NASA: the first content marketers?

by Adam Hayes on 20 August 2015
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We've all seen the famous, grainy images of man's first tentative steps onto the moon's surface. 'It's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.' 

That one small step came with one giant price tag. Project Apollo was reported in 1973 to have cost some $25.4 billion in total - equivalent to well over $100 billion by today's standards.

Without that investment, the space program would have been dead in the water. How did NASA keep the taxpayer dollars rolling in?

There are, of course, many reasons. But there's little doubting that NASA's pioneering approach to marketing and PR - one of the earliest examples of brand journalism - played an enormous part. NASA essentially did what modern brands do - pumped out entertaining, insightful content to keep their 'customers' (in this case the American public) engaged.

That engagement fuelled public imagination and created a fervent, insatiable appetite for space exploration that was crucial to its eventual success. A new book, Marketing the Moon by David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek tells this incredible story in great detail.

It's clear that stories from our bygone space age still, nearly half a century later, carry a number of insights and learnings for today's content marketers.

Redefining what's possible

The primary goal of the space program was laid out by President Kennedy in 1961 - that, before the end of the decade, the United States would send a man to the moon, and return him safely to earth.

This, of course, was an unimaginably massive feat in itself. But, in order to make it happen, NASA had to crash through thousands of mini boundaries.

Take one significant example. Nowhere in Kennedy's speech had he mentioned that these events would be broadcast live from the moon. And yet, as the program gathered steam, it became apparent to NASA's top brass that the American public needed to see what their tax dollars were buying them, to maintain public interest and support.

The astronauts of Apollo 7 performed the first ever live broadcast from space in October 1968, and live broadcasts were a regular fixture of subsequent missions. The astronauts and technical staff tended not to be fans of bringing along TV viewers for the ride - to put it politely - but a handful of PR visionaries understood the value of content and continued to advocate for it.

As the program gathered pace and the first lunar landings loomed on the horizon, the design and, crucially, weight of the lunar lander became critically important. This was an incredibly delicate science whereby tiny variables in weight could make the difference between success and failure - life and death.

Julian Scheer, NASA's Public Affairs chief, recalls vividly how he had to battle to have a TV camera on board the module, telling engineers, 'You're going to have to take something else off. That camera is going to be on that spacecraft.' This was far from a priority for the engineers, but NASA's marketers knew how important it was that TV viewers were on board to witness the achievements of Apollo 11.

Of course, with hindsight, it's almost unthinkable to imagine a moon landing without that grainy TV camera. A staggering and unprecedented 94% of the American television audience tuned in to watch Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon's surface; Scheer and his team were vindicated, and one of the most memorable moments in human history was beamed into millions of homes - an unforgettable image.

Good content ideas - even those that push the boundaries of what you feel may be possible - are always worth the struggle.

Journalism, not advertising

If you'll pardon the pun, NASA was really light-years ahead of its time with its approach to storytelling. In an era where conventional wisdom told you to advertise and sell-hard on billboards and in newspapers, NASA massively embraced the value of a great story, and orchestrated print and broadcast media to an expert degree.

They actively recruited people with a history in print and broadcast journalism to work in the Public Affairs team - people who knew what made a good story and understood how the press worked. The media was their direct route to US taxpayers and it was a route they exploited to a tee.

The world's press clamoured for details of NASA'S day-to-day technical innovations and mission developments, as well as the astronauts and their families. And with a team of ex-newsmen furnishing them with the juicy stories they wanted, the space program was never far from the front pages. 

Today, this model of brand storytelling utterly dominates old-school advertising. There are so many lessons in NASA's approach, but the most important are:

  • hire the right people.
  • intimately understand the media you're planning to use.
  • 'tell don't sell.' Stories that entertain, resonate and pull at the heart-strings are always better than technical jargon.

Closing Thoughts

If we accept that modern marketing is all about storytelling - and that the most successful marketers are the ones who push beyond conventional wisdom and accepted truths - then it's impossible to see NASA as anything other than marketing trailblazers and pioneers. Their efforts during the 1960s and 70s exemplify all these qualities and more.

In fact, even today, in an age where - regrettably - manned space exploration has been scaled back considerably, NASA remain committed to involving the public in their work.

The International Space Station orbits the earth every 92 minutes and can be observed on clear nights - NASA's 'Spot the Station' tool lets you know when and where it'll next pass over your area so you can get outside and see for yourself. NASA's priorities beyond earth orbit are now focused on Mars, and the agency expertly uses modern media to involve space buffs in that story - the Mars Curiosity Rover tweets photos from the surface of Mars on a daily basis. Amazing!

Content marketing best practices were a key part in getting NASA to the moon and back and you can bet that, wherever we go next - to Mars or beyond - we'll all be along for the journey thanks to NASA's awesome approach to brand journalism and storytelling.

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Content Marketing

Adam Hayes

Written by Adam Hayes

Hey - I'm Adam, Content Manager here at Wyzowl. I'm lucky enough to write words and tell stories for a living. I work with a weird and wonderful bunch of people who share my passion for digital marketing, brand storytelling and, of course, Mario Kart.