Market Research

Demographic survey questions that yield valuable insights

Better understand your audience by collecting their demographics data to give you better insights and market segmentation.

Advertisers know not to put a children’s toy commercial on late night TV, as they understand that children will be fast asleep. Similarly, businesses need to know where their audience will be and how to get in touch with them in the most effective way.

Customers are people, who have specific wants, desires and needs. You’ll only understand what these are if you get an understanding of who they are. By surveying with demographic survey questions, you don’t waste time finding the most effective route to potential sales, giving you the most bang for your buck.

What are demographic survey questions?

Running a business for a “general population” is almost impossible. Targeting profitable market segments is an important business fundamental.

They are questions that determine the general characteristics of your participants. For example, questions about participant’s age, gender, and income level are considered demographic data.

The answers to these demographic questions can be used to segment your respondents into different market profiles. In turn, this will enable you to find unique groups, trends in their behavior, and more efficient ways to target and serve them.

Demographics are just one part of market segmentation - To learn about other ways you can target the right customers, read our ultimate guide to market segmentation.

Create a demographic survey today with our free survey software

Why are demographic survey questions important?

They will give you enough information to:

  • Make audience and buyer personas
    You can start seeing who your customer types are and what their main needs and expectations are. A persona is particularly helpful to test ideas, or to focus on when writing targeted messaging.
  • Analyze results to find trends
    By separating the received data into groups by categories of demographic survey questions, you’re able to look for patterns. You can then test these patterns to see if they show trends, which will be crucial when it comes to informed decision making.
  • Confirm that your target audience is the right audience
    You’re launching a product or service, and you’re not sure who you should be aiming this towards. A survey evaluating the product or service, featuring demographic survey questions, will allow you to match desired results to an audience profile. This allows you to continue with confidence, or pivot to a better target audience.
  • Understand why people have responded to a survey question the way they have
    There are some survey results that can be explained using demographic data, so it becomes a useful dataset in itself. For example, a question asking about a participant’s abilities with technology may receive more positive results from younger respondents as they are digital natives from a young age.
  • Determine the validity of survey responses
    Ideally, initial surveys should aim to have a diverse, cross-section of respondents represented, so that your results can give you a good overall picture. You can then refine your results and test out hypotheses with smaller or leaner participant groups. Demographic data gives you concrete data on participants’ backgrounds, so you can ensure your survey is fair and representative.

Demographic survey question types (with examples)

There are some general demographic survey questions that should come up in every survey. These consist of basic data, that gives you the minimum level of human data to analyze your results.

You’ll typically find these ‘monitoring’ questions at the end, and their completion can be mandatory or optional. Let’s look at each in more detail:

Gender

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.

Example: How would you describe your gender?

  • Male
  • Female
  • Other (with a blank entry field for the participant to self-identify)
  • Prefer not to answer

Age

Knowing how different age groups view your product can be a game changer. 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.

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 age ranges 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 regarding age questions is generally discouraged.

Example: What is your age?

  • Under 15
  • 16-24
  • 25-34
  • 35-44
  • Over 50
  • Prefer not to say

Ethnic background

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 multiracial backgrounds, so checkbox 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.

Example: What is your ethnic background?

  • White / Caucasian
  • Asian - Eastern
  • Asian - Indian
  • Hispanic
  • African-American
  • Native-American
  • Mixed race
  • Other (with a blank entry field for the participant to self-identify)
  • I prefer not to say

Location

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 on the survey. In international business, you may only want to ask about the 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.

Example: Where are you located?

  • Select your state (Drop-down field)

Education

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 demographic questions tend to ask about the highest level of education completed by an individual or family.

Example: What is the highest level of education you have achieved?

  • Master’s degree or above
  • Bachelor’s degree
  • Highschool
  • Other (with a blank entry field for the participant to self-identify)
  • I prefer not to say

Marital status

Are your target audiences married or single? Their needs and wants will differ, depending on their current situation. Married people have a support network, so they might not need your self-care service.

Knowing this status also gives you an idea of their life stage. Married people may have children already, or may be planning to have children. This can be a good indicator of future needs and wants.

