NASA Embraces Entrepreneurial Spirit with #NASASocial Marketing Program

NASA Embraces Entrepreneurial Spirit with #NASASocial Marketing Program

Dan with Nasa Shuttle. #NASASocial

I was sitting on a couch in my hotel room while attending the Acumatica Summit 2016 in Orlando, Florida. I opened twitter and in the middle of the stream was an invitation to join a NASA Social event. I applied. I was accepted. I flew to San Jose, arriving near Midnight, and took an Uber to NASA’s Ames Research Center, where I was signed in and badged.

I thought I was going to just see facilities, meet peers and spend a bit of time with astronaut Steve Smith, and Ames Center Director Dr. Eugene Tu. But what I found was an organization that was embracing not only social media, but rekindling its entrepreneurial spirit.

NASA’s reinvention has been spurred by my factors and events. The organization has faced very public failures that resulted in the loss of life.  NASA has experienced challenges of confidence, citizen complacency and supplier consolidations — it has been asked to outsource, to downsize and to change missions. Regardless of its current victories or deep structural challenges, at its core, NASA still works like a scrappy startup.

Dan in the Spheres Lab. #NASASocial
Dan in the Spheres Lab.

And so when most consumer-facing government agencies communicate with daunting portals, arcane language and paper-based letters, NASA turns to the social media community, to citizen journalist, to share its message. It isn’t that NASA has abandoned traditional marketing, but it has reached out to transformational, technology-savvy pund-its to help craft its image and communicate its strategies. As audiences increasingly disconnect from traditional media, perhaps have even hold disdain for it, NASA has decided to tap emergent voices.

NASA calls these gatherings NASA Socials. NASA socials have been held in a number of NASA locations. Socials connect NASA directly to its “fans” on various social media platforms, and it connects those people to each other. Like a good start-up, NASA socials have a very simple goal: “to allow people who regularly interact with each other via these platforms to meet in person and discuss one of their favorite subjects: NASA.”

Each of these social media commentators has garnered an audience of their own, be it via Twitter, YouTube, on a WordPress of Tumblr blog, or some other channel. They have established their own trust network.

So this 57 year old government agency that shares management duties for the International Space Station (ISS) acts, at least in this marketing effort, more like Uber than Boeing.

Here are my take aways that entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs can apply to their organization’s marketing efforts:

  • Use social media as a multichannel communications medium. Don’t just broadcast, listen, and then connect others — and then listen to what transpires over and through those connections, not just through your own channel. NASA maintains lists of the people who attend Socials on Twitter so that it is easy for them to subscribe to attendee feeds, for attendees to find peer Twitter names and follow them. The list also acts like a dashboard of communications for attendees so NASA can get a better sense of the Venn Diagram of topics those interested in NASA participate in.
  • Use social media to drive physical events. The opportunity to attend the Social at Ames (@NASAAmes) was a great example of people who share an interest being brought together to meet each other, and to commune with one of their favorite subjects.
  • Don’t over centralized social media. While NASA does maintain its own Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other channels, so do the individual sites, as well as individual programs. During the tour the attendees of the Ames social visited the Pleiades Supercomputer (@NASA_Supercomp, @NASA_NAS), and the ISS robotic Spheres (@NASA_SPHERES) program. NASA trusts and empowers these teams to create their own communities and to connect and communicate with them directly.

Beyond the socials, NASA has also reinvented its relationship to its neighbors and to the entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs working in similar disciplines, and in nearby geographies. Ames Research Center, for instance, has leased a large amount of space, including Moffett Field, to Google. It has also opened up a research park on its property, that includes the home of Singularity University and industry partners like Virgin America, Aerovar Research and KleenSpeed.

Beyond that, Ames has loosened its business model. In a discussion during the event, Dr. Tu shared that at Ames, they now subcontract, work on projects of mutual benefit with partners, and even take the occasional contract from a partner.

Most start-ups would love to have the kind of visibility and community that NASA attracts, but NASA knows that in order to maintain interest and accomplish its goals, it needs solid relationships with citizens. Investments like NASA Socials, along with multichannel connections to centers and programs help keep the spirit of adventure and exploration alive, as do visits to conferences as far ranging as San Diego Comic-Con and CES.

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Dan in the Pleiades Supercomputing Center. #NASASocial
Dan in the Pleiades Supercomputing Center.

Pleiades Supercomputer Specifications

  • Manufacturer: SGI
  • 161 racks (11,296 nodes)
  • 6.28 Pflop/s peak cluster
  • 4.09 Pflop/s LINPACK rating (#13 on November 2015 TOP500 list)
  • 132 Tflop/s HPCG rating (#7 on November 2015 HPCG list)
  • Total CPU cores: 227,808
  • Total memory: 828 TB
  • 4 racks (128 nodes total) enhanced with NVIDIA graphics processing units (GPUs)
    • 217,088 CUDA cores
    • 0.317 Pflop/s total
  • 1 rack (32 nodes total) enhanced with Intel Xeon Phi co-processors (MICs)
    • 3,840 MIC cores
    • 0.064 Pflop/s total

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In October of 1969 I asked my mother to make me a grey birthday cake, with craters. On it sat a Lunar Excursion Module, or LEM from Apollo 11, an astronaut and an American flag. My immediate family saw that cake, as did my grandparents.

Aldrin next to the Passive Seismic Experiment Package with Eagle in the background. Neil Armstrong - NASA photo AS11-40-5948. #NASASocial
Aldrin next to the Passive Seismic Experiment Package with Eagle in the background. Neil Armstrong – NASA photo AS11-40-5948

Today that cake would be on Facebook and Twitter, Instragram and Periscope, and would probably receive its fair share of likes and shares.

NASA exists in a very different world than the one that landed the first men on the moon with Apollo 11. But they are still here, still encouraging people to “look up” not just because of their tenacity to survive, but because they have always embraced the reality and challenges of change. Every entrepreneur that survives shares those characteristics. Perhaps that will give readers of this post something to Tweet about.

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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