With a social media following of more than 28 million people, hundreds of thousands of monthly hits on their website, and a New York Times best-selling book, Humans of New York has captivated the world by telling simple stories of strangers.
The basic framework is simple: one picture, one person, one story, told every day.
It’s also framework cities can use to create and strengthen relationships, bolster small businesses, attract and retain talent and investment, and cultivate a sense of pride in their communities, regardless of size or resources.
“Yeah, but Humans of New York is New York City. NYC has pizzaz, je ne sais quoi, and is literally the most populated city in the US. My city’s population is in the thousands, has a downtown plagued by vacancy, and many people struggle with poverty and finding employment. There’s no way I could find enough stories to make a difference, and even if I did, our stories wouldn’t nearly be as successful as their stories.”
I thought the same things…until I tried it.
Saginaw, Michigan has a population of 48,000. Once a thriving city during the 19th-century lumber boom and a growing city during the industrialization of the 20th Century, both of those economic areas declined or collapsed, leaving crime, poverty, and unemployment in their wake.
A quick Google search or flipping through the local news would tell you that Saginaw “claims to fame” are a crime rate 93% higher than the rest of the country, a median household 50% lower than the national average, and a dilapidated soybean storage tower with a neon sign of a rabbit.
What you don’t see on Google is a city full of people who are fiercely loyal, full of grit, energy, and action. People who had previously never thought about running a business that are purchasing businesses with historical value to the community simply to keep them open.
Saginaw’s home to world-class hospitals, organically-grown small businesses, and an international factory that supplies aerospace companies and the DOD. The list could go on. But stories like these – real, human stories of both struggle and success – weren’t being told.
The civic marketing world (and the marketing world in general) is full of gurus talking about storytelling. Some of them do it well, but many use “storytelling” to thinly veil forced and fake advertising.
That kind of marketing wouldn’t fly in Saginaw, and it probably doesn’t fly most everywhere else, either.
So, last September, with camera and field recorder in hand, I started walking around interviewing the people, businesses, and organizations who were doing great things along Saginaw’s riverfront. We chose social media as the primary platform for these stories because it’s a platform we can control (as opposed to the local news), 80% of the population are daily and active users, and we could use a minimal advertising budget to push the stories in front of even more people, both local and abroad.
This is just a sample of how people have reacted:
Just these four posts reached over 267,646 people. These posts aren’t flukes either – every week we feature a new story and receive similar results. The chart below shows the “growth” of the account from just before this story-based approach began, and the percentage increases from 12 months previous.
Post Reach +63,000%
Engaged Users +90,000%
The posts telling the stories to get these sort of increases have been seen more than 4 million times.
Then, in January of this year, the City of Saginaw’s Government wanted to try this story-telling approach as well. This presented a good opportunity to test the philosophy: similar small audience, but with a government account. Predictably government accounts are difficult to grow and develop a following–people simply don’t join social media to follow what government bodies have to say.
This was the reaction:
And the approach also indicates strong sustained growth over time.
Post Reach +307%
Engaged Users +704%
Ok, final statistics, I promise!
You might be thinking, “We’re a small town. We don’t have a marketing team, and this sounds like a big city with big resources thing..”
I don’t have a full-time marketing team (Saginaw doesn’t either) and neither one of us are exactly drowning in resources. But here’s last week’s comparison between the Saginaw Government’s Facebook page and the pages of other vastly larger and more resource-laden cities:
Saginaw had six times the engagement and more than 21 times the growth of the City of Detroit and 182 times the engagement of Ann Arbor (home of the University of Michigan.)
You also might be looking at these results thinking, “But I’m not a social media wizard, I’m not a world-class photographer, and I don’t have time to tell a new story every day. This won’t work.”
Here’s the good news: you don’t have to be or do any of those things for it to work.
Just post one story each week–using one picture and one person’s words.
Step 1: The Interview
Step 2: The Picture
Step 3: The Post
Step 4: Repeat, Rinse, Repeat
Step 1: The Interview
Download the Otter app onto your phone. You’ll use this app to record and automatically transcribe your interview.
Once you have the app, call, email, or send a Facebook message to a local business, nonprofit, or organization in the community. You don’t have to be too critical here–there are an infinite amount of stories to cover, and you may want to save big, cornerstone stories until later when your skill and process improves. While this sort of proactive outreach helps ensure a weekly story, it’s not absolutely necessary. For one of the first Saginaw stories, I walked around a block in Old Town, picked a business, and walked inside. I told the business owner who I was, what I was doing, asked if she’d be willing to let me interview her and take some pictures for the city’s pages, and that all of it would be free. She was overjoyed – it was the first time in the 40 years of her business someone from the City walked in the doors wanting to help her instead of carrying bad news.
Show up to the interview, introduce yourself then sit down for the conversation. Open the Otter app , put your phone on a table close to the person you’re interviewing (this will help give a more accurate transcription), then hit “Record”.
During the interview, you’ll ask basic questions like “How did you end up running a cobbler shop?” or “What makes a great sandwich?”
But don’t be afraid to ask big questions like, “What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome?”, “What are you most afraid of?” or “What is your biggest motivation?”
These are the kinds of stories people want to read and will connect with. Anyone can say, “This business has been here for 93 years.” Most people will ignore this or walk away unimpressed.
But if the story you’re telling is about 93 years of struggle, overcoming obstacle after obstacle to become a bedrock business in the community…these are the kinds of stories that transcend advertising and connect people and cultivate pride.
The interview may take about 20 minutes, longer if there is a big story to unpack or if you’re having a great conversation.
Hit “Stop” on your phone. The audio of the interview and the transcription start being uploaded to the cloud.
Now it’s time for the picture.
Step 2: The Picture
If you don’t consider yourself a photographer, this part might make you nervous. Great news, though: chances are you are a photographer.
It used to be that cameras were big, complicated things you had to practice in order to get a picture that wasn’t completely too dark or completely too light to be used – let alone taking a good picture.
But every day, most of us walk around with a camera professional photographers from 20 years ago would have died for–in our phones.
This is a portrait shot, so you want the person or people looking directly into the camera smiling, looking determined, or another expression or gesture that’s reflective of their personality.
You’ll get bonus points if you include elements of their environment. For example, a chef in a kitchen with their chef uniform on, holding a rolling pin or knife. And remember to keep people’s heads in the top half of the picture not the middle!
Talk to them as you set up the shot on your phone. Be light-hearted and maybe crack some jokes. During this, you’re taking pictures without telling the subject. Chances are these will be your best shots, but tell them when you’re “ready” and take some more shots to increase your chances of getting a keeper.
The interview and picture are done, so now it’s time to create the post.
Step 3: The Post
Sit down at a computer and log into your Otter account. Open the interview and then in a separate window, open your word processing app or program alongside it.
This part of the process takes the most creative effort. I call it “Creative Editing”. During a conversation, we jump back and forth between topics, throw in a bunch of unnecessary filler, go on tangents, etc. We do this without thinking about it, and unless a conversation is a complete train wreck, we don’t know we’re doing it and walk away feeling great about the conversation we just had.
But we can’t do those things in writing, especially on social media. I always leave my interviews telling people I’m going to edit and clean up what people say–they’re always appreciative.
You’ll have to omit parts of the main story (if those parts are great – you’ve got some bonus posts! Woohoo!), change words, combine sentences, and move sections of the conversation around to group.
This is really where the craft of storytelling comes into play. Find a central theme. Identify a problem/solution. Document a captivating series of events.
Realize that much of the power of storytelling comes not from the story itself, but how the story is told. We all know someone who is terrible at telling stories: they don’t include the right details, they jump around in the timeline, or they simply take too long to get to the point.
All of these are traps you can fall into. A good rule of thumb is a 500-word limit, although for continuity of a story you can have a post considerably longer and it can still be effective. Or maybe turn the words that go beyond this 500-word limit into a post for the following day.
The post should read like someone’s talking because long paragraphs on the web exhausts people. Avoid walls of text–use line breaks liberally.
Think lede. A lede is the first line in the story. If you don’t hook people there, they’ll keep scrolling. Look through the transcript and find the one or two sentences that can stand on their own merit. They’re interesting, intriguing, or establish the conflict or reward.
Once you’ve got a story created, walk away from the computer, get yourself some food or coffee and then come back and edit. If you have someone willing to edit your work, even better. Nothing kills the vibe and does a disservice to the stories being told than to have them full of typos or being hard to follow.
Once you have something you’re proud of, find the best picture from your phone, pair it with the caption, and then post!
Stay away from weekends because people’s social media use takes a dive as people are more active. I’m a fan of Monday morning stories, but other weekdays and times will still work.
Step 4: Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
To allow stories like these create and strengthen relationships, help bolster small businesses, and attract and retain talent and investment, they need to be consistently told over time. Commit to making one post that tells one story, every week for the rest of the life of your city.
In many ways, this is the hardest part. We’re busy people with many things to do.
To make it easier:
- Create a schedule
- Record multiple interviews over the course of a day or week to build a stockpile
- Use social media scheduling apps to create posts in advance of when they’re published
Start small, then spread your wings as you go. Make it a habit. Over time, you’ll start putting your own touches on the work and format. Maybe instead of a quote-only style, you end up writing more like a new article. In my own work, I feature a “story of the week” instead of five different stories, and that primary story is also covered with a video and the interview is turned into a podcast episode.
Although the process is simple, this kind of storytelling isn’t easy work. But if our places are worth it (they are), we should be willing to take up the commitment needed to tell the stories of the people who have risked, sacrificed, and overcome to create better places for us to live.