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How Much Does the Check in the Box Really Tell Us?

How many of you are like me? You design survey after survey with the same set of standard demographic questions at the end of the survey. You then go on to dutifully create banner points of that demographic information to analyze the results against… but never actually use it in a meaningful way. As a “good” researcher I feel obligated to put the check in the box; level of education – check, income – check, region – check. But the planner in me always feels hesitant. Is this really helping us understand the audience? Does it really paint a picture of who they are and why they are behaving in certain ways?

Time and time again they add very little if any value to understanding consumers. There may have been a time when we could assign ourselves into neat little buckets defined by hard data and we would find ourselves among very like-minded people. Consumer X is a stay-at-home mom living in New England with a household income of $95K. Therefore, she’s likely to shop at these types of stores, drive these kinds of cars and clip coupons. It just isn’t that nice and tidy anymore. A certain level of income does little to guarantee the consideration of your product and service. There are myriad reasons we can find to explain why this shift happened. Kevin Lonnie’s recent article “America’s Great Divide / What Does the Shrinking Middle Class Mean for Market Research?” really nailed it for me.

Is using demographic information to ensure we have captured a nationally representative sample a relevant method anymore? With the ever-dwindling size of the middle class – that used to reflect the opinions and behaviors for the majority of consumers – are we seeking to serve a too finite market? And with the instability of the market, do they even share the same opinions and behaviors they used to? As Mr. Lonnie put it, “A married mother of two with a household income of $75K who views the country mired in paralysis and her job security as tenuous will likely reflect the buying habits of a low income household.”

This is all the more reason to drive deeper and use less superficial ways to research, classify and define consumers. Getting a holistic view of the consumer, understanding how they feel about your brand, how they use it, why they use it will gleam more insight than our old steadfast methods of covering that check in the box. You may not immediately understand why you’re not breaking through to a consumer, but if you look at how they’re behaving in other areas of their lives, there’s more than likely a correlation. If Consumer X is reading blogs about ways to simplify her life and recently traded in her BMW for a Subaru – she’s likely making similar choices in other areas of her life.

So will I now forfeit the use standard demographic information when helping companies understand who their consumer is? Hmmm… some habits are hard to let go of. But that doesn’t mean I’ll let it get in the way of an honest portrayal of the person.

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