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Best Practices for Using Demographic Data

Jennifer Sowinski

Consulting Analyst

Jennifer enjoys working with arts and culture clients to help them increase revenue and grow audience through data-driven strategies including pricing studies, venue re-scaling, customer behavior analyses, and segmentation.
September 13, 2021

Over the past couple of years, and especially amplified by the unrest following the death of George Floyd, arts and culture organizations have been taking a look at the demographic makeup of their audience with renewed interest. Demographic data is important for understanding who is in your current audience, but before you collect or purchase data about your patrons, you must identify the best method of data collection for your organization and what you plan to do with the data.

Collecting Demographic Data

First, consider the benefits and shortcomings of your collection method. Data points such as age, race, ethnicity, and income level are often collected by organizations through audience surveys either during or after a visit. While these surveys can be a valuable tool, it’s important to recognize the inherent flaws in this type of data collection:

  • Surveys sent via email post-visit only collect data from the ticket-buyer whose information you have on file and those who have access to internet.
  • Surveys collected in-person rely heavily on staff involvement, and could miss key groups of people if staff aren’t actively collecting data for every performance, visit date, or time of day.
  • People may not feel comfortable filling out surveys, especially if the survey isn’t offered in their preferred language.
  • People may not feel motivated to fill them out, so voluntary surveys tend to be skewed towards more loyal audiences.

Another way to collect demographic data is through a data append purchased through a third party. There are several benefits to this type of data collection method:

  • You’ll be matching demographic data directly with constituent records, so that you can analyze customer behavior in conjunction with demographics.
  • You’ll receive data for a much higher percentage of ticket buyers than you would through survey collection.
  • You’ll avoid survey bias towards more loyal or active patrons.
  • However, just like post-visit surveys, you will still only get data for those records that are in your CRM system.

Using Demographic Data

Once you’ve acquired demographic data on your patrons, it’s important to have a plan for what you will do with it. Across the nonprofit sector, information including the age, race, and ethnicity of the customers you serve is increasingly requested for grant and funding applications. In addition to these external uses, demographic data is an essential tool for looking internally at your business practices and goals. Use this new data to do some analysis and answer questions like:

  • How does your audience makeup compare to the community you are intended to serve?
  • Who is being left out, and who is overrepresented?
  • How can you make meaningful changes to make sure your audience reflects the community?

These questions are always important for nonprofit organizations, but in the current environment, as we emerge from 18 months of pandemic isolation, racial unrest, and political turmoil, a renewed focus by nonprofits on serving their immediate community is essential.

Marketing Use: A Case for Behavioral Data

With that in mind, just as important as knowing what you should do with your newly collected demographic data, is knowing what not to do with it. At JCA, we’re huge proponents of segmenting your audience based on their transactional behavior, and we frequently work with clients to find high-level segments which include transactional behavior, attitudes, and demographics. These segments help organizations understand what their audience looks like at a moment in time. The segments can also help you design complete offerings, from programming to messaging and pricing, that speak to audience members’ value perceptions and incentivize action.

However, one thing we rarely recommend with purely demographic segments is to use them for targeted marketing. The reason we place such a focus on behavioral segments in marketing, as opposed to demographic segments, is that behavioral segments consider only what a person has actually done, not what we think they might do based on their demographics. By segmenting according to actual behavior, we avoid applying our own assumptions or biases about what we think someone is interested in. On the other hand, if we rely on segmenting based on demographics, our marketing efforts will be—at best—less effective than if we segment based on actual behavior. At worst, our assumptions could lead to marketing that is biased or even offensive.

Demographic data is an important piece of the puzzle when researching and understanding your audience. As you collect and analyze your data, make sure to keep in mind the inherent flaws in your collection method, and most importantly, have a plan for what your organization will and won’t do with the data once it’s been collected.

If your team needs help uncovering your audience’s demographics, attitudes, and behaviors, we’re here to help. Our team specializes in detailed, nuanced data analysis that allows you to answer complicated questions about your audience. The results will illuminate your path toward your audience engagement goals.

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