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How to write better demographic questions for your surveys

Last updated

12 May 2023

Reviewed by

Tim Scharks

Demographic information is the pillar of successful sales and marketing strategies. It can help you understand your target audience, design better offers, improve retention, and much more.

However, getting this information can be tricky. Customers aren't always excited about sharing personal data. Demographic questions can seem intrusive, unnecessary, and even overwhelming.

Getting the necessary answers requires a creative and discreet approach. 

Let's take a closer look at how to design effective demographic questions for surveys.

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What is a demographic?

A demographic is a characteristic or quality of a population. 

Analyzing demographics can give businesses a better understanding of their target audience and allow them to segment this audience into specific groups.

Besides age, gender, and ethnicity, common examples of demographics are:

  • Education level

  • Income bracket

  • Employment status

  • Occupation

  • Number of children

  • Marital status

  • Religion 

  • Political affiliation

  • Geographical location

  • Hobbies

You can collect demographic data in several ways, including surveys, polls, censuses, research, and focus groups.

How businesses use demographics

Demographics, sometimes called “demos” for short, are integral to customer data analytics. Without this information, there’s a high chance of marketing campaigns missing their target audience. Identifying varying needs across different demographics is vital to maximizing your marketing power.

Buyer persona

Many companies start marketing campaigns by creating buyer personas. These customer profile types allow the marketing team to create targeted campaigns with maximum appeal.

Marketers primarily use demographics to create personas. Without demographic data, buyer personas would be vague and fail to serve their purpose.

Segmentation

Many businesses target large audiences with different characteristics. Each group requires a special approach to securing loyalty, ensuring retention, and creating the right offer.

Understanding audience demographics allows you to create segments according to each group's requirements. This can help you develop unique marketing for each segment.

Business development

For many businesses, studying their audience is key to growth and development. Knowing who your customers are can help you take new steps, including developing products and opening branches.

In short, demographics help business owners make educated growth decisions.

Personalization

Personalization is a major driving force behind sales. Research demonstrates that the right approach to personalization can increase your company's revenue by an impressive 40%.

Demographic data can help you design customized products for each audience segment. This can strengthen customer loyalty and boost sales. It may also prevent you from spending money developing products that don't suit your customers.

Brand image

When you know your customers' age, income level, and other demographics, you can adjust your brand's image to drive high conversions. Customers with different demographics react differently to logos, colors, and other branding efforts.

For example, an audience with high levels of education may prefer a classic, thoughtful appearance, while recent high school graduates might prefer something more on-trend.

How to collect demographic data

Gathering demographic data can be challenging. Customers may be unhappy with many questions because they can seem intrusive.

That's why it's important not to overwhelm respondents and let questions flow naturally. Sometimes, it could pay to use the available research or rely on official governmental data-gathering methods.

Here are a few ways to collect demographic data:

Use Google Analytics

You can use Google Analytics (GA) to collect demographic information about visitors to your website. While the data you collect with this method is limited, it can complement the information you gather through surveys.

GA can provide such data as:

  • Age group

  • Gender

  • Geographic location

  • Market interests

This information can help you discover which customer segments interact with your website. For many marketers, this can assist in deciding which products to launch, how to adjust paid marketing tactics, and what audience segments they may be missing.

Take advantage of data from the U.S. Census Bureau

Every year, the U.S. Census Bureau collects demographic data by arranging the American Community Survey. On each year ending in zero, the Bureau also counts the American population on April 1.

This data can be highly useful for businesses conducting market research and designing buyer personas around geographic regions.

You can access demographic information in places like the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Security Administration, and tax records. It's also possible to find valuable data simply by searching the web and social media.

Design and deploy customer surveys

The best way to collect extensive demographic data is to ask customers to share it. Unlike the other methods, this information is highly accurate.

Here are a few places to include demographic questions:

While getting direct answers to your questions is nice, it's important to avoid “survey fatigue.” You don't want customers to grow tired of the survey before they get to questions you really want them to answer.

