Continuing the Conversation: The Mandate for Demographic Evolution

June 29, 2023

It is indisputable that we have faced massive changes in our culture, economy, and society over the past few decades. So, kudos to the Insights Association (IA) and other marketing research associations globally for the white paper issued by their IDEA Council entitled “The Evolution of Demographic Questions.” (Download the paper here.) As IA CEO Melanie Courtright explained, “Research is needed to ensure that as an industry, we are asking demographic questions the right way—to be inclusive, to not alienate our respondents, and to not create any biases.”

Acknowledging that this terminology is evolving, the paper outlines issues that need to be addressed for three key demographic questions: gender, sexual orientation, and race and ethnicity. The white paper provides recommended questions, as well as alternative questions being explored but not yet tested. While more research is needed to test and refine these questions, we congratulate the IDEA Council on an excellent start at tackling this challenging situation. We will work with our clients to assist in testing the proposed solutions.

To contribute to this discussion, we at Symmetric would like to suggest three other topics that marketing researchers must tackle as we consider demographic-question evolution:

  1. Household Structure It may no longer be enough to ask, “How many adults live in your household?” and “How many children under the age of 18 live in your household?” With the significant economic stress on young adults, the fact that people are living longer—and given the increasing diversity of our population—starting a career does not necessarily mean moving out of the family home. Jessica Lautz, Vice President of Demographics and Behavior Insights for the National Association of Realtors, reports that, “1 in 6 homebuyers who purchased during the pandemic purchased a multigenerational home, an increase from the previous measure of 1 in 10.” Currently, there are 66.7 million multigenerational households (defined by the Census Bureau as three or more generations living together) in the U.S. Here’s why this is important: a household with four adults over 18 and one with two adults over 18 and two children under 18 have very different consumption and media habits from one another!
  2. Employment Similarly, in 2021, it is unrealistic to expect respondents to sort themselves into working full-time or part-time. If a person works 40 hours a week but does it at three part-time jobs, shouldn’t we categorize them as working full-time? What about people who work more than 40 hours per week and who have a side gig? What about the increasing numbers of people working from home who find themselves working longer hours because they no longer have a commute?     Further, many technically ‘retired’ individuals continue to work, either by choice or necessity. And of course, many students need to earn money as well. Full-time employment may no longer equate to only a 40-hour work week. We might be better off asking the number of hours worked each week or the number of hours spent weekly on activities to earn money, with a separate question for assessing how the respondent categorizes themselves.
  3. Tracking Studies. The rule of thumb for tracking studies is “Never change the questions.” In reality, however, most tracking studies change frequently. A new competitor enters the market and must be added to the appropriate question-response categories. The client has a timely question they need to add. The product itself changes. These and many other legitimate reasons can change your tracking survey questions. And it might be time to think about changing the demographic questions, as well.     Another rule of thumb is that sensitive questions, including demographics, always go at the end of the questionnaire. However–reality again! –demographic questions are often ‘screeners’ at the beginning of the survey. Suppose your demographic questions are outdated and potentially offensive; in that case, you risk alienating respondents and having them either not complete the survey at all (impacting your response rates and cost) or having the offensive questions color their responses (impacting your results).     Changing the demographic questions in your tracking surveys can always be handled by splitting the sample and posing your existing questions to one half of respondents, and the new questions to the other half. Best practice would be to use a split sample for multiple waves, up to a year, depending on your results and the frequency of fielding the tracker. Ideally, your new demographic question categories could be collapsed to create variables comparable to the original survey.
  4. Trim Your Demographics. Response rates have been a significant challenge for all professionals in the marketing research industry for years. The reasons for this are many, but one of the main ones is that surveys are too long. So, in the interest of shorter, less intrusive surveys, we should critically examine every demographic question and ask ourselves whether it is needed. Sometimes, marketing researchers include the standard array of demographics, whether they intend to use that data or not. Researchers in many European countries do not ask race and ethnicity questions because they are considered offensive and not actionable. So, let’s think about it: Is marketing your product really influenced by the consumer’s gender, sexual identity, or race and ethnicity? If not, then don’t ask respondents.

The topic of demographic questions and how accurately they reflect society is critical for the insights industry. We encourage you to read the IDEA Council’s white paper, review the demographic questions you are currently using, and make any necessary changes. Again, kudos to the Insights Association for starting this important dialogue!