How a simple photo project got 4 million fans + a #1 bestselling book (7 lessons from the rise of Humans of New York)

I came across Humans of New York several years ago. Then, it was a Facebook fan page with some photos, and maybe 30,000 fans. I think the main reason I looked at it was that another page with the word ‘humans’ in the title got me curious. However within 20 seconds of browsing the Humans of New York (HONY) page I was hooked. The concept was simple: one man, Brandon Stanton, was walking around New York, taking photos of individuals he met walking the streets and posting them to this Facebook page. But it wasn’t just the photos that people were looking at. It was the captions and stories attached to them:   Fastforward to today and Humans of New York has grown from a one-man page to a #1 New York Times bestselling photography book (it sold so well there were multiple-week waiting lists to get hold of a copy for over a month after it launched). HONY has also become a Facebook phenomenon, with over 4 million fans (I’d guess that half of people reading this post today have already liked the HONY page). Funny, poignant, unexpected, smart and chock full of human connection with a great photo to boot: what’s not to like? Well, turns out that New York’s publishers found quite a lot not to like. Before all this happened, Brandon pitched to ‘just about every publisher in town’, got rejected multiple times, being told the photography book he had in mind would never be published. So what did he do to get from (yet another) unknown guy with a camera to one of the best known photography book authors of the moment? The answers to that question why I’m sharing this post with you today. Here’s my take on what made HONY take off among the thousands of photo-blogging ideas out there.

7 lessons anyone with a small idea can learn from HONY’s rise

 

1. Start before you’re ready.

Brandon took his first photos when on his way to work in Chicago in 2009. At first he took photos of “anything” on the streets, but soon realised that his photos of people were what he enjoyed most and got the best response, so he decided to specialise. His first New York photos came after he lost his job in finance in 2010. Thinking “it would be really cool to create an exhaustive catalogue of New York City’s inhabitants,” his aim was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers and plot their photos on a map. This project soon became something else.

2. Let things evolve.

As Brandon said in an interview with New York Metro, “Humans of New York was really an evolution. It wasn’t a fully formed idea that I thought of and executed”. You see the 10,000 people project sounded interesting enough… but for the first year, not many people noticed this self-taught photographer’s posts. Plus he was new in the city and didn’t know anyone – conditions that would have led many people to give up. But Brandon didn’t – and something unexpected happened. “Somewhere along the way HONY began to take on a much different character. I started collecting quotes and short stories from the people I met, and began including these snippets alongside the photographs”. Turns out, this changed everything. As Brandon noticed his captions were getting as much interest as the pictures themselves, he shifted to focus his efforts on the interviews, seeking to get better at the questions and picking the answers to share. This approach of listen-and-evolve is key to the Humans of New York story. The success of HONY has been down to ” a constant process of ditching what’s not working, and doubling down on what’s working,” Brandon said in a Reddit AMA. “Prime example: I noticed that social media was where my growth was. So I removed my ‘free-standing’ website, and began hosting 100 percent of my content on social media.”

3. Follow your flow

Here’s the thing. None of this would have happened without the moment of connection and feeling we fans get when we read a typical HONY post.   So how did that ‘secret sauce’ come to light? I’d argue it had its birth as a product of flow. Here’s what I mean by this: We all have an unconscious ‘flow moment’ – a secret superpower if you will. This is usually something we do that we find easy or fun and barely notice… but that others value. Brandon’s moment was not in photography. Of course he is a great photographer… but when, as a result of the book, HONY photographs made the front page of the New York Times’ “Arts” section – it was with the accompanying line “passable photography skills” (which, in typical HONY style was the only quote from that otherwise glowing piece, posted to the HONY fan page!). In short: in a city filled with photographers of Brandon’s skill level and up, his success is not in photography alone. Instead Brandon’s moment of flow seems to be in understanding people: he knows the right questions to ask (his subjects seem willing to share their innermost thoughts and feeling after meeting him for only a few minutes) and then moves his though to the reader and time and time again he picks just the right snippet to share to bring a picture to life for us. That level of connection he creates between the reader and a stranger on the street something unique in a world that can feel all too easily disconnected. In just a few minutes and just a few lines a flow moment is born. This guy is one hell of a storyteller and does it both in the asking and the selection of the words, creating connection between the person on the street at the person behind the laptop (whether they be in Brooklyn, Boise or Birmingham). This is not just a photo site – it’s a movement about stories and connection, and that’s where this creator shines. Here’s the thing: as I said in Be A Free Range Human, most of us ignore our biggest strength, or our flow moments (because they are natural to use, they seem too inconsequential).  Instead we work hard to get good at our second, third or fifth best thing… leaving the first for the weekends. It would have been all too easy for Brandon to miss his moment altogether. He could easily have said: “heck anyone can draw out stories from strangers on the street. That’s just chatting. I want to be a ‘real’ photographer, and real photographers don’t rely on words.” (and promptly disappear into the mass of people who deny their moment of flow in order to try to be someone else). It’s no co-incidence that many businesses, projects and movement that stand out and take off are by a founder who did not ignore their moments of ease and flow, but instead dove right into them. That’s a key difference between ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’. The willingness to break the rules of a medium to be more ‘you’ is a theme among many successful free rangers-  and this project would not have taken off without it.   [SIDE NOTE: when I asked free range tribe members what they believed was the one thing that made HONY take off this theme of human connection and story was the single biggest response – another validation of the impact of this approach].

