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For most federal agencies it’s a huge problem if 700,000 people show up outside their gates. But NASA isn’t like most federal agencies: on a good day the space agency pulls off a spectacular show, conducting science that changes how we see our planet and our universe. But on a bad day nothing much happens at all, or even worse you throw a half a billion dollars in the ocean.

In some ways NASA faces many of the same problems as an independent school albeit on a larger scale: active scrutiny from the outside, demanding constituents, budget pressures, mainstream media coverage that highlights scandal while ignoring successes, and a ‘product’ that is sometimes poorly understood. So when NASA’s social media manager Stephanie Schierholz decided to start using Twitter to promote the agency, the idea of a Tweetup followed soon after. A Tweetup is a gathering of social media users around a special event and it’s a great way to get media coverage, social media traffic and build brand evangelists to counter some of those problems that schools (and NASA) sometimes face.


Not convinced? A few weeks ago I found out I was going to experience NASA’s social media strategy first hand as a confirmed member of the #NASATweetup for STS-134. Here’s what I learned:


You’ve Been Selected
Sure I could have gone to Florida any time in the last 10 years, and even when a friend of mine took his son down to a launch I just thought ‘oh well, that would have been fun.’ But then came the magic email with the words, “You’ve been selected.” I’m not a space nut but the idea that I had been selected from many ‘applicants’ made the opportunity seem like a special occasion even if it was only random.


Tip #1: Make your attendees feel like they’ve won the lottery and they’ll take extreme measures to attend.


Bonus content
If the idea of a Space Shuttle Launch wasn’t cool enough, rumor was that we tweetup attendees would get a special tour, talk with astronauts and administrators and have a chance to get our questions answered. This made it possible for me to see the trip not just as a cool vacation, but also an educational experience.


Tip #2: Offer attendees the chance to unlock bonus content that will allow them to ‘sell’ the trip to themselves and others.

Tweet it and they will come
It was clear to me what NASA wanted to get out of the event. Mostly because they were up front about it. Tweetup attendees had to be current users of Twitter so that meant they were looking for people to help them spread the word about what they were doing. The expectation was we would be tweeting and NASA made this really easy by proposing a hashtag, providing power, setting up wifi, and streaming much of the event live (on UStream… but nobody’s perfect).


Tip #3: Stack the deck in your favor, seek out people who are already social media users.


Have badge will travel
I freely admit that what I am about to say sounds weak, but if you give me a cool badge and a sack full of awesome goodies then I’ll totally tweet nice things about you. Personal favorite from #NASATweetup: the poster of the space suit gloves holding an iPhone from @MoonRangerLaura. I joke but it’s true… social media folks are pre-programed to be nice and excited. I know this to be true because I was just in a tent with 150 nice and excited people! A sack of goodies just makes nice people nicer… and more likely to say nice things about you. Sample tweet, “LOL I just got freeze dried ice cream in my #nasatweetup goodie bag, SO excited to be here!”


Tip #4: Swag is appreciated.

Do the legwork
NASA has something like 45 Twitter accounts not including all of the astronauts who tweet.  There are accounts for agencies, projects, rovers, even lunar satellites, so next time your JV soccer coach asks you if they should start a team Twitter account tell them yes… if they will use it! With all those followers it was relatively easy for NASA to pull a small number of people to attend a tweetup. Want to try something cool? Setup a twitter account for an inanimate object and start tweeting from it. It’s not as crazy as it sounds, what if the football during a big game had a running commentary. Or what if the shoes of a dancer could speak? NASA did this with a probe that crashed itself into the moon… actual tweet, “And what’s this thing coming toward me very fast? So big and flat and round!” Hilarity ensues.


Tip#5: Don’t make a tweetup your first social media project, you’ll come off like a noob, build some cred first then gather your tweeple.


We love Stephanie!
Are you still tweeting for your organization without anyone knowing who you are?  You must stop this now. Seriously. @schierholz was a total celebrity at our tweetup because she worked tirelessly to make the event happen. We knew she was person on the other end of the TweetDeck so for us she was the face of the organization. That’s one of the reasons I believe Chuck is so successful doing what he does.


Tip #6: Make it personal, we’re people… not organizations!


Where’s the food court?
A good tweetup is like the Mall: there should be one or two anchor stores with lots of things in between. Of course for us the big event was the planned launch. There were also some celebrities in attendance (no, we didn’t see the President) but it was fun to see Seth Green or Clare Grant nervously asking astronauts questions. What are the anchor events at your institution? Do you have a treasured holiday concert every year or a famous alum? A big event like a rival football game on homecoming weekend is a perfect time for a tweetup because you have several good ‘anchors’ to choose from: the actual game of course, but also special Q/A session with the head coach, and a famous grad.


Tip #7: Critical mass comes from anchor events and people.  Lock these in early.

I was a part of [history]
Meeting our heros, helping an organization we respect, seeing something most people don’t have the chance to see, interacting with others who share the same excitement as us, these things make us a part of something. Maybe it’s history, maybe it’s just something bigger than ourselves. There was a couple who got engaged next to the countdown clock while we were there.


Tip #8: Tweetups, like your organization, have the potential to change lives. Damn that’s cool.

What do you think, will you plan a tweetup for homecoming or reunion? Do you think NASA is doing a good job of managing it’s social media strategy? Let us know in the comments. As for me, I’ve got to go and eat some freeze dried ice cream… yum!

Hans Mundahl

Hans Mundahl

Director of Technology Integration at New Hampton School

I've been an educator since 1995 when I first stepped into the classroom as a Fulbright exchange teacher in the former East Germany. Since then I've been an Outward Bound instructor, a teacher, tutor, admission officer, house head, evening administrator on duty and I ran the experiential learning program at New Hampton School for almost ten years. Today I focus on technology integration centered on values-driven technology integration and 1:1 iPad initiatives. Recently I had the chance to help New Hampton School become an Apple Distinguished School and I co-authored the iBook Teaching with the iPad (available on the iBookstore). Now I'm the founder of a scrappy little company (one employee!) called Hans Mundahl and Associates, inc a digital strategy consultancy for schools and non-profits. My free time is usually spent with my family but I'm also passionate about the outdoors and protecting the environment. I'm on the Board of Trustees at the Newfound Lake Region Association and when I have the chance I'm an active hiker, climber, and paddler. My writing appears on and I speak frequently at technology and education conferences.