.
- Invest more into the NASA Social Media team: Similar to 24-hour news outlets, such as CNN and BBC, establishing an around the clock Social Media presence leveraging daily, weekly, and special events will increase the overall content value of NASA’s digital footprint. The impact the Social Media team currently has on the NASA brand is undeniable as witnessed by testimonies such as those from Maddie Reardon, “NASA Social was the best experience I’ve had in my life thus far, and I can’t wait for the next one!” Social media connects the world, so telling the exciting and impactful adventures and stories of NASA is essential. Leveraging technology, such as Hootsuite or Buffer, a 24/7 campaign is a feasible goal by scheduling posts that reach out to audiences across all time zones. Increasing the number of Facebook Live’s conducted by NASA Social Media representatives will also help with engagement of users, giving people a feeling of being a part of daily NASA activities.
- More Ambient Journalism: With the addition of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms, the way people consume news is currently changing. If I am able to walk through an airport and hear the name “Trump” from accredited news sources such as CNN, we should also hear “NASA.” There are plenty of events going on throughout NASA’s main facilities to leverage social media on a regular basis. NASA can focus more on storytelling about the engineers and their projects. The anniversary of the moon landing each year is an example of how NASA engages with their audience, and there are many other weekly or daily NASA achievements they can highlight on the daily. According to Jenna Ryan, “the reason NASA isn’t trending as much as other popular topics is that the media and news don’t care enough to look into the hard work the people at NASA do each and every day. If there was a segment such as ‘Check-In with NASA’ on the news, perhaps there would be more recognition for an organization that actually makes a difference, in the world and OUT of this world!” No one should ever be under the impression that NASA is no longer hard at work progressing the bounds of human knowledge.
- Increase the number of #NASASocial events: The NASA Social event was a great way to engage audiences outside of the traditional Space niche. According to Astronaut Rick Mastracchio, over 18,000 people applied during the last round of hiring to become an astronaut. This is an impressive number of applicants, especially when only a handful will actually be selected. During the initial event briefing John Yembrick said, “there were approximately 400-Social Media applicants that applied for the NASA Social Media credentials.” The potential impact the NASA Social events have can positively affect future generations, simply by allowing access to the events. This can be seen through Paula Kiger’s testimony, “I don’t participate in NASA Socials solely as a social media enthusiast. As a parent, I feel a strong responsibility to help my children understand the breadth of the options that lie ahead of them. Each NASA employee and contractor I have met has helped me understand the tenacity, intellect, and creativity that need to be cultivated in our children in order to dream big and believe in the extraordinary realities that lie ahead. NASA Social’s have given me a true connection to a world beyond Earth. I am thrilled to pass that along to my social media connections, my peers, and most especially to the young people in my life.” As of August 23 there is no NASA Social event scheduled allowing for open sign-ups. For future events check back regularly on the NASA Social website or sign up for the announcements by Clicking Here.
How can WE help NASA with their social media presence?
The NASA Social event included a panel of experts to help explain how the agency is sending humans to Mars. Topics covered included: Where we came from and where we are going; if we alone in the Universe; the technology that is currently in development; issues that astronauts will face during their mission to Mars; predominant obstacles that still stand in the way; and how robotic research on the red planet is pathing the way for humans to one day visit. A main concern highlighted was the need for a different approach to current space travel than we use for astronauts living in the International Space Station (ISS). If anything goes wrong in the ISS, Earth is only a few minutes away, but if an issues arise during a trip to Mars, astronauts will be months away from Earth.
The NASA panel was streamed live on NASA TV; watch a recap of the live panel at the bottom of the article.
During the “Question and Answer” portion of the panel, I was allowed to ask the following question: “Why is it that I can go to downtown New Orleans, or anywhere in the United States, and ask someone to, ‘tell me five pop-culture icons,’ and I’ll get a response quicker than I asked the question; but, when I ask the question, ‘tell me the name of five astronauts,’ I get blank faces…why is that, and what can I do to change that?”
