Jun 30, 2010

Launching Websites, Launching Rockets

Last month I had the extreme privilege of being selected by NASA to report live at the launch of STS-132, the last scheduled mission for the space shuttle Atlantis.  After a thorough screening process I was issued press credentials and allowed 2 day access to the historic NASA Launch Complex 39 Press Site next to the Vehicle Assembly Building where they prep the shuttles (and the Apollo Saturn V rockets back in the 60’s and 70’s), put them on a giant crawler and move them out to the launch pad.  The funny thing is: I’m not a reporter.  But here I am at the final launch of Atlantis with news crews and media outlets from around the globe.  I’m meeting astronauts, NASA engineers and getting up close and personal viewing at the launch pad where Atlantis proudly stands getting final prepping for launch. How did I, a non-reporter, manage to trick NASA into giving me press credentials for a shuttle launch?  It’s simple: Twitter.

Space shuttle Atlantis blasting off!

Space shuttle Atlantis blasting off!

I have a Twitter account and am an active participant in social media.  NASA recognized the value of social networking and how they can use it to reach a greater audience.  They also realize that people’s media habits are changing.  Reading a paper in the morning and watching the evening news at night is no longer the norm.  The internet is quickly replacing the older titans of media.  As proof, I confess I haven’t really read a newspaper in years.  I also don’t get a single TV channel.  I do have a TV, but it’s sole purpose is being hooked up to a DVD player.  I gather the bulk of my news and media via the internet – never from a single source, of course, but Twitter is one of those sources I use to know what is going on in the world around me.

Giving others special behind the scenes access can pay off big in social media.  At Tweetup, NASA gave attendees special access to shuttle on pad.

Giving others special behind the scenes access can pay off big in social media. At the Tweetup, NASA gave us special access to the shuttle on the launch pad.

To reach people like myself who don’t rely on traditional media for our news and instead rely on a network of trusted sources, NASA turned to social media outlets such as Twitter to help get their message out.  They began hosting “Tweetups”, which is just Twitter speak for a meetup.  I was selected to be a part of the STS-132 Tweetup that they hosted at the press site, a two day event covering the day before launch and then launch day.  NASA selected 150 Twitter users for the event – as long as you could commit to being there and passed the screening process then you where good to attend.  An incredibly smart move by NASA, as us Tweetup members where paying our own way, more excited to be there than the paid reporters and sharing our enthusiasm with hundreds of thousands of combined network connections through Twitter and our various social networks.  Talk about ROI and maximizing your marketing dollar!

I talk to a lot of clients about social media and how effective it can be when done right.  The STS-132 NASA Tweetup was no doubt done right.  Granted they are NASA, launching people into space on rocket boosters, so it’s a little easier for them to generate buzz and a groundswell of support via social media than someone who is looking to promote their furniture store, for example.  Well, I guess if you tied a rocket to a La-Z-Boy recliner that would help get more attention, but it might also get you arrested or severely injured, so let’s stick with safer methods.   To get attention online you can use examples of what NASA did in whatever social media you participate in.

First off, NASA uses social media.  I mean they really use it and use it on a regular basis.  I can’t tell you the number of NASA employees and astronauts I follow on Twitter.  They have a huge presence on Facebook and YouTube too.  Websites and blogs plus Flickr accounts are also part of their online strategy.  As the owner of a small business, you probably don’t have the human resources that NASA does, but you don’t have to have the same financial resources.  Time is the main currency used to pay for marketing via social media, so if you can spare some time, you can capitalize to some degree on social media.

Close up photo of Atlantis the day before launch.

Close up photo of Atlantis the day before launch.

Second, NASA is consistent with social media.  It’s not an on-again off-again affair.  They have a social media mission and stick with their flight plan.  Inconsistent activity in social media will lead to inconsistent results.  If you have a blog and can’t keep up with the overly optimistic goal of one post a day you set for yourself when you started, then re-adjust your flight plan.  Maybe one blog post a week is better for you.  It’s better to to make a mid-course correction than burn out from an unrealistic schedule.

Next, NASA is an event.  If you have a furniture store, it may be hard to organize willing participants for a furniture store tweetup, but who knows, maybe it’s not such a stretch.  Maybe you have a loyal and local following online and you host an event you call the “Couch Potato Summit” where guests get comfy on their favorite seat in the store and discuss, tweet or blog a shared topic of interest.  Now you are hosting a networking event where people are tweeting about the event and mentioning “at Joe’s Furniture discussing politics and boy is this Camden sofa nice.”  This of course, is just an example, but with a little thought you can find a way to bring your network together in an entertaining way that helps you stand out from your competition.

Additionally, NASA used hashtags with Twitter.  Prior to the tweetup, I’ll admit to not using  hashtags that often with Twitter.  With only 140 characters to work with, hashtags just seemed like a way to take up too much valuable Twitter real estate.  Now I realize it’s a great way to segment content and to pinpoint a particular audience you want to reach.  I used a number of the event related hashtags throughout the tweetup, such as #nasatweetup, #nasa, #STS132 and #Atlantis.  This allowed me to reach a larger audience than just my normal Twitter followers, because someone may not have been following me, but they may have been following the hashtag of #Atlantis on Twitter to keep up with any news going on with the launch.  As a result, I had the highest number of retweets of my content I’ve ever had on Twitter – and many of those retweets where by individuals that didn’t follow me, but saw my tweet due to using a hashtag.  Many of those individuals are also now followers.

Astronaut Janice Voss was one of many representatives of NASA participating in the social media event.

Finally, NASA continues the dialog.  After the tweetup I attended, which was at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, they hosted a tweetup at Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas and made sure to keep the KSC participates involved.  A special page was setup on NASA’s website to aggregate all activity of the tweetup participants and to encourage more interaction.  A month after the tweetup and I still get emails from the NASA team that put the event together.  This team also continues to use Twitter to communicate with all participants, including those that attended previous tweetups prior to STS-132.  Sometimes at the tweetup, it was hard to determine who was actually at the event and who was involved remotely, as so many people where engaged in the event.  Now as an alumni of the event, I keep up much more with NASA and look forwarding to future tweetups, regardless of whether or not I’ll be selected again as an attendee.  This is moving beyond being an event, to being a destination.

On a final note, I couldn’t help but notice how the launch of Atlantis related to launching a website.  All the behind the scenes activity leading up to the launch, the maintenance of the spacecraft, the monitoring of data after launch, getting media promotion, coordination of different technical processes, teamwork, etc.  While we at NetSource realize we are not launching rockets into space, it is a great feeling to be a part of events that generates so much excitement.

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