When you think about high tech communications and social networks, chances are that the U.S. Government doesn’t exactly spring to mind. However, there are some government agencies making a good show in social networking to raise awareness and educate the public on its projects. Of particular interest are NASA and the Department of the Interior, both of which juggle hundreds of individual social presences.

“It’s part of NASA’s founding charter to spread information about science, technology, engineering, and math to the public,” says Rebecca Roth, Social Media Specialist with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, one of a number of NASA field centers. “We use social media to bring all that material and news to where people are already spending their time.”

Similarly, the Department of the Interior is targeting outreach with its social program. “Most people in the U.S. live within an hour or two of public lands,” explains Tim Fullerton, the Department’s Director of Digital Strategy. “We want to make sure they know the opportunities that are available to them across the country. Social has been a very useful tool for us to reach new audiences and to educate the American people on what we do.”

While this may seem like a far cry from what we use social for in business circles, we’re definitely interested in how these large government agencies manage multiple social channels with apparent ease, all while engaging audiences and building follower counts. So just how do these organizations do it and what can we learn from them?

Organization Is Essential

NASA has nearly 500 individual social media accounts spread over numerous social networks, covering the agency’s many projects and field offices. And the Department of Interior has a similar story — it manages thousands of accounts, some at the department level and more in the bureaus it oversees, like the National Park Service. Keeping tabs on all of that activity is an impressive feat, especially with the small teams both agencies have — two people at NASA and three at Interior.

“We break it down,” says John Yembrick, Social Media Manager at NASA. “For example, NASA Goddard is one of NASA’s field centers. Every field center has a social media lead. Most of the projects of the agency are located at the field centers. So what happens is, ideally, the social media lead coordinates with missions that actually function there and then we coordinate with them.”

But even Yembrick admits the number of accounts could seem excessive. So why maintain so many accounts? “Historically, NASA gets recognized for big projects: the space shuttle, the International Space Station, the Mars Curiosity rover. Everybody knows about those things, but they don’t know about all the little projects we’re doing, like making air traffic control safer, making aircraft safer. So when someone tells me they want to open a new social media account and give those little projects a voice, I’m all for it. That’s the beauty of social media.”

Building Engaged Audiences

With so many accounts, the exact social reach of these organizations is hard to measure. On Twitter, @NASA reaches over 4 million followers and on Facebook it has 2 million Likes. But if you look to NASA’s field centers, you’ll find Goddard has 93,000 Twitter followers with an additional 45,000 followers on a separate Twitter account highlighting photos. As the only NASA presence on photo-sharing service Instagram, Goddard has an impressive 314,000 followers.

While the Department of the Interior doesn’t have these huge numbers — 86,000 followers on Twitter and 44,000 followers on Instagram — it’s still a social success. “It’s the second largest government Instagram account,” explains Fullerton. “There’s NASA, and it’s kind of hard to compete with NASA. But for a department that a lot of people don’t know about, second place isn’t bad.”

As to how both have built followings, content is king. “Not only do we think a lot about what we post and interact with the audience constantly,” says Aries Keck with NASA Communications at Goddard, “We also have the benefit of having great, astounding, at times literally out of-this-world content to share.” Interior doesn’t have out of this world images, but it does have some incredible earth-bound photography featuring the National Parks and other public lands. The stunning photos highlighted on Instagram — and the department has plans to take them to the newly redesigned Flickr, too — has led to organizations ranging from Buzzfeed to the Washington Times pointing them out as a must-follow.

But good content isn’t everything, and engagement is key to social success. “It’s not just news releases and posting content on the Internet,” Yembrick explains. “It’s thinking about how we reach the public directly and how they share and actually interact with our content. If we post a video, do they watch the video or walk away from it? Or images — we want people to interact with them, to share them, to not just talk about them but to understand what they are.”

Taking Lessons From the Government

Not every organization is of the size to have hundreds of social media accounts. However, the core social media strategy that both NASA and the Department of the Interior are using to spread their messages makes good social sense for any organization. You can basically break their success down into the following two rules.

First, only share things that are worth sharing. While we all don’t have access to the amazing images that NASA and the Department of the Interior display on their social pages, we can make sure that we’re only posting links, content, and other information that’s worth our followers’ time and interest.

Second, engage your audience. A social network isn’t a void, and if your followers are talking to you, you should be talking back. Additionally, everyone we spoke to at these government agencies was passionate about the work they do. Passion definitely shows in their interactions with their followers and is a huge contributing factor in their success.

[Image credits: NASA Goddard, Department of the Interior, NASA Mars Curiosity Rover, Greg Chancey]