You may find it hard to believe where the most-watched flash-mob video ever on YouTube was shot: the Seaway Mall food court in Welland, Ont. Entrepreneur Jennifer Blakeley, who dreamed up the idea in the shower, says that at first her staff just didn't get the concept. But the president of Alphabet Photography Inc. pushed ahead, creating a feel-good classic that has been viewed almost 35 million times since being posted last November.
Produced for $10,000, the video shows mall patrons startled, then delighted, as what look like fellow shoppers one by one start singing "The Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah. By the end, more than 100 singers—all of them members of Chorus Niagara—join in a moving rendition of the Christmas favourite. The sole marketing element appears at the end of the video: text reading "Merry Christmas! With love, Alphabet Photography Inc.", plus the URL of the Niagara Falls, Ont.-based firm and an invitation to subscribe to its YouTube channel. Blakeley admits not all viewers have seen that part, "but we put our message at the end because if a video is seen as branding, people won't forward it."
The video combines the fun of watching shoppers' surprised faces with production values in the sweet spot between slick and sad. In the six weeks after the video debuted, traffic at Alphabet's website, which yields 75% of the firm's revenue, increased tenfold. Blakeley says the resulting sales surge carried on into the 2011 wedding season: "We were off-the-hook crazy."
Her firm sells an original product: more than 1,000 of Blakeley's photos of objects and scenery, each resembling a letter of the alphabet. Clients order framed combinations spelling a word of their choice.
Blakeley has shown how a little-known business can achieve a big following by adroitly using social media and older marketing tools such as PR to reinforce each other. She has also shown the value of looking for a marketing opportunity in every interaction with clients—even royalty. This has helped propel Alphabet Photography beyond $1 million in revenue in 2010, up by 492% over three years, and Blakeley into 58th place on the 2011 PROFIT W100.
Her firm attracted one million YouTube views for its Messiah stunt within a week by encouraging the 21,000 fans of its Facebook page and 20,000 newsletter subscribers to forward the video. But liftoff came only after Blakeley's in-house PR manager ran a media-release blitz. This drew extensive TV coverage across North America, pushing views to 11 million after just two weeks.
Blakeley is also a big user of other social media. Her firm averages three postings a week on its Facebook page, the linchpin of its marketing. "You can reach customers regularly, and postings show up in their news feed," says Blakeley. "It gets you into people's homes and minds." But she still sees a role for older sorts of marketing: "We've had so much success with traditional methods that we feel you can't disregard them."
One such method is celebrity endorsements. "When a celebrity owns one of our pieces and talks or tweets about it, that adds to our credibility," says Blakeley. In 2009, she sent Nelly Furtado a custom framing of "NELLY"; the singer loved it and ordered one with her daughter's name. Blakeley jumped through the opening. She got back to Furtado, which led to a company promotion raising money for a charity Furtado supports. Furtado posted about this for her two million Facebook fans.
Michael Wise, Alphabet Photography's U.K. distributor, moved fast when the owner of a craft show at which Wise would be exhibiting told him Prince Charles would be attending. The owner steered Charles to Wise, who gave the prince a "WILL?KATE" piece. Charles called it "smashing." He gave it to the royal couple, who sent a thank-you letter saying they had hung it in one of their homes. Blakeley says she can't directly gauge the impact of photos of Charles with Wise on her firm's Facebook page, "but this sort of thing stays in people's minds when Christmas gift season arrives."
She scored another famous fan by enlisting a friend, justice minister Rob Nicholson, to give Stephen Harper a piece with his last name. Harper invited Blakeley to visit the Prime Minister's Office, which she posted about on Facebook.
Alphabet continues to mix the old and new. In July it launched Word Chaos, a free iPhone app in which players create words from the firm's photo library. To spur downloads, the firm ran a contest paying $1,000 to the player with the highest score one day. More than 40,000 people downloaded the game in its first two months of release.
As much as Blakeley values tried-and-true methods, she's most enthusiastic about newer ones like game apps. "Whatever the new trend, toy or gadget is," she says, "you have to be part of it to be relevant."
2011 PROFIT/Chatelaine W100 ranking: Canada's Top Female Entrepreneurs