Nick Kozak, for the Toronto Star

How-to: Creating demand for a new product or service in the social media age

It used to be tough for a cash-strapped startup to spark interest in an unheard of product or service.

But in the digital age, there are loads of low-cost online marketing solutions that can help unknown offerings connect with a world of potential customers.

“It’s an incredible time to start a business,” says Adam Green, owner of Maple North, a Toronto digital marketing agency. “With the power of the Internet and social (media), the toolset is unbelievable compared to what it was 20 years ago.”

We asked Green and other marketing experts for tips on how to create demand in a new product or service.

Find focus

Before setting out to sell, ensure you have a good sense of what you’re aiming to achieve.

“Be comfortable with who you are and what you want your business to be,” says Michael Mulvey, a marketing professor at University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management. “Give yourself some focus.”

And understand exactly why people would want to buy your product or service; what’s unique and innovative about it.

“What will get people to choose you?” Mulvey says. “And not just try you once, but try you again and keep coming back.”

Workable website

Nothing is more critical than a workable website when it comes to creating momentum for a new product or service.

A well-designed site must be easy to navigate. It should offer visitors content that explains the purpose of your product, the needs it meets, and what makes it unique. And adding videos and blog posts is a great way to further educate customers while helping to burnish your business’s credibility.

“You want to talk about what you’re doing and how your particular product or service is changing things up or influencing what’s happening in your industry,” says Green, adding that you should strive to be as creative with content as possible. “Try and generate some buzz and interest.”

Get social

Harnessing the power of social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and YouTube is essential.

Social media enables your company to stay in constant contact with customers. As a business owner, it helps you gather feedback and also share news about upcoming features or special promotions.

And offering promotions or discounts to your social followers in exchange for a Facebook recommendation, Google+ review or YouTube testimonial is another great way to build brand awareness and credibility.

“People want to do what other people are doing,” notes Justin Cook, partner and president of Convurgency Inc., a Toronto-based digital marketing agency.

“So if they’re seeing on their Facebook account that their friend is trying out this new product, or they come to your site and see there are 100 Google+ reviews from people who love it, then that’s instant credibility and this new product no longer becomes a risk for them to try.”

Budget time

Establishing an effective social media presence takes time, something small business owners have in extremely short supply. But engaging on social networks is an important and low-cost way to build your brand awareness with the consumers you’re aiming to attract.

“It’s about budgeting your time effectively,” Green says. “You say ‘today I’m going to write a blog post, tomorrow do a video post, and the next day do some time socially.’ You just have to keep banging through that stuff.”

AdWords advantage

Google adwords is another online tool that can help target customers and drive traffic. You simply specify keywords, topics, and demographics you want to target with your product and service, and Google places your ads on relevant websites and content providers within its network.

People see your ad, click it, and are taken to your website — traffic which you pay for on a per-click basis.

Paying to place banners on websites and blogs relevant to target markets is a similar, low-cost way to drive traffic. Plus, Green says, it gives companies “eyeball brand awareness,” on top of an increase in hits.

Embrace competition

You used to be the only action in town, but competitors are cropping up to get a piece of your market. What do you do?

First, remember that competition can actually be helpful, pushing you to improve your product or service and the way it’s marketed.

“You’ll need to find new ways to change your product to make it more helpful (and) unique,” Green says.

He says a major part of engaging with the community is listening for feedback to discover what users are looking for.

“Integrate that into your next product or service or iteration of it, and then you have a new marketing push — you’ve taken it from version 1.0 to 2.0.”