NASA wows audience online and on the ground

The space shuttle Endeavour retired last week, offering many of us lessons in online buzz.


NASA is a viral hit.

As an encore to the Mars Rover mission that captured the world’s attention last month, the retired space orbiter “Endeavour”—flying piggyback on a 747 this week from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to its new home in Southern California—is wowing an audience on the ground and online.

Endeavour made several stops and fly-overs on its journey west, swooping to just 1,000 feet above a crowd today at Moffett Field in Mountain View, Calif. Here’s what I saw:

For its Web audience, NASA is building excitement on everything from YouTube to Twitter, with Endeavour sightings being posted with hashtags such as #spottheshuttle.

When the Curiosity rover landed on Mars last month, its Twitter account @MarsCuriosity shot to stardom with thousands of followers. Three women at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., were the voices behind the tweets, writing in a lively, first-person style to break news and provide updates.

“I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!”
– Aug. 5 on Twitter

NASA’s online numbers speak for its success:

  • 3 million Twitter followers
  • 1.2 million Facebook fans
  • 3 million viewers for the live Ustream broadcast of Curiosity’s landing (at 12:30 a.m. ET, no less)
  • And NASA was the first government agency to use Google+

Astronaut Ron Garan has been on two missions to the International Space Station (ISS), and spoke last week at Ragan’s Social Media Summit for Government Communicators about why he tweets, posts, and uploads from space.

“It’s a way to bring people along on a mission,” he said. “You send it down real time and get a real-time response.”

Garan says astronauts are such a small group of people with a unique story to tell. “Letting astronauts blog and tweet gives NASA a face, and it’s not the official voice, which is often seen as propaganda.”

Garan says astronauts also feel “closer” to certain worldwide events because of their birds-eye view of Earth, and they share pictures such as those of Hurricane Katia hitting the East Coast and the wildfires in Texas. He says they do lots of geography quizzes by tweeting out pictures and asking, “Can anyone guess where this is?”

So what do the rest of us do?

Not everyone has a story from space to share.

Travelocity found success with a “roaming gnome,” which is now its de facto mascot and the center of its marketing campaigns. Victoria Treyger, chief marketing officer of Kabbage.com, was CMO at Travelocity during the recent recession when travel took a nose dive.

“Our little gnome became a symbol for the whimsical side of travel and built an incredibly strong connection customers had with the Travelocity brand,” Treyger says. “For brands [that are] 100 percent Web-based, it’s more important than ever to have that touch or emotional connection with customers.”

Treyger, who’s also worked at Amazon, American Express, and RingCentral, describes online buzz as “a combination of excitement and engagement—when something piques people’s interest and when they’re talking and writing about you.” She says both raise awareness for a brand.

She prescribes three things to build great online buzz:

  1. Have a great product. She says Dropbox does it with file sharing and storage, and Mint.com with personal finance.
  2. Personalities are a great way to build a brand. NASA flight director Bobak Ferdowsi became an instant Internet hit—and symbol of rebellious cool—during the live Curiosity broadcasts when he was spotted in Mission Control sporting a blue and red mohawk. Personalities build an emotional connection to the brand.
  3. Physical presence to develop a tangible icon to make your brand come to life. Treyger says Travelocity took the fairytale gnome “out into the world” to interact with customers physically. Insurance provider Geico has its familiar gecko.

Treyger says the key to the campaign’s success was having customers vote on Facebook for what city the gnome would visit next, making it a competition—Aspen vs. Vail, New York vs. Chicago.

The gnome did various stunts in the winning city that put him at the center of what that city stood for (e.g., skiing down Aspen mountain), which was followed by lots of press and by people’s sharing pictures on the Web of them traveling with the gnome. They’d find updates on Facebook on where to find the gnome next.

“Think about your business and how you can tell your story in a unique and visual way,” says Treyger. “That accomplishes two things: It positions you as a thought leader and significantly increases traffic to your site.”

Mary Gorges is a creative communications manager at Cisco Systems.

(Image via)

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