NASA hasn't had it easy over the last few years. Budget cuts, lack of interest in the space program, and the retirement of the shuttle have all taken a toll on the 54 year old organization and its public image.
With today's successful landing of the NASA Curiosity rover on Mars, the resulting chatter and positive engagement of traditional news media and online audiences is certainly well deserved.
In what seems like just a few months, NASA has managed to recapture the attention of millions of people through a well-executed communications campaign consisting of equal parts drama, action, and geeky fandom. Largely carried out on social media, the NASA Curiosity Rover campaign first caught our attention with its captivating 7 Minutes of Terror video. Clever scripting, beautifully rendered graphics, and emotional music all helped the video go viral. Originally uploaded by NASA's California Jet Propulsion Laboratory in mid-June, it currently has well over 1 million views, not to mention several hundred thousand views scattered among copies of the video posted on other accounts.
If you're not one of the almost 400,000 people following along in real time, this week is an especially exciting period to follow NASA Curiosity's Twitter account. Just in the last week, the number of @MarsCuriosity followers has surged from 125K to 344K. It's unclear who is behind writing the first-person messages from space, but whoever it is, s/he has a snarky sense of humor and a playful approach to writing digestible science content.
It's important to note that this campaign didn't start with producing the viral video (likely months of planning in and of itself). Curiosity's twitter account started all the way back in 2008 - a whopping four years ago. Yes, @MarsCuriosity has been tweeting for four years ladies and gentlemen (longer than @aplusk, but not @britneyspears).
Twitter wasn't the only method to engage with the audience; as with any good integrated approach, NASA also regularly issued press releases and as a result received no small amount of press coverage for Curiosity's mission to mars. One can assume that NASA began planning Curiosity's marketing endeavors not long after they decided to plan the mission itself.
As the public's interest in science wanes, effectively managing such a wide spread of social media, public relations, and clever communications is no small feat, even for such a large organization. Approachable, consistent, and casual language helped NASA put forward a friendly, unpretentious face.
While many an internet sensation have popped and fizzled, NASA demonstrates that taking a calculated, thoughtful approach to marketing strategy does pay off over the long term. It's not rocket science, or maybe, it is?
Not to diminish the incredible influence of successfully landing on Mars (WOW, go engineers!), the power, humor, and joy of this communications campaign can be summed up with just one tweet: