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Making Mars Matter – A look at social media in 2013

The end of the year means two things: setting unrealistic New Year’s resolutions and endless retrospectives. While we can’t force you to put down the cake and pick up a carrot, we can help you do your job better by highlighting some of the biggest and best innovations to come out of government in the last 365 days. Throughout December the DorobekINSIDER will sit down with government experts to talk about the hurdles, wins and challenges in 2013. (You can find all the interviews here.)

End Of Year Innovator: Veronica McGregor, News and Social Media Manager, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab

In the year since the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars, NASA’s twitter feed for the robotic wonder has surpassed 1.4 million followers and transformed NASA’s reach to the public.

Social media at NASA didn’t start with the Rover though?

“We didn’t just start doing social media at landing time, we actually started that account in 2008, and we were trying to build momentum. We were trying to get people involved and see the process of that Rover being built, the Rover being tested. We also did a live streaming video from the clean room as the Rover was being built, but in addition to that, because anyone can put up a webcam, we had daily chats. We used UStream as a way of not only putting out pictures of the rover but allow people to actually talk with and interface with some of the experts on the Rover team,” said McGregor.

Does social media build a new relationship with the public?

“Our relationship has changed so much. It has been five years since our first twitter account and it just opened up this new way of people being able to send in a question immediately and get an answer immediately. It is so funny to think back that it was only a little over five years ago that the public didn’t have that capability. We were amazed to see how many people were interested in what we were doing and wanted to get more information. There is really a hunger for more NASA news that we couldn’t sense before social media. Now it is all about sending out the information and doing as many interactive things as we can,” said McGregor.

The quest for interactive

“Social media is not just about posting something to Twitter or Facebook, it is doing things where we can respond to people’s questions. We can use Twitter and Facebook to respond to questions but we can also use Reddit. That way we can do real-time chats with mission teams. It has been a lot of fun and has opened the door for two-way conversations. It is helping in all sorts of ways, specifically, the number of high school and college students that engaged to ask us what they need to study next and what path should they take because they want to work here someday,” said McGregor.

Move towards social from traditional media

“Our team has evolved over time because this office started out being the general media relations office. We were dealing with traditional media. We put out press releases. 10 years ago we would put out the occasional video. We started doing more of those as people’s bandwidth increased. Around 2008 we started adding the social media realm to our traditional media activities. That’s why I call myself the news and social media manager. I am trying to handle both sides of that. Traditional media is still very important to us, but it used to be the only way that we could get news to the public. You had to put out a press release and hope that people would cover it. Having social media come online was just amazing for us because it opened that door that we could update people daily on our missions rather than just launches and landings. People could actually learn about what goes on daily behind the scenes of different missions,” said McGregor.

Budget constraints mean discovering new ways to reach out

“We have received a lot of awards for our social media efforts in the last year, even when we were up against major corporations that had spent millions of dollars on their social media campaigns. A lot of it is based on the audience reaction. The fact that there are so many space enthusiasts out there has been wonderful and we have brought in a lot of those space enthusiasts because we take social media and put social back into by doing in person events as well as our online interactions. We invite people to come to NASA centers for major mission events or to just have people come in and learn about our upcoming earth missions. We bring in 100 people at a time. So far we have done this 75 times, across NASA with over 5,000 people participating. They then amplify our message. We are still doing our social media but now I have these 5,000 other people who feel like they are now a part of NASA because they have had that firsthand interaction. Now they are out there and they are speaking for us,” said McGregor.

How has mobile impacted social media? McGregor said:

  • We always want to test how something is going to look on mobile. In fact, we rolled out an updated mobile site last week. So we are always trying to stay at the forefront of the capabilities there. But if we are going to put something out on social media we are always checking that we are using the best format for people to get it on their mobile devices because we definitely do see that we are getting more and more people are tuning in and responding to us through mobile devices.
  • We test things out on a number of mobile devices before they go live. We just want to make sure the experience is going to be good. It is always in our mind first that if people are trying to reach information or view this picture or view this live stream or view this google hangout, where are we sending them if they are on a mobile device? We will think of that first. Then everything else will line up behind that. More and more you need to think mobile first.

What’s ahead for 2014?

“We are constantly watching to see what is going to be the next best platform. The hardest part of social media right now is that we are all trying to do everything. Of course that is a really time consuming piece of work, especially because we like to respond to people and not just push information out. We have our feet in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus, Reddit and livestreaming. We are always reading up on who’s doing better with their services to make them better for mobile devices. So that we can jump to the next one. Even on livestreaming we are testing a whole bunch of different platforms. We know which one has the best audience and which one is the easiest to use for the user. That is what we need to continue to do for the next year or so. Things in social media are still shaking out.There is a lot of studying that we do at this end and a lot of reading up to try to figure out how we can best make our updates appear in people’s news feeds without paying any money to do that. That’s hard. That’s a challenge. But we enjoy what we do,” said McGregor.

Year In Review Interview:

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