CMO Insights: Bringing Passion to NASA Social Media

Putting aside TV’s Big Bang Theory, America is not exactly into science.  We celebrate sports stars over scientists, rock ‘n rollers over researchers and movie starts over mathematicians. It shouldn’t be a surprise therefore that our teenagers rank #36 in the world in their understanding of math and science. One could link this to a broader trend towards anti-intellectualism and the dumbing down of our great nation but I’ll leave that argument to the far more erudite pundits at Psychology Today.

So then how do you explain the phenomenal success of NASA on social media? The @NASA handle alone has a combined following of over 26 million of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram with engagement rates that far exceed most celebrities. NASA also supports dozens of other social presences that engage with millions more day in and day out on specific topics. NASA has also found itself on the top ten trending topics list more than most “A” listers combined.

To find out exactly how all of this came into being, I reached out to John Yembrick, NASA’s social media director.  I was fortunate enough to have heard his truly inspiring keynote at the Social Media Shake-up in Atlanta.  John’s passion for all things NASA and social media are truly contagious and reminded me how essential this element is to the success of marketers, both as individuals and as brands.

Passion is transformative, as you will see in our interview below. Combined with talents like the ability to spot trends in the making and cleverly translate these into engaging content, passion has helped NASA become a true force in the social media landscape–and hopefully inspire a greater interest in science among the next generation.

Drew:  Your passion for space and astronomy is palpable.  Where did that come from?

John: I’ve always personally had a huge passion for space and I followed NASA closely before I ever worked for NASA. Honestly, I never understood why everyone doesn’t share my enthusiasm.  I’m not so naïve as to think that everyone will, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. I feel like if you put content in front of people and show them why it is relevant to their lives and how cool it is, they will get excited.  Yesterday I was showing someone I just met this photo of Pluto, and their eyes lit up and they were excited to learn about something that humanity has never seen before. And that happens all of the time at NASA.

Drew: How does this passion impact your ability to do your job?

John: One of the reasons why I think that our content, especially on the flagship NASA account, plays so well on social media is because both my associate Jason Townsend and I are passionate about this content and we think it matters.  If you are working on a brand and don’t care about the product, it’s very difficult to really communicate it to the best of your ability.  Mine stems from childhood, just loving space, playing with toy spaceships and looking up at the stars.  I love them.  I am one of those people who looks up at the nighttime sky wondering what I’m seeing, wondering what’s out there.  And I love the fact that NASA is helping to answer those questions.

Drew: You mentioned in your speech that the press didn’t always tell the stories NASA wanted told in the pre-social media days.  Can you elaborate on that?

John: Sure.  In the pre-social days, the press was the filter. They might care about a spacewalk, but they didn’t care about 99 percent of the other things NASA was doing. Social media changed that, although back in 2008 I was a skeptic like everyone else.  But I had a “eureka” moment when there was some downtime during a spacewalk on a space shuttle mission.  I decided to look at Twitter and to my surprise, a robust conversation was happening around my recent tweet — and I wasn’t even participating in it.  People were saying, “Oh my gosh, I can’t leave my computer, I’m on the edge of my seat, this is a coolest thing I’ve ever seen and I don’t want to go back to work.”  It was in the middle of the workday and I realized no one was responding, so I did.

And that was the moment. I just didn’t care about anything else.  I thought this was the most important thing I should be doing even though I was only interacting with a few thousand people. It just hit me that these people cared and I wanted to engage with them.  I wanted to make them happy with the content I was putting out. I thought, ”Wow, you never get this kind of enthusiasm from the news media.” And that was a really life-changing moment for me.

Drew: Do you think your passion is contagious?

John: I am passionate about the brand.  I think this brand matters more than anything else in the world and in regard to advancing humanity forward.  But I’m certainly not alone here. During the government shutdown a couple of years back we were not allowed to post anything on social media. But the great NASA social community we had built posted things while we couldn’t. That is one of things I’m most proud of.  It just shows that we nurtured these ambassadors out there and they welcomed the opportunity to support our mission.

Drew: You go out on limb quite a lot to be part of the social conversation.  Can you give me a recent example?

John:  Sure. A couple of weeks ago, it was National Donut Day and that became a trending topic on Twitter. So we took an image of a galaxy with a black hole at the center that looked kind of like a doughnut and posted it with a Happy National Doughnut Day message.  That particular tweet came up at our staff meeting and the subtext was, “That’s just John and Jason being silly.” In truth, thousands of people engaged with the wonders of the galaxy that day instead of a glazed donut.  We were part of the conversation and that has power.

Drew: You all seem to be the masters of real-time marketing, particularly with big events like the Oscars.

John:  I would say our biggest success really was with the movie Gravity at the Oscars.  It was up for a bunch of Oscars that night and we were watching it.  Throughout the whole Oscar program and especially when Gravity would win something, we would post real images from space with various relevant hashtags. These beautiful images looked like photos from the fictional movie like a spacewalk or the international space station but ours were the real thing.  Our content ended up being one of the top trending topics during the Oscars – it was a hugely successful campaign.

Drew: Some of these real-time moments also help you fulfill another mission, which is to engage young people, particularly girls, and get them interested in science.  Can you talk a bit about this?

John:  The old image of NASA is of some white guys sitting behind a table telling about the latest discoveries. This probably wasn’t the best way to captivate the younger audience and get them excited about the engineering required for space exploration. Today we have a lot of great women astronomers, engineers and astronauts at NASA, and they are real role models. Celebrating those women on social media is one way to connect with young girls.  Another is by being in the moment on social media.  For example, our Twitter interaction with Justin Bieber about his desire to do a concert in space ended up getting thousands of retweets and more importantly made the idea of space travel very relevant to this key demographic for NASA’s future.  As it happens, we also got a big uptake in young followers.

Drew: When you look at your career trajectory, can you talk about the elements that have propelled your success?

John:  I’m a little humbled by what you call career success.  But I will tell you that throughout my career, I have always been willing to try new things, I’ve relocated several times and when opportunities arose, I embraced them.  Also, I have always been willing to take chances, whether working for a space operation or at a field center, and then I jumped headfirst into social media.

At every organization I’ve been in, I’ve always asked “What’s next? What can we do better?”  And that comes with consequences in your career. There are a lot of challenges when you try to enact change within an organization. That said, I think that this quest ultimately leads to career satisfaction even when you meet resistance.  If you are passionate about it, like I am about communications and the ability of social media to transform this organization’s communication strategy, you really push hard.  In the end, I’m really proud of the things we’ve done.

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