February 26, 2008, 12:00 AM

How a sudden YouTube frenzy swamped a small e-retailer with orders

A YouTube video from 1998 of the Indiana University a cappella group Straight No Chaser suddenly began registering hundreds of thousands of views a day. A-cappella.com, the only place that had the full DVD for sale, quickly sold out.

A-cappella.com Inc., a small online seller of CDs, DVDs, sheet music and books for unaccompanied singing groups, found the power of viral marketing on the Internet and YouTube.com over the holidays-and it’s only just recovered from a “blizzard,” in the description of one A-cappella.com staffer, of orders that ensued.

A 1998 video of the Indiana University a cappella group Straight No Chaser singing “The 12 Days of Christmas” that had been on the site for nearly a year suddenly took off in November and was registering 400,000 views a day. Viewers who were taken with the group’s performance began Googling the name to find the DVD for purchase. And there was only one place they could buy it: The tiny A-cappella.com, based in Southwest Harbor, ME, which handles an average of 60 orders a day.

Shoppers placed hundreds of orders a day for the Straight No Chaser DVD and the company, which was caught unawares, quickly sold out the 30 DVDs it had on hand. Still the orders kept coming, even when the company told shoppers it was out of stock and wouldn’t have more until mid-January.

By the time the company fulfilled all orders, it had sold 5,300 copies of the DVD-not much by most Internet retailing standards but huge for the company that employs only two full-time people. “We’ve never sold that many of anything,” says Doug Gray, president. “If we sell 100 of an item in a year, we consider that a good seller.”

Gray has no problem explaining the popularity of the group-“It’s ten young men, well dressed, behaving very nicely and having fun singing. It appeals to a lot of people”-but he is at a loss to explain why the video suddenly caught YouTubers’ fancies.

“It had been up there for close to a year, so there’s no telling who started e-mailing the link to friends and how it suddenly became so popular,” he says. “We’ve all tried to figure it out, but I don’t think we’ll ever know what started it.”

As of the end of February the video of “The 12 Days of Christmas” had been viewed nearly 7.5 million times and other Straight No Chaser videos had been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. The frenzy of interest has had another effect. While the performers in Straight No Chaser change as singers graduate and others take their place, Gray says the group of young men in the 1998 video are getting back together to create a new DVD.

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