Producing content that consumers want to engage with is challenging in any universe. But for NASA 360—a TV and online broadcast program developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and strategic partner the National Institute of Aerospace —engagement is essential to NASA’s survival.
NASA 360 primarily targets young adults, 18 to 34 years old. While this demographic is one of the most plentiful—the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that there were about 73.7 million U.S. citizens in this age bracket (24% of the country’s population) in July 2012—it also knows the least about NASA, said Becky Jaramillo, senior educator for the National Institute of Aerospace, speaking at the Vocus Demand Success 2014 conference in National Harbor, Maryland. Educating this audience is vital in order to spur funding for NASA and interest in science-related careers, Jaramillo said.
To reach this target, NASA 360 launched a 30-minute broadcast on public access channels and university stations. However, the program never aired at the same time in the same location and it didn’t resonate with young audiences. As a result, NASA 360 uploaded the program to NASA’s website. Yet the site proved to be a “black hole” of information, as Jaramillo put it, and made it difficult for people to find the content. So, NASA 360 explored a new frontier and created short YouTube webisodes that would hold its audience’s attention and answer specific questions. Even that wasn’t enough.
“It still didn’t take us to that targeted audience that we wanted—that broad audience,” Jaramillo said.
But not even gravity could bring NASA 360 down. Having orbited around several other channels, NASA 360 turned to social, although it knew right from the start that it would have to do more than just post content if it wanted to attract young audiences. NASA needed to engage and converse with its target.
“Social media is just a tool,” Jaramillo said. “You have to know what to do with it.”
Here’s a countdown of NASA 360’s top 10 content marketing and social tips that can help marketers reach for the stars.
10) Ask open ended questions
Instead of asking consumers ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions, NASA 360’s team recommends posing questions that solicit more engaging responses. “What are the societal impacts research and development have on science and technology?” and “How does it shape our future?” are some of the questions NASA 360 asks on its Facebook page. The post featuring these questions received 96 comments, 924 shares, and close to 6,700 likes.
“Don’t just talk at your audience,” said Scott Bednar, NASA 360’s media manager. “Whenever possible, talk with them.”
9) Show don’t tell
Although NASA 360 could write an entire tome describing the Small Magellanic Cloud, the program instead relies on NASA’s stellar imagery to elicit emotional responses and catch people’s attention when they’re scrolling through feeds.
For those who want to learn more about “one of the Milky Way’s closest galactic neighbors,” NASA 360 also includes a brief description and link to an article in the post.
“A picture is going to stop you, and there’s a better chance a follower will check you out,” Bednar said.
8) Acknowledge what’s going on in the world
During the government shutdown, NASA 360 went silent for 17 days.
Once the shutdown ended, the program published the following Facebook post to reengage its audience and prove that it was going to pick up right where it left off.
Similarly, NASA posted tongue-in-cheek photos on Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras, and even National Pancake Day.
7) Thank your fans
It’s important for marketers to celebrate their milestones and to thank their fans for being a part of their success, Jaramillo said. So, when NASA 360 reached one million Facebook fans, it showed its appreciation by telling its fans that “we’re just over the moon for you.”
“If it wasn’t for them, you wouldn’t have those numbers,” Bednar said.
6) Be humorous
Humor is one way NASA 360 brings its complex subjects down to more comprehendible altitudes. For instance, the brand will post “Global selfies” or images of craters that resemble Cookie Monster on its social channels.
“Most of our public doesn’t care about the intense scientific content,” Jaramillo said. “We have to find a way to make it human for them.”
But moon-walking the line between funny and offensive can be tricky. This past February NASA 360 posted a meme of NASA’s rover Curiosity shooting a laser beam at a cat with the words “Curiosity killed the cat.” Although the post had close to 16,000 likes and more than 4,900 shares, NASA 360 also received some unfavorable comments, including these gems: “When did killing cats become funny?” “Not funny, cruelty” and “What’s a cat doing on Mars? (I think Mars).”
But a few negative comments didn’t disrupt NASA 360 from continuing on with its social mission.
“Failure is not an option at NASA,” Jaramillo said. “It’s a requirement.”
5) Show consistency
When Bednar and Jaramillo both came down with a case of bronchitis, NASA 360 didn’t post anything on Facebook for two days. Once they returned, it took them two weeks to get their follower count back up to the standard daily number.
“Fans are fickle,” Jaramillo said. “If you don’t give them all of the love and attention [that] they want they’re going to go find it elsewhere.”
4) Don’t annoy your followers
While it’s OK for marketers to post content multiple times a day, it’s important for companies to ensure that they don’t become associated with spam, the duo noted.
3) Don’t assume
Facebook changes its algorithms frequently, Bednar said, so it’s important for marketers to do their research and discuss how changes will affect a company’s messaging and audience.
2) Change the voice for your audience
This past April NASA announced the winners of its Exploration Design Challenge: a year-long competition that challenged students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), asking them to address the risks of radiation exposure during human space travel. The winning group of high-school students snagged the opportunity to have their experimental design built into the Orion spacecraft’s crew module and launched into space in December.
Knowing that its audience would be more interested in space exploration than the design challenge, NASA 360 posted a picture of Orion and a description of its exploration with a brief sentence about the design challenge and a link to an article about the winners underneath.
“More people opened that post from NASA 360 than from any other source,” Jaramillo said.
1) Have fun
“That’s really the most important,” Bednar said.
Science doesn’t always have to be serious. To show off its playful side, NASA 360 posted a video featuring a Ke$ha impersonator singing about astrobiology to the tune of “We R Who We R”.
“Because Ke$ha and NASA go together,” he added.