“Wherever people are looking [online], NASA wants to be there,” John Yembrick, NASA's social media manager told IRCE attendees. Retailers and brands can apply similar strategies to engage consumers.

NASA doesn’t sell products, but it does sell inspiration, John Yembrick, the space agency’s social media manager, told attendees at his presentation at the annual Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition on Wednesday morning.

Thanks to NASA’s more than 500 social media accounts, which range from agency-wide accounts to those focused around specific missions, it can tell its own stories and generate attention and interest in the work NASA is doing.

“This is a golden age for NASA,” Yembrick said. “That’s not only because of the missions that we’re engaged in but because we are a part of pop culture. That’s making us relevant like never before.”

Yembrick pointed to the New Horizons spacecraft, which last July flew past the icy dwarf planet Pluto. Yembrick convinced his NASA colleagues to post the first close-up image of Pluto’s surface on Instagram about an hour before the space agency’s press conference that discussed the flyby.

“We didn’t attach any news to the image,” he said. “It was just a sneak peak.”


Even so, the Pluto image helped capture the public’s attention. News about the image trended on Twitter and Facebook, and in the four days after posting the image NASA added roughly 385,000 social media followers. Moreover, brands ranging from Dunkin’ Donuts to Peanuts shared their own spins on the image—which featured a distinctive heart shape—on social media, which helped NASA garner even more attention, he said.

Social media, Yembrick said, helps NASA become a part of conversations that people are having online. It is also turning space nerds or fans into advocates, ambassadors and even collaborators. For example, NASA’s #NASASocial program lets consumers apply to get a behind-the-scenes look at NASA’s labs, launches or other activities. The expectation is that the consumers will then share those stories on social media.

The stories that result often are far more powerful than those NASA can tell itself, he said. “I can tell you every great thing that we do but I work for NASA,” Yembrick said. “When a fan or customer comes out and tells a brand’s story, that story is much more powerful.”