For several decades, the name NASA loomed large in the imaginations of children and adults alike. As technology changed, and space missions became more pedestrian, sending mankind toward the stars no longer held the same luster. Even before budgeting was cut and efforts to send man back to the moon were officially canceled in 2010, public interest was waning.
Five years later, the world was once again turning their sights to space, thanks to NASA. Well, thanks to NASA and Instagram. In July 2015, NASA posted a photo to its social media account depicting Pluto. A New Horizons spacecraft, launched nine years prior, was finally passing the smallest of our solar system’s planets (a dwarf planet, to be technical). This was the first surface image ever seen of Pluto, taken at New Horizons’ closest point of orbit.
It went viral.
NASA and Instagram partnered to have the photo appear on the photo-sharing service one hour ahead of the photo being released anywhere else. Though NASA boasts 3.5 million followers regularly, this photo garnered more than average support and shares — likely because the photo was shown first and exclusively on Instagram.
Later, NASA also worked with Twitter to post live updates via @NASANewHorizons. Both of these social media engagement tactics gave NASA a thrust in public attention so that when it later released images from New Horizons the old-fashioned way — through its own outlets, and then later to social media — more eyes were watching.
That was just the beginning.
Last month, NASA teased a major press conference on Twitter: “Mars just got more interesting,” the account posted mysteriously, ramping up public interest. It also posted, “Mars mystery solved?” and then asked fans to tune in for the big announcement.
Although one of the nation’s foremost science agencies might seem incongruous with things like 140-character tweets and selfies, embracing social media may help NASA engage new audiences and extend its lifespan. And, after all, science and technology have a lot in common.
A lot of senior industries and companies can take a note from NASA’s playbook. As long as it’s done in a mature enough manner, and no one feels pandered to, embracing the upcoming generation’s trends can ingratiate that brand and ensure its relevance for the future.