When you ask a demographic question, you're attempting to gather information to describe certain characteristics of a population—that could be something as small as your customer base or as large as a country.
Demographic characteristics like age, education, and income tell you a lot about a person. You're not going to start a Tik Tok marketing campaign if the folks buying your products are mostly retirees, are you?
By using demographic questions you can segment your audience and make smarter decisions based on that data. In this article we'll break down all you need to know about demographic surveys, and offer some best practices to help you along the way.
Demographic questions are used to reveal certain characteristics of people. Usually they're implemented as a market research tool to give businesses insights into their audience or customer base.
The most common demographic questions are based around age, gender, ethnicity, income, education and location. Though as we'll see later, you can delve even deeper based on how much demographic information you're trying to collect.
There are two ways demographic questions are usually asked:
Though, admittedly, it's rare for online surveys to only ask demographic questions. More often than not, they're added to the end of longer feedback or customer satisfaction surveys for additional data collection.
A great example of demographic surveys in the wild are media subscription businesses like Netflix. They use these questions to study audience demographics for their shows—things like age, gender and income. They can then adapt the marketing (and sometimes even the TV show itself) to better suite the audience.
Edward Felten, the Professor of Computer Science and Public Affairs at Princeton University (say that five times fast) is attributed as saying:
"The problem—when you cast your net that wide—is you inevitably catch something you don't want to catch."
Demographic questions allow you to narrow your net down to the specific folks you should target. It's like knowing what fish are in the pond and the bait they most like.
They empower you to target your products and services to your customers based on cold, hard data. They also give you an idea of where to find your customers.
Selling to 13 year olds? Millennials? Middle-aged men with high-income? Once you know who you're selling to you're able to pick which marketing channels will be most effective. (That's why it's a good idea to constantly evaluate marketing campaigns)
Understanding the demographics of your audience will help you tailor your marketing campaign to the people who will be most interested in your product or service. Demographic questions help you identify and segment your audience into smaller groups, so you can better serve their unique needs.
So demographic data is super valuable. But that doesn't mean it's relevant to every survey you conduct. They're best used for market research and other governmental surveys where it's helpful to split audiences into segments. For example:
✅ A video games company using a demographic survey to understand how people of different age ranges interact with their game.
❌ A brand asking "what is your income?" and "what is your gender?" when a person purchases a product.
If you're using demographics as part of a longer survey—about customer satisfaction, for example—they're best used sparingly. Keep in mind that you're asking sensitive questions and folks won't share that kind of information without a good reason.
Overusing these questions, or using them out of context, not only makes survey respondents uncomfortable, research suggests it lower response rates and causes abandonment.
Even when the circumstances do require demographic questions it's best to approach them with care, particularly if asking questions about an individual's gender or race.
"If you're going to ask for personal data like ethnicity or sexual preference, you've got to have a good reason for it. I can't really think of one for a B2B company. Most won't ever have a need for this kind of sensitive information. If you do, it's best to explain upfront and give your users the option not to respond."
—Vlad Shvets, Growth Manager @ Paperform.
You might not actually need to ask demographics in the first place. Google Analytics provides plenty of gender and demographic data that you can use to understand your customers and avoid some of those more sensitive topics, making it a great first step in the research process.
Another avenue for demographic data is third-party advertisers. This can be a bit of a murky enterprise as people become more aware of their digital privacy, but there are a bunch of companies that you can pay to access their databases.
Audience data is a massive industry. According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, marketers in the United States alone spent $11.9 billion on third-party audience data in 2019—37% of which was on descriptive characteristics like demographics.
In academic circles there's a bit of contradictory information about where you should place demographic questions.
Some researchers (outlined in this paper from The Journal of Psychological Research) argue that demographic questions need to be placed at the beginning of a survey—particularly if they're the main part of your analysis.
There's also recent data published in the Journal of Business and Psychology that suggests placing demographic questions at the beginning of surveys can increase response rates (and not effect non-demographic questions).
On the other side of the spectrum, some suggest you place demographic questions at the end of surveys for two main reasons:
So what do you do? Place them at the start? The end? Split the difference and chuck them in the middle? Well, the truth is there isn't a single right answer.
Positioning can depend on how you want to guide participants through your survey, whether you're worried about stereotyping (which can prime respondents and lead them to have survey bias), want to include screener questions or just think a survey flows better in a certain way.
Much more important than where you place demographic questions is making sure you are honest about your expectations and ask questions in the right way.
