Written by Scott Smith, Ph.D. April 15, 2013
Have you ever noticed how television commercials change based upon the program you’re watching?
You wouldn’t expect to see a children’s toy commercial late at night, beer commercials during Saturday morning cartoons, or a sports figure during afternoon soap operas. Smart advertisers use demographics to target commercials in order to get the most bang for their buck.
Similarly, researchers use demographics to segment their audiences and discover hidden trends.
Running a business for a “general population” is almost impossible. Targeting profitable market segments is an important business fundamental. Demographic questions enable you to find unique groups, trends in their behavior, and more efficient ways to target and serve them.
Finding these trends in key markets has allowed leading businesses, non-profit organizations, government agencies, and political candidates to segment their audiences and succeed in working with them.
Here are some typical demographic questions that our experts have reviewed. Some are standard U.S. Census questions, as indicated by “(U.S. Census).” Feel free to use any of them as part of your own research.
Age can mean everything.
TV shows, deodorant brands, and vacation packages are targeted based upon the typical consumer’s age. Even politicians segment their audiences by age. For example, President Barack Obama won the 2008 election due to his dominance among young voters.
Knowing how different age groups view your product can be a game changer. That’s why many surveys include age- specific questions.
The answer choices to an age question are dependent upon your target audience. A survey about pop music will probably include different age options than a survey about retirement homes. Still scales should allow people of all ages to respond accurately. An “under X” or “over Y” statement is a good way to do this.
Many people are sensitive about their age. For this reason, forcing an answer on age questions is generally discouraged.
Do all of your customers have Master’s degrees? Perhaps college-educated customers love your service but high school drop-outs find it lacking.
Segmenting your customers by education level can reveal unique trends. Knowing who to target can improve any business.
Education questions tend to ask about the highest level of education completed by an individual or family.
Does a product cater to a certain industry, pay grade, or experience level? Powerful companies have lost market share and even gone out of business because they catered to the wrong industry or occupation of workers within an industry. That’s why many companies ask employment questions in their surveys.
Employment questions can cover a wide range of issues. They typically address topics such as industry, job function, organization type, organization size, years of experience, and income questions.
In the world of soccer moms and NASCAR dads, researchers often segment users based on family relationships.
A single mother with seven children lives in a different world than a newlywed couple or a bachelor. Family questions are often about marital status or children. We often ask about education, employment, health, and other demographic questions regarding the respondent’s spouse or children.
Like many demographic questions, family questions can be sensitive. Use caution and consider allowing respondents to opt out of a question that could make them uncomfortable.
Gender is one of the most fundamental demographic questions. Whether it is for political polls or consumer products, gender often reveals disparity in opinions. For this reason, gender is among the most commonly used demographics for segmenting results.
Do you want to know where customers currently live, where they were born, or their nationality?
You may change what locations you ask about depending upon the survey. In international business, you may only want to ask about country. At a local gas station, you might ask for a city or even a ZIP code.
Because of the length of these lists, location questions are most often asked in drop-down list format.
As a politically-charged and sensitive subject, race is a topic to avoid if possible. However, asking respondents about their race may be necessary on occasion. Be aware that depending on the perceived use of the data, race questions may be answered incorrectly.
Also, many countries are melting pots of cultures and races. Individuals increasingly have multi- racial backgrounds, so check box questions with check all that apply instructions are increasingly appropriate.
If you ask for racial information, always be sure to give respondents the opportunity to not answer. The best way to do this is to create a “prefer not to answer” option in the question text.
You’ll often ask some of the same demographic survey questions in every survey. The categories mentioned in this post will give you a good starting point.
Also, all of these basic demographic survey questions (plus many many more) come pre-packaged within the Qualtrics online survey tool. Sign up for a free account and get started gaining valuable demographic insights.
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