"We focus on content that is visually compelling & tells a story, so that when our followers see the image, they will take the time to read the caption and engage with the post." - Shannon Ridinger, @nasa_marshall
Over the past month, I've been preparing a scientific study with Dr. Nicole Dahmen of how science is depicted on Instagram. We recently submitted a conference paper on the subject! But I've also been wanting to get a more personal perspective of how Instagram is being used by science communicators. So I've invited science instagrammers to answer a few of my questions about their science IG practices.
Fourth up in this series is Shannon Ridinger from the NASA Marshall Instagram account, @nasa_marshall. Shannon is the Public Affairs Officer and Social Media Lead for NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. I met Shannon during a NASA Social event this summer in New Orleans. I've asked Shannon to tell us about her Instagram practices for NASA Marshall in the Q&A below. Enjoy!
*Some links below to particular Instagram posts added by Paige. Light editing for clarity.
Me: When did you start Instagramming for NASA? Which account do you manage?
Shannon Ridinger: We started the NASA Marshall account about two years ago.
Me: Do you use Instagram to share straight science, or more to share "life at NASA"?
Shannon Ridinger: We do a little bit of both, but primarily science and engineering related posts. We have found that our Instagram audience tends to like more pictures of space (things like images from our Chandra Observatory or images from meteor showers or from the International Space Station) and space hardware (components for the new Space Launch System rocket or technology related to 3D printing). Our “life at NASA” content does better on Facebook, so that’s where we put most of that. We try to tailor our content to the platforms it best lends itself to rather than put the exact same thing on every platform.
Me: That's interesting that "life at NASA" content does better on Facebook... Could it be a demographic factor, or a matter of what people are looking for when they browse Facebook vs scroll down their Instagram feeds?
Me: What are your goals / NASA Marshall's goals when instagramming? To inform? To entertain? To promote the scientific work of NASA?
Shannon Ridinger: I’d say with our NASA Marshall account our primary goal is inform our audience of things we at Marshall, and NASA in general, are discovering & working on, why they matter and are important, and how the things we are learning can help us all on Earth. We want the public engaged and excited about NASA because we are doing some really exciting work.
Part of being successful on social media is learning to balance the entertainment value with the education value, and space content really lends itself well to being able to do those two things.
Me: What kinds of things do you usually post on the NASA Marshall Instagram account? How often do you post?
Shannon Ridinger: We post normally once a day, occasionally two, depending on what’s going on for the day. We post updates related to things we are working on at NASA Marshall and also things that are happening NASA-wide.
For example, over the last couple of weeks we’ve posted a picture of astronaut Kate Rubins on the International Space Station, images from the Chandra Observatory X-Ray (Marshall manages this), components from the Space Launch Rocket (NASA Marshall is the NASA center in charge of designing & building the rocket), the James Webb telescope, and a throwback Thursday post on the Saturn V rocket. We try to keep a good mix of Marshall specific topics but also things happening NASA-wide, and we focus on content that is visually compelling & tells a story, so that when our followers see the image, they will take the time to read the caption and engage with the post.
Me: Were you given guidelines or a general strategy for what/how to share on the @nasa_marshall account?
Shannon Ridinger: Our NASA headquarters social team is wonderful, and all of our center accounts fall under them. They encourage all NASA accounts to be unique and compelling, and their primary guidelines are to use content that is well-done, tells a meaningful, thoughtful story and gets our messages across.
Me: How often do you post original visuals you created yourself (e.g. photos you take at NASA events), vs. reposting images or videos created by others, e.g. NASA scientific images? What are your favorite kinds of things to post on Instagram for NASA Marshall?
Shannon Ridinger: A lot of our images are from other NASA sources simply because they are from space so we have to depend on the NASA resources to get them. For things like rocket hardware or rocket launches or new technology, we usually take our own or we have an official NASA photographer take them.
The biggest thing we do to get good images that we take on our own is to clearly define what we are looking for up front and talk through how our messages are going to be perceived in a specific photograph.
Me: What kind of reception do you get on the NASA Marshall Instagram science posts? What kinds of posts seem to get the most likes/comments?
Shannon Ridinger: Really great. Our followers love images of things like black holes and supernovas taken from space. Photos of science experiments on the International Space Station usually do really well too – Marshall is home to the Payload Operation Integrations Center that manages science experiments onboard the ISS, so we really love promoting that work when we can, and our viewers seem to love seeing it.
Missions that have given us a lot of science data – like Juno to Jupiter and New Horizons to Pluto – also do really great on Instagram. Viewers love seeing the photos of planets and we feel like those photos give us a great platform to talk about the science those missions are doing.
Me: How do you KNOW when something / some piece of science content is Instagram-worthy? (What kinds of standards do you use when posting to Instagram about science for @nasa_marshall)?
Shannon Ridinger: It’s really a gut feeling that comes from staying in the channel and learning it inside and out. Sometimes we’ve gotten photos that I thought were going to be good for Instagram but I decided to use them on another platform because I thought they were a better fit. And then the opposite has happened. I have taken photos and thought I would use them on other platforms but ended up posting on Instagram. I work closely with the person in our office who primarily updates Instagram daily to really look at our content, see what people are engaging with and how we can take the things that are happening and turn them into good Insta posts.
Basic standards are high res images, no grainy or unfocused images, no images that show proprietary or sensitive information, and we try to keep our captions reasonably short.
Me: Anything else you'd like to add about your science Instagramming practices, or tips for others getting into using Instagram for science?
Shannon Ridinger: It’s definitely a learning process and a work in progress. My advice to others would be pay attention to your channels and really look at what content is being liked and engaged with, and really get to know your channel inside and out. Do what works best for you! You can take all the advice in the world, but there’s really no substitute to being informed about your content and listening to your audience to find out the kinds of content they care about.
*Update* Me: How did you end up creating social media content for NASA Marshall?
Shannon Ridinger: I was the communication manager at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Sequoyah Nuclear Plant near Chattanooga, TN before I came to NASA. I did a little bit of everything there, but a lot of internal communications and community relations. I was hired as a public affairs officer NASA, and at the time, there was also a need for someone to take over the social media responsibilities at the center. That was about four years ago, and we were just getting into social media and really building our channels. I became the social media lead at this time, and have continued in the role. I really educated myself on platforms and what works best on what channel by looking at our metrics and listening to our viewers, and using our HQs team (John Yembrick and Jason Townsend) as my mentors. They are really knowledgeable and have helped me so much in my role here.
How do YOU share science via Instagram? If you are a science Instagrammer and you'd like to be featured on my blog, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Read more about science Instagram practices: Share Fieldwork: Featuring Science Instagrammer shelbybo.