Asking people to share their personal information takes a little finesse. Folks don't just wake up of a morning and decide they're going to share intimate details with a company for the fun of it.
So, with that in mind, you need to overcome the reluctance that people may have in sharing personal data. Let people know why you're asking these questions and then be transparent with what you're going to use it for.
Are you collecting demographic data to:
Whatever the reason may be, let your respondents know. Also make sure to tell them whether their personal information will be identifiable. If you're worried about a low response rate, anonymity is a great way to encourage honest survey responses.
Make sure to use up to date terminology. Gender, sexuality and race are loaded topics and if you're not up with the latest lingo, you risk offending people and having your surveys abandoned. Try always to include 'prefer not to say' and 'other' options as a simple way to be more inclusive.
—Vlad Shvets, Growth Manager @ Paperform.
Now we've covered just about everything you need to know about demographic questions let's get into the nitty gritty details.
Under each entry we've included live question examples made with Paperform, as well as a few relevant survey templates that you can interact with.
Let's start with the big five:
Age is typically the first question asked in a demographic survey. Understanding a person's age is one of the fastest shortcuts to understanding your audience.
For example, say your customers are mainly teenagers. Their reference points will be Billie Eilish and Twitter. But if your audience is closer to their sixties, then they'll be more familiar with Simon & Garfunkel and transistor radios.
Of course this goes far beyond musical tastes. Age affects the way people feel, think and behave in the world. So if you're designing a new marketing campaign or trying to determine whether your audience are Boomers or Millennials, as a demographic question about age.
Keep in mind that asking a person to provide their precise age or date of birth can be a red flag. Instead, provide multiple choice age ranges for respondents. You still get the insights and folks don't need to get too specific.
Traditionally this question has been framed as "race" or "culture" but guess what? We're only one race (humans), so ethnicity is a much more accurate term.
Of course ethnicity can be a politically charged topic, but understanding the ethnic makeup of your audience is a fantastic way to shape the way you communicate with your audience.
For example, let's say you discover your product is gaining popularity in India. As Indians are predominantly Hindu—and in Hinduism cows are believed to be divine—you could use this information to make sure you avoided imagery of cows in any of your marketing messages.
💡 Tip: Don't include "ethnicity" as the only question, as it can come off like you're trying to exclude rather than include. And unless you want to spend hours listing every ethnicity from Pacific Islander to Native American, include an 'other' option.
Gender used to be quite a common demographic question, but like other demographic questions, should really only be required when necessary. When asking questions on gender, be sure to take into account the difference between biological sex and gender, and avoid pigeonholing respondents into a male-female gender binary.
Still, you may run a business where this information is relevant. For example, at Paperform we don't need this information because anyone can sign up for our service, but clothing brands need to know the gender of their audience for marketing or product-related reasons.
"Gender has become an inflammatory topic in the cultural zeitgeist, so make sure you have a good reason before asking questions about it. If you decide to, provide sufficient answer options for respondents (for example, non-binary and transgender—and always, always, include the option not to answer."
—Vlad Shvets, Growth Manager @ Paperform.
Gender is best referred to as "gender identity" in your questions. Rather than asking "what gender are you?" frame the question as "What gender do you identify as?"
The level of education your respondents have completed can provide useful insights into their survey answers, and more broadly, their lives.
Knowing someone's highest level of education—whether it's a Bachelor's degree, a Master's degree, a PhD or a trade school—can help you draw conclusions about their income, professional experience, and even their behaviours or interests.
In tandem with other data, these responses can provide you with actionable material to make decisions about marketing and other business functions (this can even effect things like your UX design).
Don't just include tertiary education as the only higher level of education. Trades and apprenticeships should be included alongside more traditional modes of study.
Whether a person lives in an urban or rural location can markedly affect their worldview. However, asking a respondent for their location using a demographic question may not be necessary.
Depending on the technology you use, you may already have this information from their IP address. Asking the question when not strictly necessary could contribute to survey fatigue that sees folks abandon your survey.
Nevertheless, you may want to ask a location question if you service local markets in your area, or are looking to expand to new markets. It can show areas of opportunity in your business and help you find out where your business is most popular.
There are two types of location questions: broad and narrow. Broad questions restrict location data to countries or continents, whereas narrow questions let you ask about more specific details (e.g. state or city.)
💡 Tip: You can use Paperform's built-in "country" selector field to gather this data without having to manually input the name of every region.
Alongside the big five, the following demographic questions are helpful depending on your business sector or your survey topic.
