I was recently in the Philippines on business and gave myself a challenge for the trip:

“What would happen if I put my money where my blog is, and ran a 2 week Connection Economy experiment?”

The Human Experiment: Constraints

The idea was to create a temporary social media account to be used only for the duration of my travel that forced me to (among other things):

  • Be human
  • Create art – unique, remark-able content (ie. no copying or re-sharing existing content)
  • Go Niche of Niche – to figure out a unique ‘voice‘ that separated me from the millions of social media travel accounts out there
  • Get past people’s WII-FM filter – to not spam people with trivial details I find in the moment (please not another cliched plane wing photo!) but content framed such that those who had no idea who I was or what I was doing would feel inspired to connect.
  • Focus on connection as currency – instead of connecting people to me, the primary goal was to connect people with people.

What would happen if I could figure out a way to do all of this, starting from scratch, for just 14 days?

The Human Experiment: Creative

Seeing that I was going to be spending my time in Manila, I was looking for an idea that would be related to that city. Over a coffee, a friend made a dad joke about Manila Folders… and so this became the spark that would turn into the theme (and name) for the account!

This conversation also reminded me of two Creative Directors who had been instagramming using a blackboard about HowFarFromHome they had been travelling, so I figured I could somehow use a Manila Folder in each photo hopefully in a way that would interest followers.

With that I left Melbourne heading to Manila with a Sharpie, a daypack full of Manila Folders and a fresh, new @manilafolders Instagram account.

But I had no idea what photos I would take or what stories I would tell…


Manila Folders on Instagram

The Human Experiment: Quantitative Results

The Results?

Fast forward 14 days, and the quantity and quality of people I met purely from @manilafolders has completely stunned me.

Firstly, for the numbers people, here’s a summary of the quantitative performance of the human experiment on Instagram:

  • 19 posts in 14 Days
  • Zero ad spend
  • 156 new followers from scratch
  • 467 total likes, or 24.6 likes per post
  • 76 total comments, or 4 comments per post
  • Total Engagement Rate (Likes + Comments / Fans) = 3.48%

How good is this engagement rate?

According to Social Bakers, the average engagement rate for brands on social media in 2014 was 0.65% (and given the recent organic algorithm adjustments presumably less in 2015), with zero ad spend this short human experiment represented a greater than 530% improvement on the average.

Quantitative Results? Win.

The Human Experiment: Qualitative Results

Over and above fantastic numbers, I was even more pleased about the incredible human connections made during my short stay with some highlights including:

  • Being taken to lunch by Manila’s top foodie blogger, @blogalag
  • Being schooled in coffee by 2014 Philippines Barista champion, @gianndimple
  • Being given travel advice by recently local photographer (recently featured by Instagram), @rennell
  • Enjoying Manila’s top specialty coffee training facility, Yardstick Coffee, with cofounder, @stripedshirt
  • Being invited by more venues to do further guest ‘Manila Folders’ than I had time to visit
  • Connecting local instagrammers with other local instagrammers
  • Connecting a local instagrammer with one of her heroes (also on instagram)
  • Instagrammers asking me not to stop when I told them I was closing this account after 2 weeks – (I was going to be missed)
  • Having a latte art sendoff by the incredible @laruanglalaki

The Human Experiment: Learnings & Surprises

On top of the incredible connections I made, above, on further reflection here are some takeaways I would pass on for anyone considering doing their own human experiment:

  • Go niche of niche. How could I compete against all the major ‘travel’ instagrammers? First I was on there on business, not pleasure, so I didn’t have the time to go to all the fancy places that dedicated IG’ers would go. Second, I’m not a professional photographer so I couldn’t compete with the spectacular photography already being posted. Instead of going head to head in these crowded spaces, the Manila Folder became an unusual visual device that became ‘my niche of the larger Manila Travel niche’. Now I was no longer competing with anyone else – I owned my own category that I created. The second unintended benefit, was that the manila folder itself was such an effective visual cue, that on the many occasions they appeared as trending posts in Instagram, they immediately stood out and drew in curious viewers (& garnered more likes and new followers).
  • Consider going niche of niche of niche. Even though the Manila Folder idea was a great niche of the travel niche for the above reasons, I noticed that on each post, certain types of IG’ers would engage on certain types of posts. For example, the coffee posts, drew engagement from coffee IG’ers, while the foodie posts, drew engagement from foodie IG’ers. It would have been possible to build an even more tight knit community if I was niched down yet again to a niche of niche of niche (eg. @CoffeeManilaFolders) account/s and just target single audiences. If I did this, the already great engagement rate would have become stellar. Yet another argument to be the best for the least for the most.
  • Stick to one theme. Creatives love to not be boxed in. However this leaves followers with a tenuous decision since if they follow you, they never know what they’re going to get. Although every post of mine was different, the Manila Folder in every photo gave a single thematic tie-in that lived up to the expectation people had when they followed me (yet allowed me the flexibility of not being ‘boxed in’ by subject matter). When someone followed me, I didn’t take them anywhere they weren’t already willing to go.
  • Make it about them. I was very deliberate about these posts not being about me travel bragging – but about finding something readers (who don’t even know me) could enjoy. I was looking to expose human stories from people that inspired, surprised, delighted, endeared or even shocked me during my stay… human traits or qualities all of my readers could relate to. But Instagram is more of a photo sharing platform and not so much a ‘story’ platform. How could I get my readers to read the full story text under the photo? On one of my early posts (I stumbled upon this by accident) I heard my guest say one line which really stood out to me. I ended up using this as a ‘headline’ (the first line of description text on IG). If this got someone curious, most likely they’ll read the rest. This became a pattern for all the following posts. Of all the guests I featured, possibly my favourite line was from @blogalag, below:

