How do you brand outer space? That’s essentially the question NASA found itself asking several years ago. The agency had just shut down the shuttle program, and was looking at a future far different from its past. The public view of NASA had veered into nostalgia. The agency was a relic, associated with Kennedy and the Cold War, forever tied to the Apollo program. It didn’t matter that NASA was still doing incredible work, exploring, documenting, inventing. Like many organizations, NASA’s problem was not one of performance, but one of perception.
Enter John Yembrick, NASA’s social media manager since 2012. While NASA had its standard social media accounts, there was no emotional connection for followers. The agency needed the type of elevating online presence that plays such a critical role in success for so many of today’s businesses. It was Yembrick’s job to change this, and he faced a difficult task: appeal beyond the traditional horn-rimmed glasses segment, without a major rebranding or the introduction of a shiny new product, and do it all with a budget of zero dollars.
That lack of budget forced Yembrick’s hand. Like the astronauts of Apollo 13, he’d have to make do only with what he had, and fit a square peg into a round hole. The simplest solution was increasing social presence across the board. Individual spacecraft, astronauts and even jet propulsion laboratories all got their own accounts for Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Yembrick put in a place a program that now has more than 500 accounts across all social media platforms.
In a way, Yembrick did, in fact, have an almost limitless supply of shiny new products. NASA documents everything it does, leaving a plethora of images in its wake. These images would do exactly what Yembrick needed them to do: tell a story. Photography (and grainy, scattershot video) documenting the Mars Curiosity Rover’s approach and subsequent landing on the Red Planet turned the craft into a must-follow sensation. We learned about the rover’s status, after the much-feared descent, as it (@MarsCuriosity) tweeted, from 249 million miles away, “I’m safely on the surface of Mars.” This was real-time coverage of an unprecedented event. It was as if NASA had invited us all to be in Mission Control.
When Yembrick ascended to his current position, NASA’s social media approach was about what you’d expect. “We were doing a lot of generated tweets,” Yembrick told the Chicago Tribune, in an interview earlier this month. “It wasn’t connecting.” To appeal beyond that space nerd segment, a massive shift in strategy was needed. NASA had to be portrayed not as just another staid, acronymed government organization, but as a group of individuals, all working in a shared spirit toward the same goals. There was a human side behind the science. For every spacecraft that went up, there were thousands of people working tirelessly on the ground to make it possible. That was the part of NASA that needed to be captured, and publicized. “If you read our posts now,” Yembrick said, “we try to use humor, we try to use inspirational language—there’s human beings behind each and every post.”
Inspiration is to be expected (NASA is, after all, quite literally shooting for the stars), but humor is another thing entirely. The smart-aleck tone taken on by many of NASA’s accounts has resonated with audiences far more than Yembrick or anyone else could have imagined. Perhaps it’s enjoyable to think of bespectacled, bow-tied physicists finally letting their hair down, or maybe there’s just something inherently funny about a witty, engaged rover rolling its way across Mars, taking selfies and making quips about “Hamilton” and Taylor Swift.
Crucially, though, it’s not just entertainment that NASA offers up. For every pop culture reference that Curiosity makes, there is a relay of sediment data, a breakdown of, say, the silica-rich rocks Curiosity happened upon, or an explanation of what happened to Mars’ once abundant atmosphere. One part selfies, one part entertainment and one part education have turned Curiosity into one of the more illuminating, informative and all around entertaining accounts on Twitter. And it shows: Curiosity has three million followers on Twitter, roughly equal to the entire population of Jamaica.
It’s those followers (more than 30 million across all accounts) that really matter to Yembrick. The system NASA has set up—of unique, high-quality posts—becomes self-regenerating. Space geeks become brand ambassadors, turning casual fans, sometimes, into space geeks themselves, and, eventually, into a whole new set of brand ambassadors. Yembrick believes that this cycle of sharing is the most crucial part of NASA’s social media presence. NASA may spread the initial story (for instance, a snapshot of Pluto), but that story becomes much more powerful when shared by fans (49,000 retweets, all in various states of awe, which inspires awe across millions more). Through the perfect execution of a well-thought-out social media strategy, NASA has become much more than an organization. It has become a brand.