Sometimes being immersed in the business of social media makes me hesitant to jump on the viral bandwagon of the next great Twitter handle, the latest must-read blog, the Facebook page everyone’s talking about, and so on. So a few years ago, when my New York friends started liking, sharing, and raving about posts from a Facebook page called Humans of New York (known by its loyal followers as HONY), I resisted. How great could a few pictures of random people on the street be? Turns out, pretty great.

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After moving to New York City in 2010, Brandon Stanton began to combine his newfound love of photography with his fascination with the people of his new home – thus the Tumblr blog and corresponding Facebook page for Humans of New York were born. Today, the blog is the favourite of Tumblr’s founder, David Karp, and has 3 million loyal followers, with each post receiving thousands of notes.

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On Facebook, the HONY page has 3.8 million fans and approximately 1.4 million people are talking about it. Posts regularly receive likes in the 100k range or more, even into the millions, and they’re shared and commented upon in the thousands. Even more telling, the comments themselves form a world of their own, revealing an impressively engaged community, with individual comments in the stream receiving thousands of likes and dozens of replies.

Thanks to this viral social media success, Stanton published a book of his collected portraits last October, and it promptly rose to number one in nonfiction on The New York Times Best Seller list in early November, remaining on the list for 18 consecutive weeks.

Stanton has also used the popularity of his blog and Facebook page to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in charity donations. After a copyright dispute with DKNY, Stanton posted a request that the fashion brand donate $100k to fund a summer camp initiative through his local YMCA. After thousands of shares and intense pressure, DKNY agreed to donate $25k. Working with the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, HONY helped raise an additional $103k.

Other fundraising efforts have raised impressive sums for a range of causes, from sending a young boy on a Wild West Adventure to funding relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy. One campaign to help fund a couple’s adoption raised more than $26k via Indiegogo in 90 minutes, becoming one of the fastest funded campaigns in the crowdfunding site’s history. Of the $83k raised by the efforts, most donations came in $10 increments from people in 41 countries across the world.
So, what is the secret to HONY’s success? Storytelling.

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In an interview with Mashable, Stanton explained how his approach has evolved over time: “It went from photography to pictures of people; from pictures of people to portraits of people; from portraits of people to captions with the photograph. It went from captions to stories to where it is, fully formed, today — which is these very deep interactions with strangers on the streets.” This is where he hooked me.

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The concept is not new, many newspapers in New York and around the world have run similar features for years, but Stanton realised early on that social media was the best place to truly give the idea a life of its own. As a cultural curator on the streets of New York, Stanton has an incredibly rich source to draw from. Tapping into the powerful emotions of strangers, he creates portraits that combine captivating images with compelling ruminations on everything people find most important in life – love, identity, family, work, death, and more. These are topics that elicit conversation, passion, and debate. Posts range from the uplifting, inspirational, and poignant to the funny, mundane, and everyday. Some are unexpectedly philosophical, surprisingly confessional, and many aren’t afraid to touch upon controversial topics like religion, sexuality, inequality, and immigration.

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For anyone working in social media, HONY offers a welcome celebration of what makes us truly love the medium and a reminder of the basic tenets of successful content: be genuine and offer real value. Of course, its exact approach and subject matter may not be right for every audience, brand, or business, but here are a few other helpful takeaways of HONY’s popularity:

  • Covers universal and important themes people can identify with.
  • Offers real value, an emotional experience, a peek into the lives of strangers we couldn’t otherwise access.
  • Creates visually arresting imagery that stops people in their tracks as they scroll through their feeds.
  • Discovers diverse people and subjects that appeal to a diverse audience – different ages, sexual orientations, economic backgrounds, cultures, and origins.
  • Develops thought-provoking stories that invite conversation and make posts memorable and shareable. We don’t just want to listen to the stories; we want to participate in them.

Overall, Humans of New York gives us a much-needed reminder when in the trenches surrounded by KPIs, striving for greater ROI, working to boost acquisition and engagement while gathering stats and crafting content – social media is ultimately a human endeavour.