Try not to start your surveys with sensitive questions, such as income level. Due to their more personal nature, you should place demographic questions at the end of the survey.

Of course, you may need to involve those demographic characteristics in the survey. For example, showing different questions based on gender or seeing if making race more salient influences how customers feel about a product. 

Top demographic survey questions and how to ask them

When it comes to demographic questions, it's not about what you ask; it's about how you ask it. When designing surveys, keep these points in mind: 

Age

Age is a standard question that doesn't usually cause any negative feelings. This question can help you segment your customer base and determine the average age of your customers.

Asking customers to share their year of birth could seem somewhat intrusive. 

An easy way to determine age without being intrusive is to present evenly sized ranges in a multiple-choice question, such as 15–24, 25–34, and 35–44. Ensure your ranges don’t overlap. 

Always provide the opportunity to opt out of this question.

Gender

While gender may not matter to some companies, it can be a deciding factor for others. 

Since gender is a highly sensitive topic, you need to be discreet. A mistake in phrasing the question could cost you a potential customer. 

If leaving the gender question out isn't an option, take a smart approach to asking it. 

Use the terms "gender" instead of "sex," or simply ask, “Which of these do you identify with?” and present “male,” “female,” and a third category like “nonbinary/trans/other.” It’s also best to include fill-in-the-blank and “prefer not to answer” options. 

Ethnicity

Knowing your customers' ethnicity can help you create personalized offers for audience segments. It can give you an understanding of /their cultural preferences. 

Race and ethnicity are distinct, but terms overlap in meaning for some people. For example, “Black” is a commonly used racial description in the United States, while “African American” is a uniquely American term for Black US residents. 

In a different way, “Asian” is a broad racial term. Japanese or Cambodian carry more information about ethnicity, such as the cultural identity associated with each of those places.

Consider including the following answer options:

  • American Indian or Alaska Native

  • Asian

  • Black or African American

  • Hispanic or Latino

  • Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander

  • White

  • My ethnicity isn't on the list (space for details)

The specific categories you choose may depend on the regions you market to and your customer base’s preferences. 

Pre-testing your survey with a small group of customers with an open-ended question about their ethnic and racial identity might be a good idea. This may help you establish the categories and specific terms for each.

As with the rest of the demographic questions, allow the respondent to opt out of the question.

Location

While it's possible to gather location data from tools like Google Analytics, not all of your customers browse your website from their place of residency. You may be surprised to learn where some of your target audience lives.

Gathering this data could give you valuable information that impacts product development and branch locations. You could also discover that some of your audience lives outside the state or country. This could change the way you market your product significantly.

Ideally, you should ask your customers for their zip codes. This information can pinpoint their location. If you want to analyze results faster, ask for their state, country, or continent. Dropdown menus in online surveys can help.

Education

Learning your customer's level of education can help you design an effective marketing strategy. It can impact the tone of voice and complexity of the content you write.

To discover their level of education, ask customers to choose one of these options:

Please select the highest level of school completed: 

  • Some high school (no diploma)

  • High school diploma or equivalent

  • Some college (no degree)

  • Bachelor's degree

  • Master's degree

  • Professional or Doctoral degree

You can choose the options depending on your target audience's approximate age range.

Marital status

Marital status can give insight into your audience's buying capacity and needs for certain products. The buying behavior of married customers can differ from that of your unmarried audience. 

This status can also affect their hobbies, interests, and time to choose and use products.

The more options you provide for this question, the more nuanced information you can receive:

  • Single, never married

  • Married or domestic partnership

  • Widowed

  • Divorced

  • Separated

  • Prefer not to answer

Marital status is rarely a sensitive issue for respondents.

Employment status

Employment status is an excellent demographic question that can give you an approximation of your audience's buying capacity without digging deeper into their income level.

Coupled with the knowledge about the person's age, an answer to this question can provide significant insight into their behavior.

