How to Tweet Like a Mars Rover

This was originally posted on the Measured Voice blog.

This robot is probably better at Twitter than you. Photo from NASA.

NASA gets to take credit not only for blazing trails into outer space, but also for developing some of the first great examples of social media voice.

In May 2008, Veronica McGregor, social media manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, set up the @MarsPhoenix Twitter account to keep people updated on the progress of the Phoenix Mars Lander. For the first time ever, space enthusiasts were able to get quick updates from a NASA mission every day.

McGregor learned a lot about the importance of voice while writing tweets for @MarsPhoenix. I talked to her last year – while the Curiosity rover was still on its way to Mars – about what she learned while working on @MarsPhoenix and what guidelines she recommends at NASA today.

Her insights from the early days of Twitter are just as applicable today.

Tell Your Own Story

It’s hard to understate the significance of the @MarsPhoenix Twitter account.

Prior to Twitter, there was no feasible way to get real-time insights into the team of engineers, scientists, and coders who work around the clock to send a robot to Mars. The best way to issue updates on a mission was to read a statement at a press conference. If someone had a question about the mission, they could only hope that a reporter would ask it.

The ability to follow a mission through Twitter represented a giant step forward. Twitter let NASA’s communicators share immediate updates directly with the public without having to direct them through a website. Before long, @MarsPhoenix was the 5th most popular account on all of Twitter with around 38,000 followers (and remember, Twitter was still very young in 2008).

Obviously, @MarsPhoenix filled a gap left by traditional space mission coverage of missions. McGregor found herself fielding questions from all over the world. She then started getting tweets from parents saying that @MarsPhoenix had gotten their children interested in robotics and space exploration.

This direct engagement also allowed NASA to retain control of its story. If the mission encountered challenges, McGregor and her team could talk about them frankly without relinquishing the story to the media where something like a mechanical failure could spin.

That’s not to say that Twitter allowed her to put a spin on her story. As McGregor told me, “Twitter doesn’t allow inauthenticity.” @MarsPhoenix’s followers wanted to know what was really going on, so McGregor and her team had to work together to be honest, open, and real. This meant trying to explain how difficult it is to tell a robotic arm a hundred million miles away to shake some dirt into a container.

Most government agencies don’t build amazing space robots, but the lesson here is that there are real benefits to telling your own story on social media. You probably have an audience who wants to hear from you. Many people may have questions for you. And you can tell your story more accurately than the media ever will.

Write in First Person

One of the earliest lessons learned from @MarsPhoenix was to tweet in the first person. “If you write in third person, the tweet sounds like a press release. There’s no need to engage with it, so people will read it and move on,” explained McGregor.

Instead, when updates were written from the perspective of a personified robot, people would respond, retweet, and cheer it on.

What’s more, writing in first person helped her get to the point. It’s far easier to read “I’ve landed on almost perfectly flat terrain” than “The Phoenix Mars Lander has landed…” It’s easier to make messages fit within 140 characters in first person too.

Sometime after the success of @MarsPhoenix, another mission created a Twitter account and opted to write its updates in the 3rd person. It didn’t get nearly the response.

Let me add an important caveat here: the vast majority of government organizations don’t operate robots that lend themselves to personification. For most agencies, however, speaking in first person plural is a perfect compromise. A city water department speaking about itself as a person (“I”) would sound strange, but speaking as a group of people (“we”) makes perfect sense.

Be Accurate

NASA is a scientific organization, so it follows that anything NASA says should be verifiably accurate. While @MarsPhoenix could be spunky and cute, it couldn’t be cute at the expense of the truth.

McGregor and her team worked hard to ensure that every tweet sent out was accurate and linked to more in-depth information if needed. Developing similar processes to ensure accuracy is extremely important for any government agency on social media.

Emergencies over the past year, such as Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombings, have proven that government organizations on social media are well-suited to be the quickest and most accurate sources of important information.

While traditional media organizations have shared inaccurate reports in the race to break news, police departments and other government organizations have demonstrated the value of staying calm and publishing nothing but trustworthy and accurate information. This is an essential public service and it’s up to government to provide it.

Stay Mission-Driven

When I asked McGregor why NASA used social media, she said “to get people to go outside and look up.” She pointed out that this wasn’t an official guideline, but that one of NASA’s overarching goals is to encourage people to be curious and inspire them to pursue careers in science. Most of her colleagues remember a special moment when they looked up, wondered about their place in the universe, and decided to find out more about it through science and engineering.

When writing for social media, there is no tool more powerful than a clear mission. If you write social media updates for a government agency, remember your agency’s mission. It could be to ensure public safety, promote economic development, educate children, or maintain infrastructure. No matter what it is, it’s a public service intended to improve people’s lives.

Remember that mission when you write. If you show that you care about your audience and the world they live in, they will listen to you.

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