How NASA, ESA, and SpaceX Use Top Channels
Social media gives any organization an opportunity to reach more diverse audiences than ever before. Organizations and brands which once labored in relative obscurity now have a conduit through which to engage with customers or other types of stakeholders on a national and international level. That’s a playing field once reserved for cash-rich entities that could afford expensive television advertising. But what about non-corporate entities like government agencies? They have a need to connect with their key stakeholders (taxpayers) just as much as a corporation needs to connect with consumers.
Government agencies need to explain and promote the value of their efforts to taxpayers. They’re in a constant fight for government tax dollars as surely as corporations are in competition for consumer dollars. An all-star social media user within the U.S. government is NASA. Let’s take a look at how they use social to their best advantage and contrast their efforts with two of their closest counterparts: the European Space Agency (ESA) and Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX.
NASA has an enormous portfolio of programs ranging from Earth observation satellites to the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station, the future manned Orion spacecraft, probes to Mars, other planets, and beyond. Their portfolio so diverse that they’re challenged to adequately inform the American public of all that it’s doing and the results of those programs. Social media makes that public education mission more manageable.
Some large organizations struggle to find engaging content. They find it difficult to find a compelling tone for their brand, one that will resonate with an audience and get them to click the “subscribe”, “follow”, or “retweet” button. NASA doesn’t have this problem. Their subject matter is deeply compelling to most people. We’re generally fascinated with the idea of space and space travel. It’s well known that posts which contain photos have a much better engagement rate with readers than those that are based on text alone. NASA has a rich trove of material to call on in this realm, including both static images, and videos.One need only look at the high follower numbers and the attendant “likes” to see that NASA has been extremely successful in generating and maintaining social media buzz. The programs practically sell themselves.
A Social Media Giant
NASA has a tremendous following with 17 million Facebook followers, 19 million Twitter followers, and 16 million followers on Instagram. A five-day social listening period I conducted in September 2016 shows that NASA is highly organized and rigorous about how it handles this social media presence. They make full use of every type of content available--including photos, short videos, Vine loops, and animated GIFs--and they vary the mix so that it never gets stale. They post every day, across multiple platforms, and maintain discipline in the uniformity of posts. Almost everything they tweet is also posted to Facebook. And from the compelling photos posted to those two platforms, one photo is selected for posting to Instagram. Everything is kept completely consistent and on-message. And the message is this: NASA manages many exciting programs dedicated to expanding human knowledge, both on earth and in space. The work we do is important and exciting.
European Space Agency
There really is no perfect analog to NASA anywhere in the world but the closest is probably the European Space Agency or ESA. ESA’s website states that it “does what individual European nations cannot do on their own. Working in this way gives a framework for national programs, and allows integration of the best of national approaches into one joint European approach.”
ESA has the same broad mission as NASA: to explore space, but they have a substantially smaller social media footprint with 689,000 Facebook followers, 614,000 Twitter followers, and 210,000 followers on Instagram. That’s about 1,000 times fewer followers than NASA has on each of those platforms.
As a typical post count, they made ten Facebook posts on October 1, 2016, seven Instagram posts, and four Twitter posts (two of which were retweets from other organizations). Their total post count might be a bit higher than usual this week since they had a lot of content to share related to the end of the Rosetta comet rendezvous mission in which the Rosetta probe was deliberately crashed into the surface of Comet 67P-CG. A noteworthy Facebook post was a re-post of a LinkedIn blog entry called “Life Lessons from a Comet” made by someone unaffiliated with the ESA but who was personally inspired by the Rosetta mission. This is the kind of third-party endorsement that any organization would be happy to publicize.
In general, the ESA is following all of the prescribed best practices for social media: they’re posting regularly, they’re using a combination of attractive still images, videos, and in the case of the Rosetta mission, even some playful cartoons in which the probe is represented as an anthropomorphic character, something that makes the subject matter more approachable. Their tweets almost always include high-quality photographs with appropriate hashtags for easy searching and success analytics.
As with NASA, ESA isn’t selling a product that can be bought, so they don’t have calls to action that involve purchasing. However, they are selling the importance of their work. Their calls to action are usually invitations to watch upcoming live streaming events or social media follow-alongs. In this regard, they do a fine job of making these calls obvious and prominent. There’s very little that I would recommend in the way of improvement for ESA’s social media program.
SpaceX designs, manufactures, and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets. As a company that manufactures hardware, it’s different from NASA or the ESA. It actually is selling a product in the form of rockets that launch satellites and re-supply the International Space Station under contract with NASA. But under the leadership of Elon Musk, it’s also selling the idea of human spaceflights to Mars.
While less popular than NASA, SpaceX has garnered many times the social media followers of the entire European Space Agency. SpaceX boasts 1.6 million Facebook followers, 2.2 million Twitter followers, and 687,000 followers on Instagram. But unlike NASA or the ESA, their content output is sporadic and inconsistent. Only eight posts were made to Facebook in the entire month of September 2016. Unfortunately, several of these were devoted to the recent pad explosion of one of the company’s Falcon rockets. However, they rebounded at the end of the month with Musk’s press conference on his vision for the future of the human colonization of Mars. The accompanying 4-minute video posted to Facebook garnered 1.9 million views and more than 30,000 shares. They made 19 posts to Twitter on the day of the press conference, using the platform to both promote the upcoming talk, stream it live, and then supply follow-up visuals and animations after the event.
As with NASA and the ESA, it’s difficult to find much room for criticism in the SpaceX social media program. They’re using each of the top platforms to maximum effect, including a good mix of short text, high-quality photos, videos, animations, and links back to in-depth materials back on their website.