Winning Shorty Awards In Space: 5 Questions With NASA’s Social Media Managers

5-Questions-MLYou think you have it tough when it comes to managing social media? Put yourselves in NASA’s shoes — or spacesuit — for a moment: the agency has almost 500 different social media accounts spread across multiple social networks.

Yes, 500.

I get tired just thinking about the coordination effort involved.

“If we tried to manage 500 social media accounts, we’d fail,” says John Yembrick, NASA’s Social Media Manager. “So, rather than do everything from one hub, many of those accounts are managed from NASA’s 10 field centers. And each one works with the scientists, engineers and others that are hands-on with the different projects and programs that are happening at any given moment.”

“The beauty of our decentralized model is that you have subject matter experts who oversee many of our accounts,” says NASA’s Deputy Social Media Manager Jason Townsend. “Social media isn’t their full-time job — it’s maybe five percent or 10 percent of their job and they are scientists, engineers, technicians and others who are full members of the mission team. This lends itself to people who are in the middle of it being able to authentically share the mission and get accurate answers to mentions on many of the social media accounts.”

It’s obviously working. Just last week, NASA’s official Twitter account, @NASA, picked up its second straight Shorty Award for best government use of social media. And NASA’s @MarsCuriosity account won a Shorty Award as Foursquare Mayor of the Year. (The rover has been checking in as it explores the Martian surface.)

That’s a total of five Shorty Awards for NASA in the five years since the awards were launched — more than enough to get our attention here on Marketing Land!

As part of our ongoing “5 Questions With” series, we traded questions recently with John Yembrick and Jason Townsend about how NASA uses social media and why the agency has been so successful. (John is on the left in the image below; Jason on the right.) And, with so much to talk about, our conversation quickly went beyond just five questions and answers.

5 Questions With NASA’s Social Media Team

Matt McGee: How would you describe NASA’s mission when it comes to social media?

nasa-social-managers-300pxJohn Yembrick: For NASA, the real value of social media is making us think differently on how we do our jobs. There are still people who think communications is press releases and media inquiries, but the world has evolved. We have all these avenues through which to deliver our messages.

Before, a lot of the content we were producing, such as great programming on NASA TV, photos on the web, blogs, web features, etc., just sat there in a vacuum. Those who wanted it could find it, but social media provides a means for us to distribute that content to the public directly and reach people who may not otherwise have seen it. It’s also a way that creates a two-way communication with people to get direct and, often, immediate feedback on an activity.

I’m a career public affairs officer, and what I most like about our strategy is that we consider and treat social media AS media and believe they play an important role in helping to amplify our story. We try and incorporate social media into every news activity we do, from using the #askNASA hashtag during news conferences to inviting users on social media out to an in event in person. We were the first — or at least as far as I can tell — to actually provide the same accreditation and access to select social media users as we do to traditional news media.

I think we have the best content. NASA is making amazing advances in technology and helping us better understand our place in the universe. The work of the agency relates to everyone on the planet. Our challenge is making people aware of what we’re doing and explaining how it relates to their lives.

What’s the biggest challenge in managing so many accounts across different social networks?

John: It’s our job to try and leverage the best content out there across the agency. NASA’s huge, and there’s a mind blowing amount of cool science, technology and discovery happening every day. Our biggest challenge still is finding that content and highlighting it on our flagship accounts. It’s embarrassing when a new photo is released, and we’re two hours behind putting it out on @NASA. There’s definitely room for improvement.

Jason Townsend: Additionally, we work for the government — often touted as the home of the 9-to-5 work schedule. But social media is 24/7 and doesn’t stop. So we rely on all the members of the NASA social media team being engaged and aware of what’s going on with their accounts all the time.

We strive to ensure that mission events — be it middle of the night, middle of the weekend, or on a holiday — are fully covered. We ensure that when NASA is conducting mission operations, we are sharing it every step of the way on social media. This adds to the feeling many members of our community have told us that they feel “embedded” in NASA by following many of our social media accounts.

The agency has obviously bought into social media very heavily. Was it a tough sell in the beginning?

John: It’s important to note that NASA was using social media before other agencies and most private companies saw the value. Although there are still people who don’t “get it,” we’ve been very fortunate to have strong support from agency leadership. The heads of NASA communications from the very beginning recognized social media as a great tool to help tell NASA’s story. And now from the mission directorates to the NASA administrator himself, everyone is very supportive of what we’re trying to do. They see the value. We work in an environment where people want to use technology in a positive way.

How much do you customize your efforts for different social channels — i.e., do you find certain things work better on different channels?

John: Yes, we’re constantly thinking about how to frame content for certain audiences on various channels and platforms. Also, we send a lot smaller notes and reminders about events and activities on Twitter. We also post operation activity real-time on Twitter much more often than other platforms. We post the same content on the other platforms, but we compose our messages differently. They’re different audiences and different tools. It just makes sense to customize your content. Otherwise, it’ll come across as stale and boring.

