Stephanie Smith poses with an attendee of the Cal State Fullerton G3X nonprofit conference in August 2019.

Stephanie L. Smith (left) mixes with attendees of the G3X Conference. Photo by Daniel Coats ’15, ’18

With more than 30 million followers across the social media universe, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the robotic spacecraft and Deep Space Network research and development center in Pasadena, California, engages the world with its stunning photos of the solar system and beyond. Stephanie L. Smith, digital and social media supervisor for JPL, discussed the space agency’s social media outreach and tips for professionals to maximize their digital footprint – in any organization – in a presentation at the G3X Conference for nonprofit professionals at Cal State Fullerton’s Mihaylo College on Aug. 13, 2019.

While few doubt that social media has changed the world, with NASA’s robust use of the latest platforms, social networks have truly changed the universe, giving billions opportunities to see such marvels as the moons and rings of distant, gas giant planets, asteroids that pose a real – if remote – threat to Earth, and the distant reaches of interstellar space.

For Stephanie L. Smith, who has been an integral part of social media at Pasadena’s JPL since 2010 and now leads the team, social media has provided the means to achieve what the U.S. space program has promised from its conception – sharing its discoveries with as many people as possible.

“What good is it to make a discovery if you can’t communicate it with other people?” Smith told attendees at Cal State Fullerton’s G3X nonprofit conference on Aug. 13. “It all goes back to the Space Act of 1958 that founded NASA, which ‘requires the dissemination of information concerning our activities and the results thereof.’ That language is my job’s raison d’etre. It is as much a part of our DNA as an organization to make and fly space missions and send explorers – whether they are robots or astronauts – to different places as it is to people about it.”

When Smith joined the laboratory, NASA was just beginning to leverage the potential of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Today, there are hundreds of accounts across the agency, providing targeted content designed for the interests of various viewing audiences.

“If you want to pick one account to follow NASA, go to the flagship accounts. There, you’re going to get an array of information from around the nation and sometimes, such as with Snapchat, Pinterest and SoundCloud, all of us are funneling our resources into one place,” said Smith. “We do, however, have dedicated JPL accounts, on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram and YouTube. And everything we do is 100% organic.”

NASA Goes Social

Smith recalled the days when the space agency’s communications strategy consisted of press releases, press conferences with traditional media and releasing images to journalists.

“Originally, any journalist following the Voyager missions to the outer planets would physically come to JPL’s offices and receive 8-by-10-inch glossy images with mimeographed captions for use in newspapers or evening news broadcasts,” said the Harvard University alumna.

But as science and technology reporting declined across many news outlets in the late 2000s, NASA and JPL identified an alternative and low-cost way to communicate with the world.

As an agency receiving less than half a cent for every tax dollar, most of which goes to human exploration, NASA shares the concerns of many philanthropic and nonprofit entities – needing smart ways to get the word out that do not require extraordinary resources.

“We never turned our backs on traditional media, we still write press releases, we still make the pictures and captions available, we still do press conferences, but we leverage a lot more technology. People don’t have to come physically any more, we live-stream the press conferences and take questions by email or phone or Twitter,” she said. “Follow #askNASA, and you’ll see both reporters’ questions and public questions worked in to our live-streamed news events.”

An astronaut on the International Space Station in earth orbit looks down at Hurricane Dorian in this NASA photo from Aug. 2019

An astronaut from the International Space Station looks at Hurricane Dorian, as seen from outer space. Courtesy NASA

Photos and Building Relationships: The Lifeblood of NASA Social Media Engagement

Audiovisual content in social media is particularly essential for NASA.

“Earth science is 30% of what JPL does, but it is also one of the hardest things to have conversations about because it can be so politically charged,” she said. “But we made a commitment to use really beautiful pictures of really stark things. Like luring people in with a beautiful shot of a glacier and then telling how fast it’s melting. But if we don’t get the likes on the pretty picture first, we can’t get to the part of what the science says or have the conversation at all. People will just keep scrolling.”

The myriad interests, passions and ethos of NASA’s audiences has made it critical for the agency to tailor its messaging accordingly.

For instance, while some users are enthralled by the science, others have little knowledge or interest on the technical side, but want to know if they will soon meet their Maker in an asteroid impact.

