One of the most talked-about aspects of Colonel Chris Hadfield’s journey on the International Space Station was how he intelligently harnessed the power of social media to engage the world in his other-worldly experience. Ned Potter, of Forbes.com, takes a look at Col. Hadfield’s social media strategy and what can be learned from it:
The 2013 version of David Bowie’s “Major Tom” was Chris A. Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut who, during his five months on the International Space Station, became such a phenomenon as @Cmdr_Hadfield on Twitter that he was hailed as perhaps the most famous spaceman since Neil Armstrong.
Why did he strike such a chord? There have been 530 space travelers since Yuri Gagarin, and in recent years plenty of them have tweeted pictures from orbit. Why did Hadfield succeed in popularizing space when so many other astronauts—no less brave or telegenic than he—came and went in near anonymity?
Hadfield is safely back on the ground now, slowly readjusting to life with gravity, but his social media campaign provided lasting lessons for more down-to-earth efforts. When he was launched, on December 19, he had about 20,000 Twitter followers; since he landed in May he has passed a million. He has had almost 400,000 “likes” on Facebook. His rendition of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (the 1969 lyrics say “Take your protein pills and put your helmet on”) had 15 million views on YouTube in two weeks.
I spent more than 20 years as a science reporter for ABC News, covering, among other things, Hadfield’s two previous space flights. From a journalist’s perspective, he was a great story. And to those of us who work in communications, he was a great example of how scientific matters can be made appealing.
It was not just that he went online. He offered notably little detail on the science of space travel, which has never been a great selling point for NASA. Instead, he connected with people. What he did could be a model for companies or institutions with something to say, scientific or otherwise:
- He had a clear message, that space travel is cool, worth doing, and (though he didn’t actually say it) worth funding.
- He targeted his audience, technologically-savvy social media users, mostly younger but not necessarily thinking about space. That is why he tweeted, did Facebook FB +1.4% posts, and used Reddit and Tumblr. He used more traditional media as well, but they weren’t his starting point.
- Above all, he was a wonderful storyteller, telling us, tirelessly and engagingly, about life in a remarkable place. He tweeted several photos of Earth every day, almost without pause, for 2,336 orbits. He did dozens of videos, mostly in the one-to-two-minute range that Web users prefer, showing what other astronauts took for granted: how you make a sandwich in microgravity, how you get a haircut, what happens when you wring out a weightless washcloth. (Hint: Water does not spray all over the cabin. In Hadfield’s hands, it does something mesmerizing.)
If you work hard enough at it, even a bad social-media campaign can succeed through sheer repetition. But Hadfield was beautiful. He never took himself too seriously. If anything, having proven his mettle long ago, he made a point of showing us that he had a nice, soft core. He made a video in which he answered the question of whether one can cry in space. Yes, he said, but the tears don’t roll down your cheeks. He demonstrated by squirting some water into his eye. The blob stayed in place, held by surface tension.
“I can’t cry on command,” he said, but he left the impression that tears come naturally to him.
“I’m sorry . . . but . . . could you be any cooler?” wrote a young woman on his Facebook page. A college student chimed in: “You’re my inspiration, Commander Chris Hadfield.”
Hadfield stayed on message. “What we’re doing on Space Station is fundamentally fascinating. And I think the evidence shows through a measure like Twitter,” he said in a news conference from orbit. “With these new technologies and these communications, we can directly give people the human side of that.”
After his return home he retired from the Canadian Space Agency, but you wouldn’t have known it from his Twitter feed. He did post a photo of applauding CSA staff members, and a message: “To say goodbye to these good people today was much harder than I expected.”
In the end, Hadfield came off as a regular guy tweeting to friends about his day. He became the kind of spokesperson every cause would love to have. He sold us on the mystical, beautiful, transformational experience he was having on his trip through space.