So the first question is, “Does a market exist?” There are a number of ways to understand if a market even exists and get a rough idea of how big the market potential is for you.
The easiest first step is simply to google your idea. Check the relevancy of results. Are there competitors already providing your product or service. Perhaps there are websites dedicated to enthusiasts already created. Make a list of any relevant websites and run them through a traffic estimator such as WebCompanyInfo: http://www.webcompanyinfo.com/pagestat.com. Run a number of different relevant websites through the estimator. This will not only tell you the number of people who are looking for something like your product or service, it can tell you important information such as key words and geographic concentration of searches.
Next, run a key word search estimator such as AdWords. This is another simple tool for understanding the rough volume of people searching for content related to your product or service as well as for understanding related consumer needs. Run a variety of closely and less closely related term through the search estimator. Pull the list of related key words from the traffic estimator and run each of those separately through the search estimator.
Another important step is to research your competitors. Here you are looking for several things. First, how many competitors are there. From your first two steps you will likely have discovered a number of different either direct or indirect competitors. (What’s an indirect competitor? An indirect competitor is something different than the product but still gets the job done or minimizes the need for the product. For example, at Samsonite, I used to say that cardboard boxes and garbage bags were indirect competitors for luggage. That would usually start an argument, at least an impassioned discussion until I traveled with a number of Samsonite executives. I made them wait a long time at the luggage carousel and I pointed out each box and bag a traveller used instead of luggage. That was a long time ago and I don’t think garbage bags are so acceptable to TSA anymore). Wander through each of their websites, noting where it appears they are trying to draw the consumer’s attention. How significant is your concept relative to their entire market. If they have a “sort by popularity” feature, use it. Run a number of different searches and then sort each of them by popularity to see which products their customers seem to value. Go to your competitor’s stores. Go anywhere where their product may be sold. Notice what adjacencies your competitors have selected to be around your product. Finally, run each of your competitors through a tool like www.manta.com. Manta has estimates of the business size for most registered businesses. While their estimates can be very wide, it will give you an idea of just how big your competitors are and your prior visits to their website and stores will give you an understanding of how important your concept is to each of them.
I haven’t forgotten the consumer. You can run your concept through focus groups or a survey. Even something as simple as asking your current customers related questions during their shopping experience. You may chose to not ask the customers directly if your product is sensitive or will take you a long time to develop but you will be able to ask related questions.
Of course, there is an easier way. Instead of developing a concept and then seeing of their is a market, work with your customers to understand their unmet needs and then develop a concept to service that need. Seeking unmet needs should be part of your customer service. It isn’t good enough to simply satisfy their current need. Investigate what more you can do to make your customers’ lives easier at all times.