Much like gender, this question should only be asked when it directly applies to your business—for example, if you run a dating app. Sexual orientation is personal and can prompt respondents to abandon your survey if they think it's unnecessary.
This is also another question where terminology really matters. We encourage you to live by the good ol' "better safe than sorry" rule and make sure you're up to date with what is respectful and socially acceptable.
Again, there's no real need for most businesses to ask this question unless you're the next Tinder, or running a government census. If you do find a need for it, randomise the response order to reduce any appearance of bias.
Once upon a time this would've been posed as "Marital Status", but it's 2021. There are a trillion different ways adults can be in and out of relationships, so 'relationship status' is a better way to frame the question.
Finding out a respondent's relationship status gives you insights into their spending behaviour and priorities, as well as what products they may potentially be interested in. Though, it certainly isn't appropriate for most businesses to ask.
The standard assumption used to be that married couples had children, but that's not quite accurate anymore either. Plenty of couples don't have children until later in life, have children without getting married, or choose not to have any at all.
Money is always a touchy subject. But understanding the purchasing power of your customers has obvious advantages, from pricing and branding your products to the marketing approach you take.
Say you offer a laundry cleaning service and find out the majority of your customers are men with an income of $150,000 too busy (and lazy) to do their own washing. It could be the push you need to increase your price and boost your profits.
When it comes to asking the question itself it's best not to get too specific. Use ranges to reduce the personal nature, which is easy to do with a simple dropdown menu.
💡 Tip: Linking multiple pieces of demographic information allows you to build stories around your respondents to aid market segmentation. If you know your customers are mostly self-employed entrepreneurs with an average annual household income of $200,000, that gives you a firm idea of how to adjust your messaging.
An individual's employment status has a pretty big impact on their buying power. You don't see too many unemployed folks shelling out thousands on the latest and greatest products.
When asking about a person's current employment status, make sure your response options reflect the world as it is today. The pandemic has increase remote work and gig economy jobs, so include those options as well as inclusive ones (e.g. "unable to work".)
Respondents with family and dependents have different priorities from those who don’t. They have less disposable income and view the world through a completely different lens to single folk.
Understanding if people have children or dependents helps segment your customer base, allowing you to tailor your marketing campaigns and communications.
An alternative to voting status is to ask about political affiliations. Political leanings impact the way you sell your services—as we saw earlier, people's behaviour changes drastically based on their political views.
If you combine this data with location and education, you'll start building a crystal clear picture of your audience. There are two ways to approach this question. You can provide the main political parties in your country of interest, or you can approach it more generally and request respondents pick the option that best suits their political leanings:
If the language you use for your marketing, website and support docs is not your customer’s first language, the chances are they'll miss out on important background information.
Online communication is best when it’s clear, direct and easy to understand. If your organisation operates globally, then it’s a worthwhile endeavour to understand the languages your audience primarily uses.
For example, let's say you're an eCommerce company based in Australia, but you've discovered you have a large community based in Brazil that speaks Portuguese. You could make sure key landing pages and product pages are translated.
Additionally, the language(s) your audience speaks illuminates their cultural heritage and could affect the kind of content you produce—and how you present it.
You can approach the language question in two ways: ask the respondent to tick a checkbox for each language they speak, or simply ask their primary language.
Location and ethnicity questions don't give the full picture in today's world. Folks can easily hop between countries (at least pre-COVID) and where they live now mightn't be an accurate reflection of what they call 'home'.
Maybe your audience is well-travelled? Or certain socio-political factors influenced their move? These kind of experiences influence people's needs and affect purchasing behaviours.
Religion is another hot button topic. Religion impacts everything about someone's life, determining their day-to-day actions, their moral values, and personal beliefs.
For some folks religion—or lack-thereof—is a private matter. For others it's a topic they shout about from the rooftops. Still, like all other sensitive questions, it's best to only ask this question if strictly necessary, keep it optional, and always include an "other" option.
Once you better understand your audience, you can use the demographic data to create customer segments, run optimised marketing campaigns and ensure your business is meeting the needs of your target audience for a nice retention boost.
Remember: demographic data tends to be sensitive. Be open and upfront about why you're asking specific questions and, when possible, tell respondents what you plan to do with the survey results.
With Paperform, you can set up a demographic survey that's backed with powerful analytics, loads of supported integrations (over 3,000) and all the customisation tools you could need. Choose from one of the 650+ templates to speed up the process, or create your own. However you choose to design your demographic survey, you can give it a go with Paperform using the 14 day free trial.
This post was written by a guest author named Mike Bromley, an experienced marketer and digital change agent.
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