Example: What is your marital status?

  • Married
  • Divorced
  • Separated
  • Single
  • I prefer not to say

Disability status

Will your product or service make a customer’s life easier and help them with their quality of life? Or is your product suitable for certain disabilities (hearing, vision or, mobility impaired)?

Disability is a topic that can be quite sensitive, so forcing an answer regarding disability is generally discouraged.

Example: Would you consider yourself to have a disability?

  • Yes
  • No
  • I prefer not to say

In addition to the general questions, you’ll also have some content-specific demographic survey questions that are relevant, depending on the contents of the main survey. For example, it makes sense to ask a participant about their personal financial planning, if the survey they are completing is about a new savings service from a bank.

Employment & Income questions

Does a product cater to a certain industry, pay grade, or experience level?

Employment questions can cover a wide range of issues. They typically address topics such as employment status, industry, job function, organization type, organization size, years of experience, and household income questions.

Example: What is your employment status?

  • Full-time
  • Part-time
  • Contract/ Temporary
  • Unemployed
  • Unable to work
  • Other (with a blank entry field for the participant to self-identify)
  • I prefer not to say

Example: What is the level of your annual household income?

  • Less than $25,000
  • $25,000 - $50,000
  • $50,000 - $100,000
  • $100,000 - $200,000
  • More than $200,000
  • I prefer not to say

Political preferences

The political affiliation of a participant can indicate what they consider important, and how open they might be to change and innovation. If you’re considering launching a product or service to do with housing, childcare, transport, security and defence or international affairs, hearing from a range of viewpoints can help you see how your idea would be received.

This can also help you to understand the messaging to use with each audience, giving you a clear understanding of each persona.

Example: What is your political viewpoint?

  • Very conservative
  • Slightly conservative
  • Neutral/ Neither conservative or liberal
  • Slightly liberal
  • Very liberal
  • I prefer not to say

Family & Dependent 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.

Example: How many dependents do you have?

  • No dependents
  • 1
  • 2-3
  • More than 4
  • I prefer not to say

Ability to vote

Voting registration requires effort and there are often lots of hoops to pass. This is a measure of a person’s intent to vote and their respect for politics.

If someone is actively registered, this tells us that they respect and are involved in politics, and care about the future of their region. Such a person is more likely to want to hear about local improvement service.

Example: Are you legally registered to vote?

  • Yes
  • No
  • I prefer not to say

Fluent language

Knowing the languages of a participant tells you how best to contact them and connect with them. A person’s native or fluent language is linked to customs and norms, which differ from language to language. Knowing how to communicate with them will help in the long run.

Also, if you combine language preferences with location, you might find some interesting trends. Perhaps a part of the US speaks a mixture of English and Portuguese, which means if you want to sell a product in that particular region, help and support channels should be set-up to cater for those two languages.

Example: What is your primary language?

  • English
  • French
  • Spanish
  • Italian
  • Portuguese
  • Mandarin
  • Arabic
  • Urdu
  • Other (with a blank entry field for the participant to self-identify)
  • I prefer not to say

Religion

Along with political viewpoints, religion is another key question that can share a participant’s deep-rooted norms and customs. Religions tend to be structured around core beliefs. If your product connects to the same beliefs and values, it is more likely to be accepted by people who hold that religious affiliation.

For example, in Hinduism, there is a respect for cows as symbolic creatures. In addition, Hindus are mostly vegetarian, and therefore won’t eat beef as a result. Therefore, marketing a new beef burger brand for this audience group would be the wrong way to go.

Example: What is your religion?

  • Protestant
  • Roman Catholic
  • Mormon
  • Orthodox - Greek
  • Orthodox - Russian
  • Jewish
  • Muslim
  • Buddhist
  • Hindu
  • Atheist
  • Agnostic
  • Other (with a blank entry field for the participant to self-identify)
  • I prefer not to say

Ready to start writing your survey? Download our guide: 7 tips for writing great survey questions

Best practice for using demographic questions in a survey

We’ve explored the common concerns and use cases for demographics survey questions to provide you some best practice:

Where should demographic survey questions be placed in the survey?