4. Cultivate a movement

Hop on to the HONY page and, right after the photos and the captions, the thing you’ll notice is the strength of community in the comments section. This community has come together from around the world to become something special: with thousands of photos and millions of people the comments are still (usually) welcoming and supportive… without the snark that can develop in other big online comment spaces. This is partly because it is moderated effectively, but also partly because of the example of the founder and the tone that is set in all the posts. What’s more, these strangers have come together to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for causes from the stories shared in the photos. It goes down to the details too: over Christmas, Brandon’s girlfriend opens up a spreadsheet, and puts out a call for New York based HONY folk who don’t have anywhere to go for Christmas… and for those who have a spare seat at the table. These strangers get matched up, guests are hosted and new friends are found.  (She even did it last year when the community shot up into the millions). Connection is all over HONY: from the connection we feel with the humans in the photos to the connection generated by people making this community their own, this is a place that makes the vast unconnected word feel much smaller and more welcoming.

5. Think big and smart (ie: don’t baulk if you can’t get it tomorrow)

Brandon wanted a photography book published but instead of sighing about how hard the publishing industry is (or saying that he had no training as a photographer or a writer, so didn’t have a chance at getting accepted), he thought like a free range human. To start with, he knew that if he had any chance at getting the book deal he wanted, he needed to grow a good following. So that’s what he did, day after day. It’s the intersection between creating something valuable AND getting it out there that leads to these successes. As Inc Magazine said, Humans of New York is “a mesmerizing study of humanity and offers an amazing guide on how to create a social media frenzy”. The core value and what is done with it from there, both matter.

6. Don’t give up at the first rejection (aka know your value)

With all this strength of community and growing fan base it may be a surprise to hear that a book deal did not slip into Brandon’s lap. But the truth is, it didn’t. The HONY book idea was rejected by almost every publisher in New York. They explained that it couldn’t work because it a) was a regional book, that only New Yorkers would buy and b) those sorts of photography books don’t sell. With the costs of production of a book like this, they couldn’t take a punt. Yet Brandon kept pitching – not because he was blind to the commercial pressures the publishers were under, but because he knew the publishers had missed something crucial. They simply hadn’t believed how far Brandon’s community spread around the country and around the world. There were already people on the HONY page from places far away from NYC (*waves*) who were highly engaged on the page every day who would not only buy the book… but tell everyone they met about it. Finally Macmillan (who were clearly the only publishers in town who knew how to use Facebook!) agreed to take on the project and it went from there.

7. Succeed gracefully – and in the end, never alone

Brandon’s success has been beautiful to watch because at the heart of it, he comes across as a likeable person. (Let’s just say that anyone who describes their book’s ongoing position in the New York Times bestseller list as akin to sticking to the bottom of the rankings “like a frightened barnacle” gets my vote). So when his book came out, and reached #1 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list by the end of its first week, it wasn’t just one person who celebrated…. it was hundreds of thousands of people who had made HONY their own. During the last 3 days of Nov 2013 they sold out their entire stock for the holiday season… and it wasn’t just New Yorkers or Americans wanting it, the waiting list extended to just about every country you can think of. And it has kept on going to this day.

 who would have guessed

Which brings us to the final part of the picture:

When looking at the reason for the reason for why something works, it’s hard to pin down just ‘one thing’ and the truth is that there is always more than one thing at play. Which is why I’d started by highlighting what I think are HONY’s Big 7 here – but I am sure there are others. Much like Humans of New York’s tales of people on the street go beyond the surface level small talk, so does each ‘success story’ have more depth. In the end, this isn’t a story about social media or photos or captions or publishing strategy or following your flow or evolving or even the power of connection in an increasingly unconnected world. It’s not even a story about persistence for a year when no one was watching. It’s a story about all those things, and more, coming together to allow something to arise that is, in the end, greater than a tick-the-boxes formula could ever allow. Which, time after time, is how free range successes are made.  

Which of these 7 stood out to you? Would you add anything to the list? Drop a comment below and let us know!

 

LOVE POSSIBILITIES? GET THIS:

Today the world is full of opportunities for people who want to do things differently, and I think you're one of them. Now it's time to find out how. Drop your name below to get in on my Friday Love Letter with ideas and inspiration for creating life on YOUR terms (now, rather than in 10 years time):

  • Vixter On Tour

    Thanks so much for this, Marianne! I love HONY and it gives me great hope for the future to know that projects like this can really take off and become so incredibly successful. This post has just reminded me to keep plugging away and to ‘go with my flow’. You’ve made my Friday! :-)

  • Helen Nott

    Humans of New York is a fantastic project which really captures the heart of conversations. Your story of its creation gives a deeper meaning and is a real inspiration to just follow what feels right – get tapped in to intuition!!

  • ladieswhoimpress

    A great story and a great post! Thank you

  • Marley

    Thanks Marianne, this is a perfect example of planting seeds and watering them until hey presto! Pretty much sums up your philosophy that anything and everything is possible by creating our futures rather than searching for them.

  • Michał Wawrzyniak

    Amazing story Marianne! Thank you so much. It gaves me hope and ideas :)

  • Caitlin

    I loved this analysis – thank you so much!

  • Don O’Connell

    Don

  • Don O’Connell

    Many thanks for the inspiring account, Marianne. A couple of things in this story have given me food for thought.

Previous post:

Next post: