Hans Lippershey put two pieces of glass in a tube and changed the world.
In 1608, Lippershey was the first to file a patent for a device he created “for seeing things far away as if they were nearby.” His device was simple—a concave lens on one end of a tube, a convex lens at the other. He had created the refracting telescope.
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It wasn’t until a year later when Galileo Galilei turned it skyward that the telescope became a tool for scientific observation. When Galileo looked through the eyepiece on his telescope, he saw things that no human before him could have imagined—the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, the rings of Saturn.
But if he had taken one look at NASA’s Instagram account, poor old Galileo might not have been able to handle what he saw.
NASA is a bit of an enigma when it comes to brands on social media—a government agency isn’t the first example most think of when asked about successful social media efforts. But NASA isn’t just good at social media, they’re veritable stars.
NASA’s Instagram account? It outranks all but one member of One Direction—and even Harry Styles only has them beat by six spots.
And Twitter? They’ve got Donald Trump beat by over 2 million followers. Big League.
The key to that success isn’t a hack, a magic formula, or a phony effort to hijack memes. NASA shares out-of-this-world content with an audience that they speak to intelligently, while working towards a goal that aligns with the actual reason people use social media.
NASA is beating big brands on social because they understand something that big brands don’t: it’s not about you.
Humankind has always had a special fascination with the stars, and a longing to explore. Every child at some point dreams of being an astronaut, and for decades our country was transfixed by every new shuttle launch. We’re a country and people who have always been infatuated by the galaxy. NASA brings that straight to our pockets.
Heading this social media brilliance is a lifelong space geek who, after over a decade working in the federal government, enthusiastically took a title downgrade just so he could guide this critical mission.
But being at the helm of that ship takes vision and guts. After all, when you’re the agency exploring the outer reaches of the known universe, people expect you to be innovative—even on Instagram.
“You have to be hungry for what’s next. You don’t want NASA to be three years behind the curve.”
Making NASA More Relevant Than Ever
John Yembrick has been a bit of a space nerd his entire life. When an opportunity opened up in NASA’s public affairs office, it seemed like a perfect match. Yembrick spent the first nine years of his career working in marketing and communications for federal agencies—first the Treasury, then the Department of Justice. He joined the team at NASA in 2007, working his way up to the Director of Strategic Communications position in 2011.
But a year into that job, an important opportunity came along and he decided to make a change. He left his Director title behind, and took up the role of Social Media Manager.
“I honestly believe that social media at NASA is the most important thing we’re doing in communications by far,” he says. “It’s making NASA more relevant than it ever has been before.”
NASA started getting serious about their social media strategy in 2009, around the time Twitter was gaining mainstream appeal and a year before Instagram launched. The potential was there—NASA sits on a trove of beautiful images, video, and points-of-views that no one else on our home planet can offer. But initial efforts proved challenging.
“I see us as a news organization, taking content and feeding it out to the public,” says Yembrick. “A lot of people at NASA were hired to spoon-feed information to the news media, and it’s a very different skill set.”
Rather than write press releases and work their media contacts, Yembrick had to convince NASA’s communications team to create their own content—content that could be easily understood and consumed by the public. A 45-minute unedited video of a press conference wasn’t going to cut it—they needed to think and act like their own well-oiled and agile press corp.
“Our job is to take the complex and make it simple, without dumbing it down,” he explains. “If you look at any sort of mainstream article, or newspaper, or television report, they do the same thing. We’re like our own mini news organization.”
Here, Yembrick hits on an important point—NASA isn’t trying to dumb down their content or insult the intelligence of their audience. If anything, NASA’s social media success is evidence that the public has an appetite for intelligent content, despite dire warnings from marketing gurus stating otherwise. But that doesn’t mean unfiltered screeds from astrophysicists make for good tweets.
“I read things through the prism that people don’t understand anything about NASA,” says Yembrick. “On social media, an uber space geek may see a post of ours and share it with their friends and followers who aren’t connected with us.”
Still, you won’t see NASA falling for the gimmicks that plague most brand accounts—awkward Millennial pandering, contrived banter, or strained newsjacking. They’ll make the occasional pop-culture reference—once in a blue moon—just enough to remind you of the intelligent life that exists on the other side of the keyboard.
