It’s been a long time since the world has been interested in anything traveling into space. But NASA finally grabbed our attention this week when the Mars rover Curiosity successfully landed on the Red Planet, giving us earthlings some crystal-clear, high-resolution photos of the surface.
NASA had a lot riding on Curiosity’s success, and not just the $2.5 billion to fund it. This mission needed to make NASA relevant again to the American public. As famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out, for anyone born after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, multiple generations have never witnessed the “moment,” the moment where something so positively grand happens that it “elevates society rather than diminishes it.” When Curiosity successfully touched down without a hitch, when “we” landed on Mars, generations finally had their moment. And, with fading interest and dwindling government funding in their programs, NASA won over the public and ignited a science-weary country.
But the landing itself would have been largely unnoticed, just another headline in the “science” section, if it weren’t for another recent NASA discovery: marketing.
NASA and the scientific community have in recent history been poor marketers (just ask the Higgs boson geniuses). Marketers aren’t exactly rocket scientists, but rocket scientists aren’t exactly marketers. However, the rover Curiosity shows that some rocket scientists are learning how.
While Curiosity was getting ready to land on the Martian surface, NASA’s PR and marketing team were hard at work. There were viewing parties. Crowds gathered at Times Square to view a live stream of the mission. President Obama gave a shout-out to NASA scientists. For the first time in arguably decades, NASA made science relevant to the public again. The public united and cheered together to witness this spectacular leap in science. How exactly did NASA achieve this and what can others learn?
People Don’t Like Robots; They Like People
WALL-E, R2-D2, HAL. People connected to these movie robots because they have personalities. You know, like a real person. Curiosity is a she and has a Twitter account with more than 800,000 followers. She tweeted right up until her last moments on earth and again tweeted when she landed, giving followers daily updates on her adventures. She’s exciting, optimistic and frankly adorable. A robot named Curiosity tweeting is a heck of a lot more interesting to read than a couple of scientists tweeting about a robot’s whereabouts.
People Don’t Want to Hear Data; They Want to Hear Discoveries
It’s all about engagement and making people feel like they are a part of the discovery. More than 3.2 million people tuned into Ustream to watch Curiosity land, incredibly beating out cable television on Sunday primetime. NASA had the landing stream on all three of its channels and allowed anyone and everyone to chime in and comment on the fun. The streaming website lets viewers interact in real time over its “social stream,” via mobile phones, tablets, streaming players and smart television. Aggregating from multiple social networks, this feature integrates audiences across Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. This engagement gave everyone—not just the scientists—a chance to be in on the mission.
If People Don’t Get It Right Away, They Won’t Get It at All
Science “happening” doesn’t mean anything if the public is isolated. While the Higgs boson may have been the most significant scientific discovery in modern times, the general public didn’t understand it, didn’t connect with anyone associated with it, was turned off by the jargon-filled explanations by physicists, and eventually tuned out. NASA, on the other hand, went out of its way to make the Curiosity mission not only understandable but also fun. That’s a big reason why “Mohawk Guy” Bobak Ferdowsi is reaching rock-star status. Not only is he putting a human face to the mission, with his own Tumblr page, T-shirts and a trended hashtag on Twitter, but he’s also helping make NASA cool again to a whole new generation of space geeks.
People Don’t Want to Watch; They Want to Connect
To engage an audience, they need to be a part of the dialogue. The conversation needs to be relevant. Think of “Star Wars” in the 1980s. People weren’t content to just watch. They wanted to connect, take it home with them and make it theirs. That’s why we have Yoda backpacks, Millennium Falcon bunk beds and light-saber lamps. “Star Wars” was more than just a movie. And NASA made Curiosity more than just an expensive piece of machinery landing on a big red rock. It made Curiosity an icon. Nabisco made red-stuffed Oreo cookies in Curiosity’s honor, and Angry Birds added a new “Mission to Mars” game.
In business, if people don’t care about what you’re selling, you go out of business. In science, if people don’t care about what you’re researching, you don’t receive funding. That’s why more rocket scientists should become marketers. Public understanding, support and engagement should be so vitally important to the scientific community.
With Curiosity, NASA can surely say, on both the scientific and the marketing front, mission accomplished.
This article was co-written with Melissa Pitts. Pitts is a marketing intern at gyro. She blogs regularly at Newstaco.com, Americas Quarterly, FlamingTortillas.com and The Huffington Post. Follow her at @mpittsm