When I heard Chris Hadfield was going to be the commander of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2012, I thought he’d approach the job with the proper gravitas and a good sense of humour.
I’d had the great opportunity to meet Hadfield in person once, and speak to him on the phone another time when writing a story about how Canada’s technology keeps astronauts safe. So I had a feel for his attitude towards the space program as one of the veteran astronauts for the Canadian Space Agency. But I could never have predicted just how popular a figure Hadfield became during his stint in orbit. His social media skills skyrocketed him to celebrity status. Forbes magazine called him the “most social media savvy astronaut” and he’s also been described as the most-famous astronaut of the post-Apollo era. His worldwide book-signing tour that received international media attention is testament to that.
So how did he do it? Hadfield’s not the first astronaut to tweet from space, but he’s certainly won the most attention for doing so. In his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield shares some of the secrets behind his success. It turns out he wasn’t on his own, but had the experienced marketing chops of son Evan Hadfield behind his content. You could call Evan Chris’s “CMO” and the father-son team exemplifies some of the best practices of marketing. They’re worth considering for any digital marketer that is looking for a way to stand out from the pack.
Make the content good and the delivery simple
While in space, Hadfield had no shortage of opportunities to capture amazing content. The alien environment offered by a space station that faces all the splendour of our planet on one side and the celestial beauty of space on the other offers up a unique sensory experience that piques universal curiosity.
First of all, every second aboard the ISS offers a potential Kodak moment. The ISS completes an orbit of the Earth once every 180 minutes – that means there’s a sunrise every 90 minutes and a sunset every 90 minutes after that. Plus in space there’s no chance of missing the view of a sunset because of a cloudy day. A module called the Cupola offers the perfect space to capture these events, affixed to the bottom of the ISS (well, the side that points towards Earth), Hadfield describes it as a hexagonal room of windows that offer a 360-degree view directly facing our planet, including a 31-inch round window that is the largest to ever adorn a space vessel. The module has several professional-grade cameras at the ready for astronauts to capture the view when they please and Hadfield took advantage of that.
Bahamas Blues Festival pic.twitter.com/v0lg9xjvC4
— Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) May 27, 2013
As if the view of the planet from 100 miles above wasn’t good enough, Hadfield learned to look for the odd, unique, and extraordinary features that would capture interest. “Like the island off Turkey that looks, from space, like an exclamation point, or the river in Brazil that looks just like the ‘S’ on Superman’s chest,” he writes.
So Chris caught on to one of the keys to hooking an audience – be unusual and surprising. He was also hip to another critical factor in communicating with an audience thanks to Evan’s advice: show, don’t tell.
“Evan’s specialty is marketing, and he thought that when I got to the ISS, I should be marketing the beauty and wonder of space,” Hadfield writes. “It was my chance to stop telling people how inspiring the space program is, and start showing them.”
Recognize your weaknesses
In his book, Hadfield fondly remembers his first camera – a Kodak Instamatic. Unfortunately he also remembers developing his photos (which he describes as “god awful”) and realizing he’d never be a professional photographer. Not being a great photographer isn’t a huge problem for an astronaut, but being a great photographer and an astronaut would lead to some amazing opportunities to showcase the beauty of our planet from orbit.
The fact Hadfield recognized his weakness as a photographer meant he had the capacity to improve. NASA provided training opportunities that he took advantage of and he listened to his son Evan’s advice to persist and just look for opportunities to share his sense of wonder.
Having a weakness – whether it’s taking photos, writing, or designing landing pages – is nothing to be ashamed of. But not recognizing where you need help and trying to fake it can lead to disastrous results. Either look for opportunities to train up – like Hadfield did – or ask an expert to do that part for you.
People have been living where London now shines for 6500 years or more. Currently choosing night cities for the book. pic.twitter.com/SDnD1uBlJ7
— Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) April 24, 2014
Hadfield’s persistence paid off and now he’s even preparing to publish a second book that will be a collection of his best images captured while on board the International Space Station. You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes will be published by Little, Brown and Co. this fall and organize photos into continents to represent one idealized orbit of the planet.
Measure your results
While Hadfield was sending back great content from space, he had his own “social media mission control” back on Earth to concentrate on disseminating it and measuring what was effective. Evan tapped into his marketing background to take advantage of myriad digital channels, organizing an Ask Me Anything event on Reddit, and re-posting his Dad’s content to YouTube, Tumblr, Google+, Facebook, and SoundCloud.
When Hadfield posted a recording of his guitar playing made on an iPad, Evan noticed people were interested not only in the music, but in the background noises that could be heard on the ISS. So he tasked Hadfield with recording various sounds around the ISS, exposing people on Earth to a little bit more of the experience of being in orbit. Evan posted the recordings to SoundCloud for easy sharing.
Hadfield recalls that he had about 20,000 Twitter followers in December 2011, then 42,700 on Jan. 2, 2012 and by Jan. 7 he had 115,000. Today, he’s at more than 1 million followers, a success he attributes to Evan’s diligent social media posting and daughter Kristin’s statistical analysis of what posts were getting the best traction.
Be strategic about content delivery
Aside from Evan’s tactics reposting content across social channels and careful monitoring for what content resonated with people, the Hadfield clan also collaborated towards one big content win to put emphasis on Chris’ final days as commander of the ISS.
You’ve probably seen Hadfield’s Space Oddity music video by now – it’s been viewed more than 22.2 million times on YouTube. But you may not be aware of all the planning that went into it. It was Evan’s idea to make the first music video in space, Hadfield writes in his book. He also chose David Bowie’s song as a fitting recording to make – although Chris asked him to rewrite some of the lyrics so the astronaut doesn’t die. The Soyuz and the ISS are also mentioned in Evan’s version of the song.
Evan also planned months in advance, telling his Dad about the plan in his early days on the ISS. It took three months just to get permission from Bowie to use the song. Then there were all the people on Earth that coordinated to produce the music video. Emm Gryner added a piano track underneath Hadfield’s vocals, Joe Corcoran added more musical depth and produced it, and a team at the Canadian Space Agency reviewed Hadfield’s video to get legal approvals for its use. Chris had to do three takes to record the vocal track, and shoot all the footage by using a camera mounted to a flexible arm as he floated around.
All that work paid off. The first question Hadfield was asked by a reporter at a press conference after his return to Earth was if he knew his music video had received 7 million views.
“The purpose of the music video was to make the rare and beautiful experience of space flight more accessible,” Hadfield explained to the press. He wanted to demonstrate the importance of having humans, not robots, in space.
Thanks to some careful planning, a few more millions of people may now understand just that.