The @MarsCuriosity rover, for example, tweets out in the first person, which works great for an anthropomorphism rover, but that kind of tone and personality won’t work on other channels.


Jason: Additionally, we try to successfully use the strengths of each platform to our advantage. While we could hold a TweetChat to answer questions from the public, we would have to manually archive it elsewhere to retain a useful record of the questions and their associated answers. But we could answer social media questions via a Google+ Hangout On Air instead. That way it’s automatically archived into a sharable YouTube video. But the audiences of each platform are different — so conducting TweetChats still has a lot of value to reaching our Twitter audience and we want to make sure we are reaching both audiences.

How do you measure the success of your social media efforts? Are there certain metrics you focus on?

Jason: In a nutshell, we track our overall account growth, along with the quantity of mentions to capture the volume of the digital word of mouth of people discussing NASA online and see the growth in the online conversation surrounding NASA.

Another metric we capture are engaged users in order to see the number of people who are producing these mentions.  We also measure the reach of certain campaigns and the subsequent impact it has in the online conversation — such as a NASA Social or a major mission event — and capture the exposure our information has online through views of our posts in peoples timelines, the reach of retweets, and the number of friends of friends. We do this through tracking the use of certain keywords or hashtags. While none of these numbers are perfect, they allow us to establish some comparison metrics for what is working and what needs improvement.

Which social network has been the biggest success for NASA, and which one has been least successful so far?

John: Tough to say, and we’re still embracing new networks. I will say that we’re proud of the work we’ve done to build a strong community on social media, and Twitter certainly helped us get started. We began doing Tweetups, in-person NASA events that provide behind the scenes access where guests tweet out what they saw and learning to their followers. So, space tweeps would go to a NASA Tweetup and learn about a mission, but then they continued to tweet updates and join other like-minded people on Twitter sharing NASA news. It’s powerful.

We’ve evolved, though, and NASA Tweetups are now NASA Socials, where we invite users from other platforms to participate. We don’t want to limit ourselves or the audience we’re trying to reach. The community continues to grow.

Jason: Ironically, one of the bigger recent successes that we’ve had is on Google+. When we compare notes with a lot of other social media managers, they are surprised that we’ve had success there. Google+ originally had a very tech-savvy, early-adopter audience on it. That is an audience that really wants to hear from NASA and we’ve had good success on Google+ as a result. We’ve had great success hosting NASA events as Hangouts. In fact, we did our first one live with astronauts on the space station last month.

One of our least successful efforts really has to do with ourselves and our internal jargon — not the social networks. We have had to learn to communicate our information in ways that resonate with our audiences. While we call it an “extra vehicular activity,” or EVA, everyone else will know it as a spacewalk. We love seeing how people modify our content when sharing it online. Social media has become a great instant feedback mechanism in how we can fold those improvements into our content and be even more successful on social media.

The Shorty Awards are a nice badge of honor for what you guys are doing. Do you ever try to make other government agencies’ social media teams jealous? :-)

Jason: I wouldn’t say jealous. Each agency has a unique role to play within the government. Our jobs here at NASA are definitely easier given the amazing raw content we have to work with. We often work with partner agencies on joint releases of data, research, and more. Each time we do so, it’s amazing to see some of the ways other agencies handle social media. We learn new best practices from them and they from us. There is a really great community of social media managers from all the federal agencies. We all have unique challenges to working in social media for the government and we all find collective ways to cut through some of the obstacles together. Within this community, we are a leader and are often asked to share tips and lessons learned from our social media efforts here at NASA. We enjoy sharing what we’ve learned since it can help other agencies succeed on social media and really shorten the learning curve to being more successful.

John: NASA has been fortunate to be selected by a number of pools and surveys as a recognized leader in social media. There’s value in that recognition, especially in countering some critics who say we’re not good at telling our own story. The Shorty Awards and survey results are valuable tools. We need to stay hungry, though. It’s our job to keep looking ahead and seeing what’s out there. Wherever people are getting their information, NASA wants to be there.

More From The “5 Questions With” Series:

Related Topics: Channel: Social Media Marketing | Features & Analysis | Features: 5 Questions With | Interviews | Social Media Marketing | Top News


About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Marketing Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

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  • Takeshi Young

    Great interview, it’s amazing the amount of effort NASA puts into social media!

  • Matt McGee

    Thanks Takeshi – it was fun to chat with them over a few emails.

  • RavenCourtney

    Loved this, Matt! Thanks for an inside look at a great social media presence.

  • Matt McGee

    Thx Courtney – they were fun to chat with, even over email. :-)

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