What Healthcare Can Learn from NASA's Social Strategy
By Nancy Meyer
Developing a successful social media strategy isn’t rocket science, but some lessons learned from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) illustrate it just takes some thought and planning.
JPL leads the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission, which dropped the 1-ton Curiosity rover on the Red Planet’s surface Aug. 5. It’s an institution of 5,000 people studying theories and science often too complicated to pronounce, making it all the more impressive that its inventive social media team managed to explode the Internet, building 1.1 million Twitter followers for the mission. More than 4.5 million viewers tuned in to the Curiosity livestream (which took place after 1 a.m. on the East Coast). And 17 million people shared JPL’s content during the Mars landing week.
How does one gather such a following?
As NASA’s social media specialist, Stephanie Smith regularly holds conversations with the public and the media about NASA’s 20 current missions on Facebook, Twitter, UStreamTV, YouTube and Google+. Photos are posted to Flickr, blogs are updated, and apps bring the content to mobile users.
But the outlets are perhaps less important than the messages that get transmitted. Smith explains in plain English what’s new in space, science and engineering and why it matters. In fact it’s that explanatory approach that makes it work so well. More than 50 percent of the posts Smith and her team make are @ replies: answering questions, dispelling myths, and engaging with people. It’s all about engagement, she explained in a recent presentation.
She’s also crafted a personality for NASA’s brands: each spacecraft gets its own Twitter handle and Facebook presence to make it more approachable. When Curiosity was born, it was given the @MarsCuriosity Twitter handle so it could give first-hand accounts of its progress leading up to the launch and landing. Language is simple, direct, straight-forward and honest.
But social media is in a way a follower: all news gets released on JPL’s website first after going through the requisite approvals. Smith relates that a Science.com reporter had missed an important news release, but saw it on Twitter. “It was the tweet that saved my career,” the reporter told Smith afterwards.
Behind social media, an organization needs a steady stream of content. It’s not necessary to have a major event like a Mars landing: everyday people benefitting from science, researchers making discoveries, products helping people — sometimes the best stories are told from the seemingly mundane. It’s the social media team’s job to call attention to it, explain it, answer questions and foster engagement. The social team serves as “carnival barkers,” Smith said: “the science and engineering are under the tent.”
Understanding the science and preparing to engage are essential. Along with media relations manager Veronica McGregor, Smith hosted two to three hours of live moderated discussions with scientists each week for months leading up to the Mars landing, to educate herself, her team, the media and the growing audience, on all aspects of the mission. For months, the team knew Curiosity, if successful, would tweet: “I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!” #MSL (Had the mission failed and Curiosity met its demise, there would be silence and the account would never tweet again.)
Engaging with the media is another key component to a successful strategy. McGregor was able to overcome the media’s reluctance to cover space flight by networking with editors, educating them, and forming a community online.
McGregor illustrated the power of sharing via social media: JPL’s “Seven Minutes of Terror” video that chronicles the dangers of the mission — the seven minutes that it takes to get from the top of the atmosphere to reach the surface (and the 14 minutes it takes for the signal to reach Mission Control once the rover has landed) — was produced for $11,000, posted to YouTube and shared via all the social channels. It went viral. That clip was viewed more than 5 million times. By contrast, in 2008, a similar JPL video, also “Seven Minutes of Terror,” about the Phoenix mission to search the Mars polar region, garnered fewer than 61,000 views.
“People take what they like and share it: Our fans become ambassadors,” McGregor said.
Like healthcare, JPL must navigate extremely complex and restrictive regulations. Spacecraft is included under such federal regulations as ITAR, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations that prevents blueprints from being revealed. It took months to get approval to livestream from the Pasadena, Calif. headquarters. Every tweet must be fact-checked and approved. But in the end, it’s worth it, Smith and McGregor said. The proof is in the audience, which is fully engaged. JPL scientists and engineers’ Ask Me Anything (AMA) live session on Reddit was the third most popular ever, until Barack Obama bumped it down to fourth.