Government organizations aren't often known for good social media strategy, but NASA is one of the few that is often mentioned (and in attendance) at social media events. The aerospace organization doesn't have consumer facing products, but NASA has done an excellent job using social media to engage with people and teach them about America's space programs.
I caught up with Stephanie Schierholz, the organization's social media manager, to talk about NASA's digital outreach — and how NASA is encouraging more kids to dream about becoming astronauts again.
How does NASA approach digital?
NASA's not a very centralized organization, so there are people who are working on digital across the agency. At NASA headquarters, the NASA web team is relatively small — about six people. But we have ten centers and there are people at each center who work on the web. But there are also people within projects, so it's not just constrained to the office of communications. There are outreach personnel within various NASA projects and programs who also have the ability to build web pages. If you look around on NASA.gov, there’s a wide variety of page owners. If we were in our current configuration and tried to centralize it, we would have more work than we would have staff.
Why does NASA need to communicate to consumers?
Originally, NASA was charged with communicating its activities to the widest audience possible. We take that mission very seriously in the office of communications and do our best to make information about what NASA is doing as widely available as possible. We're always looking for new tools with which to do that and new mediums to use, and new ways to get the word out and, and let people know what their nation's space agency is doing. You know we are tax payer funded, so it is in our interest that the tax payers have access to knowing what we're doing.
NASA earned a lot of attention on Twitter with the Mars Rover feed. How did that get started?
That was run out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is in Pasadena, California, by somebody named Veronica McGregor who is one of our communications officers out there. She started this and it was hugely popular. It was in the really early days of Twitter. It wasn’t exactly easy to gain a big following, but at the time, it was the third most followed Twitter account, with about 75,000 followers.
That’s different than today, where Mike Massimino, our astronaut with the largest number of followers, has about 1.3 million. As of course as we all know, feeds like Ashton Kutcher's and CNN now have about 5 million or so?
How does it work at NASA now? If someone has a good idea for digital, they just run with it?
Well, yes and no. With social media, we have taken that approach because, especially in the early days, we weren't quite sure how NASA could use it effectively and so we let people sort of experiment with it and see what worked for them. NASA is also too big and too spread out and decentralized to be too ironed fisted about it. But the fabulous thing about social media is the enthusiasm that people have for it and we don't want to squelch people's enthusiasm.
What’s the breakdown of NASA's social presence now?
You'll see all of our social media accounts are on NASA.gov/connect and on that page we have about 90 Twitter accounts across the agency.
The @NASA account is our primary NASA Twitter account and it is operated out of the office of communications at headquarters. Then NASA centers operate their own, usually out of the office of communications. But when you get down to the project and program level then it's usually somebody on that project or on that program who is running the Twitter feed because they are most connected to the information and what's actually happening.
How about astronaut Twitter feeds? How did those get started?
That was actually something that originated in the office of communications and was a strategic effort to connect people. We asked Mike Massimino if he would be willing to be our guinea pig and be the first astronaut to tweet. He took us up on the offer, and he was also on a very high profile mission, which was the Hubble repair mission, which had a lot interest beyond the niche shuttle station crowd. But Hubble draws a lot of interest from the scientific community as well. And so he Tweeted during the mission, and was the first astronaut to post a tweet from space.
We now have about 19 astronauts who use Twitter. And we make a concerted effort to get one astronaut on every mission to tweet for us. We haven't always been successful, but that's sort of the goal. It's also great to have somebody who's on the space station for one of the expedition missions always tweeting, so we've had pretty good coverage from that end.
What kind of feedback are you seeing?
It's been incredibly positive. We've gotten really overwhelmingly good response to the use of it. When we started actively using the @NASA Twitter account in January or so of 2009, we had about 1000 followers, and now we are gaining 10,000 followers a week or more. I think we just passed 450,000 followers on that account.
I saw that PETA is currently on NASA's case for its treatment of monkeys. How do you deal with negative feedback?