As a government agency, NASA certainly has limitations that other brands don’t have to deal with but they also have one massive advantage: a point-of-view that no one on Earth can match.
You don’t build massive followings on multiple social media accounts unless you’ve got some stellar content to share, and NASA has no shortage of incredible images to share with their audience.
“There’s nothing more gratifying than having good content to work with,” says Yembrick. “At NASA, we have the greatest content on the planet.”
It’s not much of an exaggeration. NASA owns the most powerful cameras on the planet, and uses them to look deep into the cosmos and shares that view with followers—no filters required.
Don’t sell it short either: space is a topic that has broad appeal. The images splashed across NASA’s Instagram account look into our very past, peeling away the mysteries of life. Who among us hasn’t looked at the night sky and felt overwhelmed by the unfathomable size of the universe? For our entire history as a species, we’ve dreamed about the expanse over our heads.
“A lot of the time, NASA seems like something for science geeks,” says Yembrick. “But really, it’s something that everybody can connect with, if it’s presented the right way. We’re helping to answer the fundamental questions we’ve been asking since the dawn of humanity.”
In some ways, the hunger for space and science content on NASA’s feed should encourage those brand content creators frustrated by the push to create low-quality, “snackable” content, optimized for search engines and mindless social sharing. It points to a real market for intelligent, thoughtful work—so called “5% pieces.”
That’s a real struggle for brands, who often focus their social messages on their own products or attempt to force organic interactions with branded hashtags. “I don’t follow many brands, personally,” Yembrick admits. “I don’t think they communicate well—they talk about their products a lot and they don’t try to connect with people in a personal way, and that’s why people are on social media.”
Social media strategy at brands is often guided by a need to display direct ROI, be that through sales or brand awareness. But NASA doesn’t have to be shackled by such restrictions. They have no product for sale. Rather, their strategy can be guided by the organization’s overall vision: to “reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind.”
A strategy guided by that vision aligns perfectly with the motivations of social media users. It’s a liberating thing—rather than restricting themselves to the box of their own brand, NASA can simply do what they’ve always done: shoot for the cosmos and educate the public about outer space.
For Yembrick, the public’s thirst for space content comes as no surprise. “I feel like we’re doing something wrong if we put it out there and people don’t connect with it,” he says. “But if you’re on Instagram and you don’t follow NASA… I want to know why! Who doesn’t want to see those awesome images on their Instagram feed everyday?”
It’s hard to argue with the results. NASA’s has parlayed their huge social presence into in-person events that bring their fans face-to-face with astronauts and space facilities—an upcoming event in Houston, timed with the Super Bowl, will allow fans a behind-the-scenes look at mission control.
Hollywood seems to have taken a liking to space-related films, with the industry set to produce more space movies this decade than in any previous (nearly double the amount produced in the 90s). Yembrick sees the fingerprints of NASA’s social media strategy in that. “I can’t help but think the relevancy of NASA today is because of all the things we’ve done in digital and social media.”
(Source: Wikipedia data. Data for most recent decade projected based on current pace)
That relevance matters, not just for NASA and their mission, but towards the greater pursuit of knowledge as a species. Humans have always been explorers, a spirit that NASA keeps alive today. But even in the days of Magellan, the public craved reports from explorers trekking beyond the boundaries of the map. It instills in us a sense of wonder, and inspires the next generation of pathfinders.
“I want to look back on my career here at NASA and say that I made a difference in people knowing more about space,” says Yembrick.
The technologic progress that allows NASA to deliver these types of insights to our phones is nothing short of miraculous. Light from galaxies of unfathomable size travels for millions of years, is scooped up by the Hubble Telescope, made into an image, beamed to Earth, and blasted out to millions of phones across the world, where we can casually flip through them as we pass the time in a waiting room, firmly tied to the ground by gravity.
But as we scroll past the images of everyday life here on Earth, perhaps we’ll pause for a moment on that picture of the planet, as seen from orbit, and feel that twinge of adventure that reminds us of who we are.