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10 Lessons for Social Media Managers from ‘The Martian’

If you haven’t seen Ridley Scott’s new movie, The Martian, starring Matt Damon as an American astronaut marooned on Mars, you’re missing out—and not just on a fantastic cinematic experience. The film opens with NASA’s Ares crew working on the red planet. When a sandstorm moves in fast, astronaut Mark Watney is lost, and presumed dead. His commander makes the tough decision to abandon Watney and the mission, heading home to Earth with the other crew members. From there, the story becomes a riveting fight for Watney’s survival, and so much more—ultimately giving filmgoers hope for humanity.

If you are employed as a social media manager, responsible for your company’s social media strategy, marketing, and analytics, there are important lessons to be learned from this feel-good film.

Here are ten key takeaways:

  1. Radio silence is not good

Until he jury-rigs the old Pathfinder probe, Watney has no way to communicate with NASA. He knows everyone thinks he’s dead, but he vows, “I’m not going to die here,” even though the odds against his survival are overwhelming.

As a social media strategist, of course, you’re aware of social media’s importance. At a minimum, you maintain a website with a company blog. Perhaps you have profiles on sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Vine, Pinterest, and Snapchat. Extra credit for a Youtube channel.

But are you really participating in the collective sharing of information, and the conversations that go on around you? When did you publish your last blog article? Be honest, was it months ago? Are you interacting with your customers, or just responding to complaints? Do you ask them how you can do better? It could open a can of worms, you say. It also might lead you to new insights.

On social media, customer engagement rules. Radio silence is never a good thing. If you’re not taking part in the conversation, you might as well be castaway on Mars.

   2. Humor and Twitter are made for each other

Mark Watney throws off a lot of humorous asides as he chronicles his lonely mission for posterity:


If your CEO or any of your top staff rules the soundbite, encourage them to engage in social media.

You can’t bore your audience; it’s a cardinal sin. But if you can engage a diverse group of people and build enthusiasm via shared interests, you’re golden. By the way, the real NASA is not too shabby at social media marketing. Take a look at the Twitter feed of @MarsCuriosity, where the Curiosity rover tweets in real-time. That wise-cracking piece of machinery has over two million followers! But be aware that employing sarcasm has its pitfalls. Without context, sarcasm cuts like razor wire.

Social media the sh*t out of this.

3. Even in vacuum-sealed labeled pouches, your sh*t smells

There’s a right way and a wrong way to apologize. NASA’s chief Teddy Sanders makes the tone-deaf mistake of announcing Watney’s presumed death by starting, “Unfortunately…” You can practically see NASA’s Director of Media Relations, Annie Montrose, cringing in the background. It is appropriate for Sanders to deliver the bad news, but he should have been coached to deliver it better.

Later on, “Our Bad. Sincerely, NASA,” Montrose jokes privately. She knows that what you say and how you say it matters. Wouldn’t it be fun to follow her around if she wore a body cam like Watney does on EVAs?

If your company screws up, you’re going to have to acknowledge the fact, and do your best to make it right with clients and customers. Yes, the golden rule applies to social media. Make sure no one photographs the top brass whooping it up after making a grave announcement. Somber occasions require somber faces.

Hello, Volkswagen.

4. Even NASA doesn’t have an unlimited budget

Mars Mission Director Vince Kapoor has to beg for satellite time, and money’s not the only thing at stake (Watney’s corpse could pop up on the video feed).

Fortunately for you, there’s a lot you can do even with a limited budget. That’s the beauty of social media strategy, that everyone who wants to can have a voice. Share content that has the potential to change your audience’s lives for the better. Make your social media voice count, and someone else will share it for free.

Remember, going viral doesn’t cost one thin dime.

5 #BringHimHome


The movie poster showcases Watney’s weary face inside his bubble helmet, with the tagline: “Bring Him Home.” Both brilliant and elegant in its economy of words, this tagline should definitely give you a case of #hashtag envy. When you are working on a social media marketing campaign to launch a new product, three words can rock. Make sure they’re the right three words.