If it's negative feedback that is incorrect information or based on factual errors, then we will make an effort to correct the factual error. But like all aspects of life, sometimes it's just not worth engaging with somebody who's just out to be negative. And in those cases we just won't respond. We try to be very, very responsive on our Twitter account and engage with people and answer their questions, but obviously if they're just out to attack us then we let it go. But I would say that's a relatively small part of what we see as far as the mentions on that NASA account and on Facebook. We generally do not delete comments unless they contain racist or offensive language or are irrelevant to the topic.
Are there other digital efforts you've made that people may not be aware of?
We have a YouTube channel and we also have NASA TV, and a lot of people don't realize that they can watch NASA TV online.
During a mission is my favorite time to watch NASA TV because you can watch the space walks live as they're completing them in orbit, with views from helmet cameras that are on the astronauts outside the space station. It's pretty incredible.
You can also watch the launches and other NASA activities that are going on across the agency. There is actually a link on NASA.gov/station which is a live camera from the space station, which people can stream on their computer any time they want, live space station video.
How about offline activities?
We've been hosting NASA Tweetups, which have been really successful and very fun for us and I think for the people who come to them. We've now held 12 NASA Tweetups and we're getting ready to announce the next one. With those, we give people who follow us on Twitter the opportunity to come to an agency center and interact with agency personnel and get a behind the scenes view of what the agency's doing.
They range from two hour events at NASA headquarters to two day launch events. We held two Tweetups at space shuttle launches and give people the opportunity to come down and participate in the launch and be at the press site during launch and get a tour of Kennedy Space Center and head out to the launch pad, get an up close view, those sorts of things. That's been really good for the agency and for us at the office of communications. The enthusiasm of the people who attend is just amazing. And we've had incredible response to it. For the last launch Tweetup we had more than 1,000 people register online for 150 spots. And people came from all over the country and all over the world. We had somebody come from New Zealand to the first launch Tweetup. He estimated he spent $3,000 of his own money to come.
Does this all help with recruitment?
It is a goal. NASA has a strong education component. We have a whole division that does education activities for all age groups. We have the museum alliance, so we coordinate with museums to give them information. But we have a strong emphasis on science, technology, and engineering, especially for middle schoolers. Getting people interested in what we do inspires them to do better to take classes that they might not otherwise take.
Interesting. I feel like there are fewer little kids aspiring to be astronauts these days. Are you trying to change that?
We want kids to get into what we call the stem pipe line of education. We want to capture their interest as middle schoolers so that they continue taking science and math classes throughout high school. And into college, which is seeding the next work force for NASA. Which is a very real issue. I think the latest thing I heard is that about 25% of our employees are eligible for retirement right now.
Do you see social media as an educational tool in that way?
Yeah it helps us connect and I think when people feel connected then they feel like "I could actually do that." People tend to have a very strong enthusiasm for NASA, but a very shallow understanding of the depth and breadth of what we do. Engaging them in social media and getting a chance to answer people's questions and give them behind the scenes opportunities at NASA centers at Tweetups, is a way to show them what's actually going on here.
All of these things are ways that people feel like they can actually engage rather than feeling like it's so out of reach to think about working at NASA some day.
You know some people don't know that they can visit NASA centers. We have visitor centers at almost every NASA location. So just alerting people to the opportunities that they do have is big for us. Or showing them the vast amount of resources that we have online for teachers and students at NASA.gov/education. And there's the email address that they can sign up for to get an email about every educational opportunity that we offer. That is a great way to continue to spread the information about the opportunities that already exist at NASA to engage.
Are there any interesting new things you're working on?
A cool new tool that we introduced just recently is buzzroom.NASA.gov which tracks tweets, pictures and videos that employ the NASA hash tag. And so that's a good way that people can be a part of the conversation even if they're not on Twitter.
They can access that, they can see what the conversation is and they can even contribute to the conversation through that page without having a Twitter account. It's really good for educators who might not have access to social media sites at their schools. We've had several teachers who want to bring their classroom along for launches and other events and because it's a .gov web site, they can access it in their classroom.