How NASA survived its 16-day social media blackout

While every organisation today, be it private or public, recognises the importance of being social, very few actually get their social engagement to the point where they have a community of brand ambassadors who can step in to save the brand during a crisis.

NASA is one brand which has been able to do that. During a recent conference organised by Socialbakers called “Engage”, Veronica McGregor, news and social media manager of NASA, said a few years ago when a government organisation had to shut down all of NASA’s communications due to a political situation, its community came to its aid.

“We couldn’t work or post anything. So we put out a blanket statement on our social platforms saying that all our events were shut down and we wouldn’t be posting on social media.” She said what she and her team didn’t expect was that within an hour of this announcement, its social community came to its rescue.

“The public started seeing posts go with a hashtag #thingsnasamighttweet,” she said. But this wasn’t sent out by the employees of NASA. It was sent out by the NASA alumni.

It turns out that in preparation of the widely covered shutdown, this group of NASA enthusiasts created a Google spreadsheet and assigned shifts of when they would post NASA updates on social media.

Since over the years they had been followers of NASA and ambassadors of the brand on various public forums, these folks knew where to look for information. Over 16 days this resulted in 15,000 posts by 4,400 users.

“We sat for 16 days and watched this go on. The news media soon noticed and started seeing that even though NASA’s communications were shut down, NASA news was going out one way or another, and it wasn’t us employees. We didn’t do a single one. That was our community taking care of us.”

Today, social media for NASA sits under public affairs.

“All NASA-related news needs to reach the widest public so social media just became a new thing under public affairs. In the past, it used to just be news media,” she said. While in the past, communication was largely one way, she explained that opening up to the world of social allowed NASA to understand what its followers and fans were struggling to comprehend about space.

Answering that, of course, led to more conversations and engagement.

“We rarely would get direct feedback in the past, but when we started getting on social media, we got a lot of direct feedback. It was fabulous because we were able to answer people’s concerns,” she said.

NASA first got onto Twitter really early in 2008. Twitter was relatively new then.

“I had a Twitter account and I started tweeting in first person as though the rover by itself was posting a tweet. As soon as I tweeted it out, I started getting responses on what I will do or how I would land,” she said.

“We weren’t looking for customers, but rather coverage. We had seen across newspapers going out of business and reporters previously covering our missions being laid off. I was getting desperate to see how we could get our news of a mission due to land on Mars out to the American public easily on mobile phones,” she said.

Today, NASA’s Twitter has 19 million followers, but it still doesn’t have an advertising budget.

“We have never ever done a sponsored post. We have never paid for media and we are not allowed to use government funds for advertising. But what we have is great stories and videos to tell the public worldwide."

Everything the brand does at NASA is in-house, including its videos. So how did NASA create such a strong following with close to no social media budget? Well, it is in NASA’s DNA to start small with close to nothing and build around it, McGregor said.

We go to space where there is very little to work with. We are known to make things happen.

But back here on earth, one way the brand does it is by actually meeting its brand enthusiasts. Since 2009, NASA has been inviting its social media followers to come to events and launches at NASA centres. It opens up 120 slots six weeks before the event depending on location, and entries come in from all over the world.

In 2009, NASA brought in more than 100 people and gave them a red-carpet experience, bringing its scientists and engineers on board and letting its fans experience what goes on behind the scenes. This was the start of its community.

Since then, there have been about 130 such events with six to seven thousand alumni members attending these events.

“These people are critical to us – they do what sometimes we couldn't do. They get the message out to their communities which we might not reach,” she said.

While it never actually goes out and actively asks celebrities to tweet about the brand, occasionally, NASA does use pop culture references in its tweets and these from time to time get picked up by celebrities.

It also reaches out to a diverse range of people from students to TV directors or producers to actors and writers to invite them to events to grow its reach.

“We also sometimes select someone with a big Twitter following,” she said.

“One such guest who was interested in an event had previously been on an MTV show and when we asked why he should be selected, he said a lot of his followers were teenage girls and we gasped. Do you know how hard it is for us to reach that audience of teenage girls?” she said.

When he tweeted to all his followers what questions to ask the NASA engineers, questions poured in.

“I have never seen so many teenage girls interested in NASA and asking questions. Many of them wanted to know how the women on the NASA team got there,” she said.

“What we have done is taken fans, followers and consumers of our photos and Facebook content or web page, and spoken to them directly. By doing so, we have made them empowered advocates and ambassadors for NASA. They go online and talk at events and spread the corporation’s popularity. Empowering your fans is, hence, crucial.”

She added that if there is a way for marketers to bring people together virtually or physically, the fans are likely to feel more a part of a community as well.

“It is amazing the magic that can happen by bringing them together. So you might not have spaceship, but your company has a fan base and they will probably think of themselves more as fans if they are in the room with like-minded people,” she said. NASA, she added, is not trying to get “customers” through social media.

What we have is a brand which is recognisable worldwide. The reaction for our brand is incredible; it is something people feel strongly and emotionally about.