In the social media galaxy, gravity doesn’t exist. At least for social media managers at the whims of algorithm changes, what’s up one day is down the next. And forget about entropy, where a social post loses its legs moments after running.
But what if we told you that there was an organization with more than 500 branded social media channels, populating those channels solely with organic content and seeing strong engagement? Impossible, you’d say. But when you have the capability to feature images that are literally out of this world, you find that the likes and the retweets are like the rockets of a space shuttle, waiting to virally blast off across the web.
No one can hear you post in space … unless you’re NASA.
NASA deputy social media manager Jason Townsend and digital engagement strategist Brittany Brown recently discussed the agency’s social media strategy, which includes traditional platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, as well as less-frequented destinations like Reddit and even SoundCloud.
Since NASA is a government agency, its social posts are all organic out of necessity, as promoting them would require use of taxpayer dollars.
Townsend said NASA leans heavily on social media management platform Sprinklr to post an average of six to eight times daily on Facebook and LinkedIn and tweet 10 to 12 times per day, except during live events—such as rocket launches, space walks and question-and-answer sessions with experts—when that figure can go as high as 25 tweets daily.
The agency also aims to post one photo or video to Instagram each day, as well as two to three Stories weekly on Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook, each with roughly six to 10 elements.
Townsend said NASA’s posts typically reach tens of millions of people daily across all of its platforms, generating tens of thousands of interactions (comments, replies, messages), as well as hundreds of thousands of likes per day.
“Everybody has that little bit of childlike wonderment in them,” he added. “If we can find that curiosity in every person out there and pull it out of them, then we can really engage with an audience that is interested in what we’re talking about.”
When asked if the U.S. Space Force, the new military branch proposed by President Donald Trump, gets any credit for NASA’s continued social momentum, Townsend said not really, adding that while there is “big conversation going on around Space Force,” and his team is monitoring it, questions on this topic are actually referred to a different government agency, the Department of Defense.
One impact the Trump administration has had on NASA’s social efforts: The president’s National Space Council has been bullish on a potential return trip to the moon, and content from the agency has shifted to reflect that.
Townsend said NASA’s social strategy is always evolving, regardless of which administration is in power. “We are blessed with incredible content,” he added. “At the end of the day, we make sure that content is seen by as many people as possible.”
Townsend and Brown oversee a team of “dozens and dozens of individuals,” tasked with creating, scheduling and posting to NASA’s 500-plus accounts and working under its digital services division.
“Our operations may be different from other government agencies,” Brown said, calling them “very integrated.”
NASA adapted to Facebook’s algorithm changes by focusing on Facebook Live for live events and expanding its use of Facebook Stories.
Its strategy is similar for Twitter when it comes to videos, and NASA also incorporates question-and-answer sessions on Facebook and chats on Twitter.
The organization’s treasure trove of visual content plays well on Instagram, and Brown said NASA uses Instagram Stories and IGTV to “tell longer, more lasting stories,” mapping out content that will be produced for those channels with an editorial calendar.
NASA recently refocused its efforts on Snapchat, consolidating everything into one account, rather than establishing separate accounts for individual missions. Brown said the organization has created more than 300 Snapchat Stories over the past couple of years, adding that the process is “similar to Instagram—build out a story arc, map out what Stories look like (storyboarding), determine how the tone will differ on Snapchat versus Instagram and look at the use of emojis and stickers.”
Townsend added that Snapchat provides a good way for NASA to connect with younger audiences and get them engaged with more STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) topics, calling it “a bit of a play to inspire the next generation of explorers.”
As for other platforms, NASA creates animated GIFs for Tumblr and uses LinkedIn to focus on stories about people.
NASA also takes advantage of Reddit’s Ask Me Anything chats, and Townsend shared an example from 2015, when a spacecraft was sent to do a flyby of Pluto, saying, “During the moment of closest flyby, the spacecraft was pointed straight at Pluto, leading to a delay in transmitting data back to Earth … Our science team answered questions about what we hope to learn, what we’d learned already, taking hundreds and hundreds of questions—it was great way to interact with people who were really kind of curious … and to showcase and highlight the knowledge and expertise NASA has.”
While NASA’s visual content thrives, the organization has found success with audio, as well. “SoundCloud is a really interesting story for us,” Townsend said. “It helps us connect with a nontraditional type of audience.”
Fare that NASA has shared on SoundCloud includes sounds of auroras around Saturn and atmospheric waves from Earth upper atmosphere, as well as “more iconic moments from history,” such as Mission Control talking to Apollo 13 and the spacecraft’s rocket engines roaring. Podcasts are part of the mix, as well.
The music community has taken notice, as Townsend said DJs and remixers have been incorporating sounds from space into their work.
Brown said NASA will continue to “identify opportunities to join conversations that are already happening. What are other folks talking about? What are our audiences interested in?” And the agency will continue to do so “in a natural, organic way, not a forced way.”