“We need your help getting the message out there, that NASA is still in space,” said Katie Boggs, “we have these awesome people doing awesome things.” She continued to express the importance of liking and sharing NASA’s Social Media content and how, “we need your help with that.”
John Vickers described how his job requires him to visit a lot of universities, and responded with denial that it’s not that way from his perspective. According to Vickers, “Maybe it’s because I’m at the engineering schools, and they’re kind of geeked out like I am, but I don’t think it’s that way at the universities, and other venues like Comic-Con… You’ll find those folks are highly inspired, just like I’ve always been about space.”
My intent for the question was not how to engage those already interested; I understand people who have spent their entire lives preparing to become astronauts and engineers are not the issue. Rather than “preaching to the choir,” my focus is on the individuals that believe NASA shut-down with the closing of the Shuttle Program in 2011.
Astronaut Rick Mastracchio, who has flown on three NASA Space Shuttle Missions, answered the question with hyperbole, “just give me my own TV Show and we’ll change that.”
NASA Astronaut Rick Mastracchio’s response shows willingness to engage but does not answer to the underlying question being asked, “How do we engage people that are not currently interested?”
NASA is currently focusing on hiring smart, passionate individuals to building rockets that will send humans to Mars; whilst Journalists For Space, is focused on WHY should they care about the impact of building the rockets. Without engagement and interest, future generations will not aspire to create the technology of the future or help with the scientific breakthroughs still needed.
The final answer came from Richard Davis, “I think it may not be a bad thing. It might be that space is becoming so integral to the culture that it’s just given that we have human beings in space. I actually think that our foothold in space will not be just a foothold, but a permanent presence. We don’t know the name of oil rig workers even though they’re doing incredibly dangerous work out there…so, maybe there’s another way to look at it.”
Taken at face value, I agree. Oil rig workers perform tasks that puts them in dangers way at a high level here on Earth; however, think about how we know all about the The Wright Brothers, and the names of other explorers who have pushed the bounds of human knowledge. NASA’s astronauts conduct research in environments that most have never experienced before and will never get a chance to…so why are more people not aware of their revolutionary work?
During my time with NASA, Social Media representatives from the agency said they hand-selected #NASASocial participants who would help them reach audiences that do not traditionally engage with NASA’s content. So, it is fair to assume that the NASA Social Media team is aware of the importance of social media and their current lack of engagement in popular culture.
Astronaut Charles J. Precourt is the current General Manager and Vice President of Space Launch Systems for Orbital ATK. According to the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, Precourt has logged a total of 932 hours in space. Precourt has been presented with multiple awards throughout his military and NASA careers which included being placed into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2015.
I was extremely lucky to meet Sandy Coleman, Vice President of Orbital ATK’s Washington Operations. Her career is nothing short of inspirational, becoming involved with the NASA as a secretary and through her passion and hard work rose through the ranks to become Senior Executive Service in the Science Directorate and Space Shuttle Program.
Selfie with Katie Boggs, manager for NASA’s Systems & Tech Demonstration.
Richard “Rick” Davis NASA Assistant Director Science & Exploration
Shannon Ridiger: Public Affairs Officer – Current social media lead for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center managing several accounts across 10+ social media platforms.
Jay Layton, one of the “Real MVP’s”, who is currently building the Orion spacecraft
NASA is embracing new virtual reality technology to help share their mission to Mars.
According to NASA Social attendee Jonathan Smith, “the SLS and our Journey to Mars is this generation’s Apollo program. Our nation put talent and treasure together to go to the Moon and we succeeded. Now we are doing it to go to Mars and thanks to technology we all have the opportunity to be part of it.”
Check out more Journalists For Space pictures from the NASA Social event on our Flickr page by CLICKING HERE.
Make sure to check out the NASA TV live stream of the #NASASocial panel below:
Also, check out a video of the RS-12 engine test:
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