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Last year, execs at Seagate, a leading provider of hard drives and storage solutions, realized that they knew very little about a very big target market: college students.

Why college students, you ask? Because they are our future, and we want them to see us in their future.

Today, people create and collect exorbitant amounts of data, and we have to store it (and back it up) somewhere. Seagate wanted to make sure that its products are what people want. What better way to know that than to ask them.

So, to better understand that group of potential customers, Seagate began hosting focus groups at Bay Area universities to learn about the buying habits, brand awareness, and perspectives of college students in relation to consumer technology: What makes one brand more appealing than another? Is price the biggest factor or are features more important? Do they use external hard drives or do they prefer cloud storage? What type of content do they store on their hard drives?

Each session was moderated by a business professor, and the students didn't know which company was conducting the focus group, so answers were unbiased and unfiltered. The professor guided students through a series of questions that addressed broad technology trends and buying habits, covering tablets, smartphones, and laptops, for example, before zeroing in on storage needs.

The focus groups allowed Seagate to gain authentic insight from students employing storage on a daily basis for both schoolwork and personal use, and they provided ideas on how to refine products and better hone marketing and PR strategies. A bonus: focus groups help solidify relationships and garner brand awareness within a target demographic.

Looking to host your own focus group? Here are some steps you can take to put together a program.

1. Outline the goals of your research

  • Set ground rules for all participants.
  • Make sure all participants know that their responses are being recorded and will be presented after the focus group.
  • Explain what information you want to obtain, and for what purpose.
  • Discuss particular features or benefits you want to showcase, if there are any.
  • Be sure to include topics that are broad enough to encourage a discussion, yet remain pertinent to the information you're looking to acquire. However, don't be too specific, and make sure your questions are unbiased.

2. Select a moderator for your session

  • The moderator should be someone neutral, to avoid influencing the conversation while encouraging participation and engagement.
  • The moderator should understand the goals of the focus group.
  • The moderator should be experienced with focus group research and should be clear on what produces helpful insight.
  • Company anonymity is important. Ensure that the moderator does not mention the name of the company responsible for the focus group.

3. Solicit participants

  • Depending on the type of information you're looking to obtain, you'll want to have a wide demographic of attendees. If looking for students, then you'll want to have people selected from different majors, classes, and genders.
  • The moderator of the group should not know the participants personally.
  • Focus groups should have no more than 15 attendees. At times, people feel uncomfortable when too many others are in the room. It should be a collaborative, open conversation, which tends to be a result of smaller groups.
  • Participants should not be dismissed because they have no prior experience or knowledge with your vendor or product. Often, such unbiased participants provide the best insights.

4. Choose your venue

  • Your venue should be private so participants feel comfortable enough to share their thoughts without being concerned about external observers. If you are looking to retain corporate anonymity, you may want to use an external venue.
  • Make sure the venue allows all participants to see and face each other. When participants can see all other participants, they interact better.
  • Sessions should be no longer than two hours so that the group can remain focused and on track.

5. Provide an overview at the beginning of the session

  • Give as much context and background as possible at the beginning of the session to help attendees understand the purpose of the focus group and how the results will be used.
  • Make sure to thank members of the group for their participation.

6. Conclude your focus group session

  • Prior to closing, provide attendees with a short survey to gather feedback, comments, and anecdotal information about what they liked and didn't like about the session.
  • Again thank all attendees and reiterate what the findings will be used for.
  • Answer any questions the attendees might have.
  • Once the session is complete, the moderator should provide a write-up of the session to the company.

* * *

"The idea behind the focus groups was to get a better understanding of students' storage preferences and needs," said Brian Ziel, Senior Director of Corporate Communications for Seagate. "What influences their purchasing decisions? What features would their ideal storage product have?"

Global Marketing VP Scott Horn added, "Asking such questions can help marketing and engineering teams develop products that more closely align with users' needs."

"Great products come from a dialogue with customers, listening to their feedback and incorporating as much of that as you can into your design and marketing activities," Horn said. "We want to build the kind of products people want to have in their homes, and get them talking about our brand with their friends and family members."

Watch a three-minute video from the Santa Clara University focus group.

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image of Jonathan Long

Jonathan Long is social media manager at Seagate.

Twitter: @Weezul

LinkedIn: Jonathan Long