“Those are most of the people we found following our Asteroid Watch Twitter account,” said Smith. “We have to be careful what phrases we use. Once we tried to tell users of this account about a program and told them to ‘Hurry…’ We were told not to start a tweet that way again, since some users really thought it was the end of the world. So we learned to watch our language and know who we are talking to.”

Despite the ubiquity of digital technology, Smith believes in-person communication will always be relevant. Due to this commitment to face-to-face interaction, Smith and NASA have been experimenting with NASA Socials, a program inviting influencers who have interacted with the space agency online to get an unforgettable real-world experience, such as watching a launch or landing up close and meeting with scientists and engineers.

“We’ve had all kinds of creators in this program, including teachers who use digital tools in the classroom, graphic artists making comic books, musicians who wanted the sound of a rocket launch, livebloggers, videographers and Instagram influencers,” said Smith. “We had a hip-hop dancer come to the InSight Mars rover landing. Suddenly, space talk was all over her Instagram account and those of her superfans. There was an MTV dating show participant with a large following of teen girls who live chatted during a press conference with our scientists and engineers leading to fan responses such as ‘I never knew science could be so sexy.’ These are audiences we probably wouldn’t have engaged with otherwise.”

Want to participate in the NASA Socials program or know someone who does? Reach out on Twitter through @NASASocial or visit the program’s webpage for more on previous events and what’s coming up, such as the July 2020 Mars rover launch at Cape Canaveral.

“We’ll probably have 75 to 100 people who get credentialed with us. If you’re interested in getting behind the scenes, you can be a part of it,” said Smith. “There’s an application process. We require a short essay and where you are putting your creations online. We don’t discriminate, but we want to know who you talk to, so we can look for segments we’re having trouble engaging with.”

The Future of NASA Communications

Imagine a future in which NASA sends a social media specialist as part of a team of astronauts headed to Mars. Will this be reality?

“Whether or not a communications professional will be aboard in current or future human exploration, it will continue to play a role,” she said. “Right now, astronauts aboard the International Space Station live tweet all the time. They have to downlink some of the bigger files to the ground, where social media staff at Johnson Space Center upload everything, but some posting they do in orbit.”

Still, barring a major revolution in communication technology permitting messaging to transcend the speed of light, don’t anticipate live chats or live video from a distant planet, said Smith.

Social Media Tips for Your Organization

“Most of you don’t have space robots, but you do have interesting organizations and interesting people doing interesting things,” Smith told the G3X audience of nonprofit professionals, social enterprise entrepreneurs and philanthropists.

While telling the world about the latest space discoveries might be light years away from your reality, Smith has some advice that transcends industry and mission.

One is to stick around after you post to any network, for a boost in both algorithms and human engagement. “The most bang for your buck is the first 20 minutes after the post is out. Because that’s when algorithms are recommending new content and if someone asks a question and you respond, it is a 100% response rate. And then it starts to snowball,” she said. “People see it is a good conversation and the algorithms may start recommending it to more people. You are also showing that you care and understand that social media is inherently interactive.”

Adding high-quality photos is also a good bet. “Photos get followers. It should come as no surprise that high-quality imagery is something you should be working into all of your posts,” she said. “Text online only works in a breaking news situation, but we’re visual creatures, so [a video or image] will get you more attention and will up the chance that someone will share what you have to say.”

Knowing your audience is essential, but Smith pointed out that this doesn’t mean shelling out five-figure amounts for third-party analytics software or a consultant. “If you dig in to the stuff that is freely available to you, you can learn a lot and look at trends,” she said. “It might not be perfect, but it is enough to know your gender breakdown, where they are and what they’re interested in. If you’re not reaching everybody, you can think about what you can do to reach out to those people.”

It’s also important to know when in the 24-hour cycle to post, and basic analytic tools can let you know. “If you go to Instagram and look at your profile as a brand account, for instance, it will tell you the day of week and time of day that your user base is most active,” she said. “If it doesn’t accord with your staff schedule, that’s where scheduling tools can be your best friend. You can get it all good to go and then schedule the post to publish. The only drawback is that you aren’t around for the first 20 minutes afterwards to answer questions.”

And be sure to speak the language of your audience. Use the words that people who read your content expect and want to see. For instance, use “robot” instead of “autonomous systems” for a less technical audience.

“If you ever have the choice between being clever or being clear, just be clear,” said Smith.