“I love blood. I can tell the difference between fresh blood and stale blood” In 2007, B’ley Villones, @blogalag, started blogging about food as a hobby while working in a finance company. Years later, she is arguably Manila’s foremost foodie authority on social media. Her latest venture, @manilaeatup, is a new project shared with a food stylist friend, whose goal is to showcase, support and bring together rising local food talent. “The Manila foodie scene has transformed so quickly. Years ago there would only really be a new foodie venue opening once every few months or so. Today, there’s a new place to try opening every day. To keep up, venues have to change their menus every 3 months.” Despite her love for grilled Blood Skewers (Coagulated, gelatinous Chicken Blood disguised as street food), her secret comfort food is @Jollibee (Filipino McDonalds) Chicken Joys. She is inspired by @Time food photographer, @HeleneDujardin. #foodie #legazpi #makati #philippines #gridwashere #everydayphilippines #everydayasia #immersionjournals #travelwritings #itsmorefuninthephilippines #manila #manilafolders

A photo posted by Manila Folders (@manilafolders) on

    • Do your research. I only found out a few days in that what I thought was the clever angle of my account was totally lost on locals. In Manila, those creamy, yellow folders are just called, well, ‘Folders’! They’re only known as Manila Folders by expats. It took an IG’er to message me and let me know. So ironically me, the foreigner, ended up teaching Manilans on why these things are called Manila Folders!


    • Embrace feeling self-conscious. By far, the most awkward part about the experiment was the act of publicly pulling out a manila folder, writing on it in big letters and asking a person you had just met if you could take a photo of them holding it – particularly when I was in very crowded places. It was so unusual and so out of the box – I could feel judgmental stares from naysaying onlookers. I had to console myself that this was the price I had to pay for this art! 😉 I did notice myself becoming less self conscious the more I did it as people progressively started understanding what I was doing, then were happy to run with it. Perhaps the comment that made it all worthwhile was when I was told I was ‘spotted’ by a rather notable entrepreneur who saw me pulling out my folders, had previously seen my instagram feed and realised I was ‘that Manila Folders guy’!


    • Run with the risk. When I started, I had no idea what would happen with this experiment. I didn’t even have a first ‘story, person or place’ lined up. It was all a complete unknown. Would it work? Would it tank? Would I meet any interesting people? Would anyone follow me? Would I run out of stories to tell? 14 days later, I had a list of so many places to go, people to meet and food to eat that I didn’t have enough time to get through! Run with the risk, feel the fear, and do it anyway.


    • Fail fast. Similar to the above, digital is so cheap. Even if this experiment failed, flat on its face, I still could have run the experiment and shut it down with minimal overhead and loss, perhaps with my tail between my legs, but always with some great learnings. Digital is cheap (even free) so don’t be afraid to experiment and fail fast.


    • Genuinely follow & reach out. I made it a point to follow local instagrammers and be genuinely interested in their work (ie. actually like a post of theirs if I *really* liked it, comment as if they were a friend, etc). It turned out to not be that hard anyway, since there was so much fantastic local talent plus so many spectacularly photogenic places to visit in the Philippines. Through this genuine commenting, liking and responding to instagrammers, before too long I had formed a mini, temporary community of niche local experts who gave me great tips, made introductions and engaged with my posts – undoubtedly helping @manilafolders to go mini-viral in Manila.


The Experiment: Conclusion

While on the plane home, I read the in-flight magazine which had an article about the ‘new’ Manila. Lo and behold, and without me using my Lonely Planet, I had ‘accidentally’ been to pretty much 90% of the ‘secret’ local places that were recommended. Even better, because of this human experiment, I had connected with the people behind those places, who I can now count as friends. Lastly, the feel good factor was confirmed by the outstanding numbers generated in this short human experiment.

From my perspective, this human experiment been a big (& fun) win – both qualitatively and quantitatively – and has already seeded new ideas for us to pursue in both our own marketing and those of our clients. 

Where else have you seen great, *human*, marketing? We’d love to hear who you follow and why!

“Manila Folders is closing” 14 Days. Dozens of new friends. 1 new home away from home. Can’t believe this whirlwind trip to Manila is drawing to a close. Before I even arrived I had a sense that this trip wasn’t going to be about sightseeing as much as it was about connecting with the people behind the scenes. I’m still shocked that I was lucky enough to meet so many fantastic locals in such a short period of time – barely half of them are featured within these folders. So it’s with sadness that I say thank you and goodbye to @aspacemanila, @natashabautista, @saguijobar, @giolevy, @rennell, @davidbonifacio, @71gramercy, @gianndimple, @laruanglalacki, @thecurator_, @dogcatmouserat, @mickriego, @manilaeatup, @stripedshirt, @yardstick, @kerwinwepee and so many more! I’m closing these folders (for now) but will sign off with a few panorama memories (check them properly by looking at the @manilafolders account as ‘grid view’ on Instagram!) Salamat! #makati #legazpi #legaspi #manila #palawan #puerto #puertoprincesa #immersionjournals #gridwashere #travelwritings #everydayasia #everydayphilippines #philippines #itsmorefuninthephilippines #manilafolders

A photo posted by Manila Folders (@manilafolders) on

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Chris C
5 years ago

Great post – especially great to see emphasis put on the results of this which were away from the platform, such as the lunches, coffee tips etc

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Chris C
5 years ago

Great post – especially great to see emphasis put on the results of this which were away from the platform, such as the lunches, coffee tips etc