It’s helpful to place the demographic survey questions at the beginning or the end of the survey, but each option has its risks and rewards.

Having questions at the beginning means this section takes the focus away from the main survey section. Instead, participants are directed towards entering their name and identifying information.

These easier questions, which participants will know the answers to (e.g. their age and gender), could help them warm up to the act of answering questions - preparing them for the upcoming main survey section.

However, it does delay the start of the survey main section, and some participants may be nervous about supplying their information, so you run the risk of people abandoning the survey and non-completion.

Having questions at the end, means that the survey main section can be conducted as the sole focus for the participants. They can jump straight into answering, and then face the demographic questions at the end.

This reduces the likelihood of non-completion, given that the participants have invested in completing the main survey section. It is, however, prone to mistakes and bias, as participants may rush to finish. This could lead to participants entering information incorrectly, and impact the analysis of the data later.

Do you need to include every demographic survey question?

You must decide which demographic questions to include, depending on the survey’s content and your end-goals.

By default, we recommend you include all the general demographic questions, though there will be cases when some questions should be excluded (for example, if it will lead to harm towards the participant or if there are relevant legal reasons).

Do you need to share why you are collecting demographic information?

As with all data you collect, you have a duty of care and safety to your participants and their information.

It may not be a legislative need to disclose this information (but in some cases it is, so be sure to check), but it is important to build trust with your participants to get their honest answers.

It would be beneficial to properly brief them on what you are collecting and why. In addition, add in your data management policy, or information on who will see and handle the information.

This would also give you a chance to gather in advance any circumstances that could prohibit you from using a participant’s data (e.g. bias or conflicts), making your analysis stage quicker and easier.

Should all demographic survey questions require mandatory answers?

If you make your demographic survey questions mandatory (in survey systems, this provides a * next to the question, which means participants can’t move on until they answer), this guarantees an answer.

On the other hand, not all demographic questions may be needed, if the question does not match up to the survey's end-goal. Here, there may be flexibility to make some questions optional.

Prioritize which questions are necessary for completing your end-goal, and then adjust your design accordingly.

Should I provide options to opt-out of answering?

If a participant doesn’t want to answer the questions, provide a way for them to communicate with you to find out more about the reason why.

Design the survey to ensure there are available options for all participants, beyond the more common-place answers. For example, a gender-neutral or non-binary participant may experience distress or not complete the survey if there is no valid option to choose from an answer list.

In this case, where there are various shades of gender identification, it is difficult to know all of them, or include all variations in the survey answer options. A simple way around this is to provide an ‘Other’ field, in which participants can write an answer of their choosing in a free-text box.

If you do not want to allow for additional answers, you can always include a ‘Prefer not to say’ or ‘Do not want to answer’ option, so that there is an option for opting-out of mandatory questions.

Should you always include demographic questions in your surveys?

Demographic information is always useful to have, to break down data and understand what your current situation is. For example, in an employee experience survey (where you’d most likely want participants to remain anonymous), demographic questions like language, location of office, and age can help make generalizations

However, be careful when asking for demographic data in anonymous surveys. In the above example, some demographic data, like tenure, gender, and the team to which someone belongs can all be used to figure out who they are.

How to get started with a demographic survey

Micheal Gerber, American author of The E-myth Revisited, said “Your target market and their demographics realistically need to be in alignment with your own beliefs and morals, or you may have trouble reaching out to them - or keep them once others have entered the market.”

As you start to combine participant answers with their demographic data, you’ll start to gain a better appreciation for the bigger picture. Then, by aligning this information alongside your intended business values and goals, you can make informed business decisions.

How do you start this journey? The question types mentioned in this post will give you a good starting point. As you scale up your surveys, or if you’re planning on reaching out to more than 50 participants, you will need to plan ahead how to manage your time from the planning, implementation and analysis stages.

Technology can assist you with the management of these stages and the analysis, leaving you free to investigate and take action on what you find out.


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Meena Toor

Meena is a content consultant, with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She is passionate about exploring storytelling and the customer journey in a customer-centric, digital world.

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