NEW YORK: An increasing number of major advertisers are using social media to generate buzz and consumer feedback about new products before their official launch.

Ford, the automaker, began a social media push to encourage word of mouth about its latest Fiesta in early 2009, almost a year before it started running TV spots in support of the updated vehicle.

Matt Van Dyke, marketing communications director for Ford's US operations, said the typical launch campaign in this sector would "wait until the product is literally in showrooms" before broadcasting ads.

"They'd condense all of the dollars into a very concentrated, three-to-five month window, and then they'd let the dealers take over," he argued.

Such an approach, he added, generally reaches "significantly less than 5% of your target audience", while viral channels are more effective at building awareness and engaging consumers.

Elsewhere, Procter & Gamble, the FMCG giant, held a four-day event in Times Square in April 2010 to promote the roll out of Gillette Fusion ProGlide.

As part of this process, it asked male shoppers to trial the razor and uploaded their comments to a dedicated website,

However, it only started showing TV ads for the "next generation" shaver in May, with the Fusion ProGlide set to hit store shelves in the US in June.

Kellogg's, the food company, similarly left around a six month gap between its social and traditional media marketing efforts when introducing both its FiberPlus Antioxidant Bars and Special K Crackers.

These types of platform have built on the pioneering DEWmocracy programme run by PepsiCo's Mountain Dew in 2008, which asked web users to choose between three possible brand extensions.

Mountain Dew unveiled a second iteration of this scheme in July 2009, challenging brand advocates to create their own flavours, with the best submissions going on sale last month.

The three possible additions to its portfolio will be available until the middle of June, at which point the winning entry will be announced.

"We have such avid fans in social media. If we let them play a role in the product creative process, we'll engage them," Bonin Bough, global director of social media, PepsiCo, said.

Reckitt Benckiser, the household goods firm, has also used social media to connect with younger consumers, but Caroline Hey, its corporate communications manager, said it was in "learning mode."

"I absolutely believe the kind of feedback people are getting for free from social media is extremely valuable, but could it replace test marketing of a product? That, I'm not so sure about," said Debra Aho Williamson, a senior analyst at eMarketer.

The advantages of such a strategy beyond stimulating word of mouth include discovering any criticisms about innovations and identifying consumer groups which prove particularly enthusiastic.

However, while real-time research can offer a range of insights at low cost and high speed, data is often drawn from a highly select cohort of digitally literate internet users.

Data sourced from Brand Week/USA Today; additional content by Warc staff