AUSTIN, TX: NASA, the US space agency, has helped build a group of online advocates by holding offline events for select users of social media services like Facebook and Twitter.

Veronica McGregor, the organisation's news/social media manager, discussed this topic at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas - and suggested these real-world meet-ups both built and enhanced digital connections.

"We can be on all the social media platforms we spot," she asserted. (For more, including examples of how these fans have supported NASA in practice, read Warc's exclusive report: How NASA mastered the social media universe.)

"But there's something very special about putting the 'social' back into social media, and having face-to-face meetings with people and getting people who enjoy space and science together in a room for a day or two days to learn about what we're doing."

Since 2009, NASA has convened more than 100 gatherings at its own locations across America and some other sites, with the aim of drawing in a diverse range of enthusiasts.

"We're up to over 6,000 alumni now, and those alumni still maintain groups with their individual events that they went to, and then a larger alumni group that they belong to," said McGregor.

"And these people have been phenomenal in helping us spread the word about what we do. And that was one of the great benefits. We really didn't think it was going to turn into that, but that was what it turned into."

Between 25 and 50 applicants generally attend each NASA confab, which last anywhere from a single evening to 48 hours.

Its recent meetings have spanned watching the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite take off, discussing the organisation's influence on aeronautics and an insight into its plans to land a craft on a comet.

And whether they are talking with astronauts, viewing launches or going behind the scenes at research centres, attendees are able to share their experiences via social media.

"We give everybody power. We give everybody great WiFi access so they can all talk about what they are learning," said McGregor.

And the engagement does not end when events finish: rather, their enthusiasm then goes on to have an impact among the communities in which they live and work.

"People from different walks of life: they go back and they spread the word to their community," said McGregor.

"That's, again, key for us: we might never have made into that group of people before in terms of having them get interested in NASA missions and what we're doing."

Data sourced from Warc