How NASA's Curiosity rover got 1.1M Twitter followers

Tuesday - 9/25/2012, 4:12pm EDT

Veronica McGregor, social media manager, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab

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The Mars rover Curiosity is breaking barriers both in space and the Twittersphere.

@MarsCuriosity continues to build its Twitter following since its Aug. 5 landing on the Gale Crater on the Mars surface. The rover now boasts more than 1.1 million Twitter followers.

The social media team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) started the Twitter account 2-1/2 years ago with the intent of using it as a two-way conversation with space fans around the world.

"We're sort of the carnival barkers for the mission. We're trying to get people interested. Come into the tent ... See and learn about the mission," said Veronica McGregor (@VeronicaMcG), social media manager at JPL.

Curiosity isn't the first rover to get a Twitter account and its success is built on lessons from previous Twitter experiments. In 2008, McGregor tweeted for the Mars Phoenix lander. She said she realized tweeting in the first person, from the rover's point of view, generated more questions and comments from followers.

Beyond Twitter, Curiosity also received exposure on other platforms, including chatrooms, videos, live streaming video and even in-person meet-ups called NASA socials. To date, NASA has hosted 40 such events for 3,500 participants as a way for NASA's fans on social media to meet each other face-to-face.

"Then they go out and become our advocates and spread our message even more," McGregor said.

(Self-portrait of Curiosity)

Getting into character

JPL's social media team of three also brought their personality and knowledge to Curiosity's online persona.

"Different people have different pop culture references they might pull out of their hat. One person on the team always has a good movie reference. Another one has a good music reference," McGregor said.

Because the rover is so large and has a laser, McGregor said, "We like to say this one has a particular amount of bravado to her and she is a little bit sassy."

She added, "There's actually an element of getting into character when you're writing these tweets. For me, it's always been, 'OK, I'm in this area of Mars, I'm seeing this for the first time, what would this lander or rover be thinking?'"

Twitter tips for agencies

Not all agencies have missions that will lend themselves to as eager and devoted an online following as NASA's. But McGregor outlined some tips that can apply to any Twitter account:

Maintain a conversation

"There are some institutions that tend to put out more headlines of press releases or just general statements, which can be very helpful depending on the situation you're in. But I think it's also important to post something to show you're open to receiving questions and respond to those," McGregor said.

About half of what JPL posts on Twitter are replies to other people's tweets, she added.

Make time

Maintaining a Twitter account can be labor intensive. The JPL social media team, also maintains the social media sites for 20 other missions, McGregor said. The team will only start a new account if they know they can devote the time to it.

"It's not going to be the five minutes a day they think it will be," McGregor said.

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