I would like to determine the potential market demand for a non-software, travel product that requires significant up-front capital for manufacturing.
What open source software, if any, would you recommend?
How would you utilize social networks for market research?
What offline or "off the web" research, if any, would you do?
Here's a low-cost way:
Why this is awesome on multiple levels:
I like using Google Insights to gauge market interest of a product.
Here's my thumbnail guide on google insights:
Point your browser to: http://www.google.com/insights/search/ Type in a search term that you might use if you were searching for your product. The results basically give you statistics on searches for this term. They can be broken down into category (by industry or market), timeframe or geographical location. You can also use the tool to view related search terms.
For example, plug in the term "child's guitar" and you will see that the graph shows huge spikes in November and December for the last five years in a row. It's a good bet that this is a popular Christmas gift.
Contrast this with the results for the phrase "guitar lessons" which shows a bumpy, but steady decline over the last five years along with flags from events in the news that contain the same phrase (for example, Lindsay Lohan apparently wanted to take guitar lessons from Slash this August).
If you assume that much of the time when people are interested in a certain type of product, they will "google it", then you can use this tool as a gauge of interest in your product.
I also really like Jason's idea about using a web-based sign up form.
In addition to that, if you can find a similar product, I'd try to contact someone who is related to the business--maybe someone in the supply chain--and see if you can get any tips.
For example, one of my friends started a business selling leather furniture. He contacted and visited the tanneries and they told him all kinds of information about who buys from them, where they ship their leather, what the demand trends have been, etc. This gave him tons of useful info and he was able to figure out how to differentiate himself by using higher quality raw materials (which created less waste), finding more reliable labor (because he knew where the majority of his competitors had their raw materials shipped), etc.
Let me know if this helps.
LinkedIn and Facebook polls are also low-cost ways to gather some market research, though not as efficient as survey, because it's one question at a time!
Based on your web site link I would probably start going to the usual airshows with some mockups or just a poster. Also try talking to some of the aviation bloggers/podcasters out there. (Email me if you need some links)
It is a hard industry to make money in and the usual players are getting hit pretty hard. (you probably know all this already)
To answer yourquestions specifically:
You might try asking a developer to make a plugin for the popular flight simulator programs out there so people can fly it on their PCs.
That's easy. Just track your competitors and even indirect competitors. If they can make good money or if they are able to attract attention, then possibly you could too.
A simple online way to do this: