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How Humans of New York Went Viral on Facebook

In the last year, Brandon Stanton's amazingly simple project, Humans of New York, attracted nearly 1 million Facebook fans. Here's what you can learn from his experience.

“When my husband was dying, I said: ‘Moe, how am I supposed to live without you?’ He told me: ‘Take the love you have for me and spread it around.’”

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A couple of weeks ago, Brandon Stanton accidentally tapped his phone and updated his status on Facebook.

It was only the letter "Q," but within minutes it had 73 likes.

Amused, Stanton owned up to his mistake, posting a screenshot of the post. That post gathered more than 25,000 likes and nearly 600 comments.

Welcome to Stanton's world, where even mistakes go viral.

If you haven't checked out Stanton's photoblog and project, Humans of New York, I recommend you do so. It's a mesmerizing study of humanity and offers an amazing guide on how to create a social media frenzy.

Humans of New York

Stanton, 29, is a former Chicago bond trader and a self-taught photographer. He moved to New York in 2010, with the goal of photographing 10,000 people on the streets of his new home. He shot pictures every day, which he posted to his blog. 

For the first year, nobody noticed. But then Stanton started adding short captions -- quotes from the conversations he'd had with his subjects -- and that little bit of context sparked an Internet sensation.

street1
"I'm an audacity coach."

A year into the effort, his Facebook page, on which he posts every photo, had 75,000 likes. Today it has over 900,000.

The site has sparked imitators around the world, and led Stanton to take on other street photography projects in places like Boston, San Francisco -- and even Iran. Stanton says he doesn't want to monetize Humans of New York (also known as HONY), although he has used the site to raise money for charity.

He makes a living by freelancing, but will soon count sales from his upcoming book.

Lately Stanton has been mostly focused on the book, but he did take time to do a Reddit AMA in which he explained the story behind his success. For anyone looking to make their message stick, here are the biggest takeaways:

Follow Your Passion -- But Listen to Your Audience

Stanton said his first idea was to post all 10,000 portraits on an interactive map of the city. Think about that for a second -- even taking 10 portraits a day, every day, without a break would be a two-year-plus project. You don't set out to do something like that unless you're utterly passionate about the idea.

But he adapted his vision when he saw how his audience responded.

street2
"No time like bro time."

"The path of HONY has been a constant process of ditching what's not working, and doubling down on what's working," he said in the 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.

As another example, Stanton said he noticed that when people commented on or shared his photographs, the captions and stories were as important as the photos themselves.

"HONY was evolving from photography to mixed medium," he said. "So I really started focusing on getting better with my interviews."

Connect, Connect, Connect

Stanton's photographs are interesting, but as he said, it's the captions and stories that keep the audience coming.

He gets the stories, he said, by asking some of the same open-ended, soul-searching questions over and over:

It constantly amazes me how brave these people are, and how much they choose to disclose.  ... You know why I think that is? Because so much of our life revolves around small talk. Weather, finances, things like that. And here comes somebody on the street really digging at the marrow of your life, and your experience. I think it's validating in a deep sort of way.

The blog has enough fame on the streets of New York that some subjects shoot his go-to questions right back to him. 

street3"Sometimes we dress up in costumes for no reason. You know why? Cause I’m the COOL AUNT!"

Keep At It

Stanton nearly went broke during the early days of HONY and told Reddit those times were "lonely as hell." Thousands of photos into the project, nobody had noticed, and he didn't really know anyone in New York. 

"Every time I talk about it in a speech I start crying," he said. "I'd been working on HONY everyday, non-stop, for a year before it got any traction at all.

So why did he stick with it?

"I was obsessed."

IMAGE: Brendan Stanton, Humans of New York
Last updated: Jul 10, 2013

BILL MURPHY JR. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.
@BillMurphyJr




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