When young astrodynamicist Rich Purnell proposes a way to rescue the missing astronaut, he goes with “Project Elrond.” It makes perfect sense to NASA and JPL top management, but to the general public, who may not have obsessively read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it won’t resonate.

Your words need to resonate. If your customers are software developers who use your company’s platform for developing leading edge apps, nerd words are appropriate.

It is your job to define your customers, so that you know which words and graphics will appeal.

6. Engage all your resources

One of the movie’s joys is seeing the cultures at NASA and JPL, where those lower down on the rung, like Mission Specialist Mindy Park who first notices clues that Watney is alive, and Purnell, who calculates a risky rescue scenario, are encouraged to run with good ideas and information to their superiors. They are obviously not worried that they will be barred or shut out from important discussions if they have something important to contribute.

When you’re planning a social media campaign, you want and should seek out input from all facets of the company. Humans come wired for story, so the more and varied ways you can tell that story helps get your message across. From videos of things that don’t work to things that finally do, it’s all fodder and fun. Plus, it builds community inside and outside your company.

Work with all your resources.

7. Don’t be afraid to challenge assumptions

There’s a risky mission on the table to rescue Watney.

“It’s bigger than one person,” says NASA’s chief, worried about losing more astronauts.

“No. It’s not,” argues Mitch Henderson, Ares mission head.

When the first resupply rocket blows up, there’s disagreement over what is the right course of action to try next. In the movie, there are no villains. Everyone wants to see Watney home safe and sound; decisions are all about risk management. And just because the risk is great doesn’t mean the reward isn’t greater.

Social media isn’t rocket science. You can afford to experiment.

8. Analytics matter

“Let’s do the math,” Watney announces.

Early on, he counts all the meals he has, to see how long he can stay alive. His answer shows he’ll starve before the next Mars landing. He needs Plan B, beginning with growing potatoes in the hab. “Mars will come to fear my botany powers,” he declares.

Every setback Watney faces, he tries something new, using his mechanical engineering smarts to reach a singular goal: making it out of Mars alive.

Use your social media analytics to craft the best way to reach your goal. Do you know when’s the best time to post on social media? When is your audience online? Is it an effective strategy to be a contrarian and post late at night?

Do you get more likes at certain times? Do certain calls to action convert more than others? Do you get more engagement when you use photos or graphics to prove your points? What about video? If you’re not measuring the numbers, you can’t know whether your strategy is effective. Smhack can help you measure the right numbers.

Take advantage of the numbers now to tweak your campaigns.

9. Take responsibility

“You were following orders. I left him behind,” Commander Lewis tells her crew on the Hermes space station when NASA finally tells them that Watney is alive, four months into their return journey. Later, when the crew gets a coded Hexadecimal message from Henderson, about how they could mount a rescue, the vote is unanimous to go back for Watney.

The takeaway here is if you leave someone behind, you go back for him, but it’s also about effective leadership. Lewis has to make certain decisions solo; others require consensus, and she is wise enough to know which is which.

You also want buy-in for your social media strategies. Get that consensus before you go live.

10. The whole world is watching

“Tell them I love what I do, and I’m really good at it.” Watney asks Lewis to convey this message to his parents if he bites it after all.

You can’t fake enthusiasm. As The Martian comes to a nail-biting finish, literally the whole world is listening in on the Hermes’ transmissions to find out if the captain and crew can rescue their missing astronaut.

The media lesson here is you never know when something you do on social media is going to go viral, but when it does, boom! Be ready. Be grateful, and capitalize on the goodwill you’ve built up.

Don’t forget to say thanks, as many times and in as many ways as you can manage.

Concluding thoughts

Employ these ten social media lessons, and you’ll soon be on your way—not to Mars—but to crafting creative new social media strategies. And if you haven’t seen The Martian yet? Consider this article your excuse!

What did you get out of The Martian as it relates to social media strategy? Join the discussion!