Answer options can include:

  • Self-employed

  • Employed full-time

  • Employed part-time

  • Unemployed and looking for a new job

  • Not presently seeking employment

  • Full-time homemaker

  • Military

  • Student

  • Retired

Remember that some people may not be working because they are disabled or unable to work for other reasons. Consider adding this option if it’s an essential segment of your market.

If you want to dig deeper and ask about household income, you can do it in the next question. The answer options should be in the form of evenly spaced ranges.

Family

Knowing whether customers have children can significantly influence what you can offer them. Children create unlimited upselling and cross-selling opportunities. They also affect buying decisions, purchasing power, and many other aspects of customer behavior.

Ask the customer how many children they have and provide several options, including:

  • None

  • 1

  • 2–4

  • 4+

If it matters for your products or services, you may also ask about the children's age. Provide ranges for answers like 0–1, 2–7, 7–14, and 14–18. 

If your survey software allows it, you can combine these questions to ask how many children in each range are in the family. 

Besides these questions, you could also ask about religion, political affiliation, and voting status. However, since these demographic questions are usually sensitive, try not to put them all in one survey and make answers optional.

How to ask demographic questions in a survey: best practices

When adding demographic questions to customer surveys or creating standalone demographic surveys, keep these best practices in mind:

Evaluate your needs

While demographic data is valuable, you may not need answers to all the common questions. 

Evaluate available information and your potential target audience. Perhaps you don't really need to know their political affiliation, while marital status and the number of kids matter tremendously.

The fewer questions you ask, the more likely you will get the answers. That's why it's imperative to leave out unnecessary questions.

Keep surveys short

As with other customer surveys, demographic surveys should be short. Otherwise, customers may experience survey fatigue, and you could lose the answers they provided if your survey tool doesn’t record partially completed survey data.

As you can distribute various surveys throughout the customer journey, you can spread demographic questions across surveys.

Know where to place demographic questions

Most demographic questions are more personal than product preference questions. 

A good rule of thumb is to place sensitive questions closer to the end of the survey, as the customer is invested in the survey and may have developed some trust.

Explain your questions

Since many customers may consider demographic surveys somewhat intrusive, clarify why you need this information. Trust your customers with your needs and goals so they can trust you with sensitive demographic data.

You should also assure respondents that you’ll keep their information private and only use it to improve their experience with your company.

Provide answer options and ranges

While you can leave some questions open-ended, don't add more than one of those to the survey. Multiple-choice questions work the best.

They minimize the time a customer needs to spend on the survey and make it easier for you to process the data. 

Choosing a range over a precise answer is less taxing psychologically. It’s handy for questions about things the customer may not remember exactly, like annual household income. 

Avoid "other" when possible

Sometimes, it's impossible to list all answer options. While "other' may seem like a great way out, it doesn't provide value. Still, it can tell you that your categories aren’t comprehensive. 

Alternatively, you can add "another option not specified here; please elaborate."

Eliminate bias and assumptions

Demographics are a sensitive issue. Make sure you avoid bias in your questions and answer variants. One of the simplest ways to do this is to present answer choices alphabetically.

Also, don't assume that your audience knows acronyms or jargon. Make the questions as straightforward and spelled out as possible.

Analyzing demographic survey results

Once you collect valuable demographic information, you need to analyze it according to your company's marketing or sales needs and goals. The right tools can help you get the most value from the survey answers.

With a comprehensive approach to demographic analysis, you can use statistics or graphs to develop a clear picture of your existing audience.

Next, you can implement this information to create buyer personas, develop new products, segment your audience, and more.

FAQs

What is a demographic survey?

A demographic survey asks the respondent to share demographic information like age, gender, ethnicity, income level, and marital status in response to questions.

What are the three main uses of demographic data?

The three main uses of demographic data include economic research, political campaigns, and marketing campaigns.

What purpose do demographic questions serve on forms and applications?

Demographic questions can help companies better understand their audience to improve their experience and generate higher revenue.

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