When using surveys it can sometimes prove challenging to understand why people are answering the way they are, particularly when dealing with large data sets. Any question types that help you to make sense of the feedback will be advantageous, and this is where demographics can prove useful.
What are demographics?
At the most basic level, demographics refer to the study of a population based on factors such as age, gender, ethnicity and marital status. Demographic data also refers to socio-economic information that can be expressed statistically such as employment, education, income, marriage, birth and death rates.
When it comes to surveys, the use of demographic questions that allow you to collect such background information, can enable you to better understand the identify of each respondent and where they fit in within the general population.
From here you will be able to segment and differentiate groups based on a range of different demographic factors. And by comparing and evaluating how responses can vary according to different demographic criteria, ascertain how strongly demographic factors could be influencing your respondents’ answers.
Read more: What are demographics?
Pros and cons of demographic questions
When we refer to the advantages and disadvantages of demographic questions, we are really talking the pros and cons of demographic segmentation, as that is how researchers use the answers from demographic questions to make more sense of their data.
Here’s some beneficial reasons for collecting demographic information and employing demographic segmentation:
It will help your marketing efforts: the more you know about your target population the better. So, if for example, you knew most of your target population was composed of single men in a high-income bracket you could target your marketing messaging to best resonate with them and boost the success of your marketing efforts.
Demographic information is simple to obtain: it’s easy to gather demographic information, either via government-maintained census data, which is readily available to the public both online and offline, or through conducting interviews of consumers using online survey tools such as our own.
The data’s easy to analyse: thanks to the strong range of tools that are available to help you.
If you use Google Analytics, not only will it help you collect data, but it will also analyse it for you too. Alternatively, if you’re looking to conduct independent analysis, tools such as SPSS can help you with analysing your data sets and interview results, which you can then easily implement into your own marketing strategy.
Then there are online survey tools such as our own, which as well as enabling you to present and view your data in a wide range of graph and chart formats, makes it simple to compare and analyse different data sets through a range of features including filtering, text analysis and cross tabulation.
Easily monitor trends and social shifts: if you’re interested inbeing able to monitor shifts and societal trends over time, then the use of demographic data is ideal, as the simplicity of the data means that its categories and criteria rarely change. Identifying trends in this way can also help brands to track, monitor and analyse the customer journey, so it’s easier for them to make market predictions about the future.
While there are many advantages to collecting demographic information and employing demographic segmentation, there are some shortcomings too. So, it’s important to be aware of these before you move forward:
It can be a bit too simplistic in approach: given its popularity among market researchers, it can lead some of them to group people based solely on simple demographic facts alone. This can lead some brands into making blanket statements about consumers, which can in some cases cause offense and even undermine their marketing efforts.
Demographic information can be too vague: while it can provide beneficial generic information about an individual such as their age and their household income, it won’t provide you with any insight into their character and likes and dislikes, which is ultimately more valuable for brands.
It can be open to misinterpretation: depending on where you’re obtaining your data from, particularly census material.
You need to be careful as some data quickly becomes outdated, which is particularly the case when you consider people’s lifestyles and the speed with which they are now changing. What might once have been the norm, may not be the case now.
How to use demographic questions
From the demographic questions you should be using and where in your survey to place them to considering some of the sensitivities that may arise from their use. When it comes to survey questions especially demographic questions it’s prudent to be aware of some of the issues around their use, so you can ensure you’re getting the best value from using them.
That’s why to help guide you, we’ve outlined some best practice considerations to think about before using demographic questions.
Demographic questions you should be including
Generally, although your survey’s content and end goals will determine the full range of demographic questions that you select, typically most surveys will include questions about age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, location and employment.
Where to place demographic questions in surveys
While some researchers advocate putting them at the beginning, others suggest locating them towards the end. However, there’s no clear-cut right answer, as there’s benefits and disadvantages to each, which you need to weigh up before coming to a decision.
By putting demographic questions at the beginning, you will ensure you gather this vital background information from every participant early on and provide a soft introduction to your survey. However, this can distract focus away from your survey’s main purpose and in some cases cause nervousness among respondents less keen about supplying their information and in extreme cases abandon your survey altogether.
In contrast, with demographic questions placed at the end of your survey, participants will remain focused on the main part of your survey and you will more likely see a reduction in non-completed surveys. The main downside of this approach, however, is that participants may then rush through your demographic questions to get to the end of your survey, leading to inaccuracies that could impact the analysis of your data.
Handling more sensitive questions
By their very nature, the fact that demographic questions are designed to gather background information about people that can be used to compare them with others, means that some demographic questions can be more sensitive than others.
Typically, sensitive demographic questions include ones that ask about age, gender, ethnicity and income. While in many cases it won’t be possible to avoid including these questions, you can with a bit of restructuring make these questions more comfortable for your participants to answer.
For example, rather than ask them to reveal their exact age, you could allow your respondents to select from a group of age ranges where they fit in such as: 18-25, 26-35, 36-45, 56-65, etc. Similarly, if a participant felt uncomfortable selecting any of the options you had listed under ethnicity and gender, you should provide them with additional options to select such as other or prefer not to answer.
Using demographic questions as screening questions
While we’ve already debated the pros and cons of where to place demographic questions in your survey, it’s worth bearing in mind that a demographic question placed at the start of your survey could act as an effective screening question, to ensure only the most relevant respondents take your survey, while screening out irrelevant survey takers from participating.
For example, you might only be interested in getting the views of working mothers for your survey. In this case you could use of mix of demographic screening questions based on gender, employment status and whether they have children to ensure only the most relevant respondents complete your survey. And then based on their answers direct them to further questions within your survey with the use of skip logic.
Being transparent about why you are collecting demographic information
Finally, as with all data you collect, you have a duty of care and safety to your respondents and their information.
While it may not be a legislative requirement to disclose this information (however, in some cases it might be, so be sure to check), honesty and transparency about what you’re doing helps build trust with your participants and encourages them to provide truthful answers.
It would be also beneficial to brief them on what you are collecting and why, while building further confidence with them by adding in your data management policy, or information on who will see and handle their information.
Types of demographic question
Having defined what demographic questions are, their pros and cons and best practice advice about how best to use them, it can be helpful to have more information about the types of demographic questions you’re most likely to use.
One of the most common demographic questions to be asked is the age question, which is particularly useful for marketers trying to identify if a respondent best fits within their target audience.
However, many people can be sensitive about their age, so rather than asking them for their exact age, it’s best to ask them to select from a range of options, such as in the following question:
Q: What age range group do you fit into from the following?
- Below 18
- 18 – 24
- 25 – 34
- 35 – 44
- 45 – 54
- 55 – 64
- Above 65
Read more on age groups for surveys
Another potentially sensitive demographic area is that of gender.
In today’s society there are more than two accepted gender roles, which need to be taken into account. So, rather than asking a respondent what their gender is, it might be better to ask how they identify themselves, as with the question below.
Q: What gender do you identify as?
- Prefer not to answer
Read more on gender survey questions
Marital status is another popular and useful demographic question, as the wants and needs of married and single people are likely to differ.
It also provides an insight into the life stage of an individual, with their current status offering an indicator as to their potential future wants and needs. A suitably worded question could be:
Q: What is your marital status?
- Prefer not to say
You may find it helpful to have geographic information about your customers, as it may help to reveal areas that seem to be generating the greatest interest and appetite for your products, as opposed to other locations where there’s less interest. This can reveal new opportunities for expansion, or areas that you should maybe shift your focus away from.
Depending on your business and size of your market, your question could be locally focused or geographically much wider such as in the question below which targets the whole of England:
Q: Which region in England do you live?
- South West
- South East
- Greater London
- East of England
- West Midlands
- East Midlands
- Yorkshire and Humber
- North West
- North East
Asking someone to provide details about their ethnicity can also be a sensitive subject.
However, it’s a question that may be necessary on occasions, particularly if you’re using it to better understand the common cultural backgrounds of your audience. It can also be useful if you want to tweak marketing messages to appeal to different groups. And if you only want to target a specific ethnic group, then the responses from respondents who fit your target group will provide more weight to your data findings.
When looking to structure this as a question, you might want to consider something such as the following:
Q: What is your ethnic background? Choose from one option that best describes your ethnic group or background.
- White / Caucasian
- Asian/Asian British
- Black/African/Caribbean/Black British
- Mixed/Multiple ethnic groups
- Other ethnic group
Read more on the ethnicity question for surveys
Knowing the educational attainment of your respondents is also useful as it can influence the way they answer questions. This is because someone who only completed senior school could well have a different income level, professional experience and even life perspective than someone who went on to higher education.
You could then segment your customers by education level, which could reveal some interesting insights for each group.
When it comes to this question, it’s typically presented by asking respondents to list their highest attained educational level, such as in the following:
Q: Please select the highest level of education that you have attained?
- Doctorate degree
- Master’s degree
- Bachelor’s degree
- Associate degree
- Trade/technical/vocational training
- High school/college graduate, diploma or equivalent
- Some high school
- Prefer not to say
Finally, the employment demographic question can be a useful one to ask, as it gives you a better idea of your respondents spending power.
It also helps you to avoid asking them the more sensitive income question about how much they earn, which many people feel uncomfortable about revealing.
When it comes to employment, there are many different kinds of employment status. So, if you’re asking this question to your own survey participants, you might consider wording your questions as follows:
Q: Which of the following best describes your current employment status?
- Full-time employment
- Part-time employment
- Underemployed (wage is below industry average)
- Full time freelancing
- Unemployed (looking for work)
- Unemployed (not looking for work)
- Inability to work
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