A Matter of Representation

Is it time to explore alternative ways of national representative samples?

Impact magazine published an article earlier this year about the concept of ‘nationally representative’ samples. They posed questions about whether the indicators used to determine demographics needed to change to reflect society today. The article also looked at the statistical impact of using different indicators to pick up more marginalised societal groups and the barriers preventing brands embracing research around these groups.

This really captured our attention and felt like a conversation coming up more frequently with our clients and in our network. Do we need to change how we represent a ‘national’ sample, how do we guide clients in this area and what will be the impact on the research?

Defining nationally representative samples for surveys

The research industry has long trusted what is meant by nationally representative, but whether this definition is still accurate is understandably under question. Historically, to be nationally representative, your sample needed to account for;

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Region
  • Occupation
  • Class

Race, disability, sexuality and gender preferences were not routinely taken into account. It does feels antiquated when viewed in this way. We know that ethnicity, gender, sexuality are actually considered in more fluid terms in modern society. Are these views and voices being properly accounted for?

Navigating representation in research

Brands are under increasing pressure to ensure the research they commission is truly representative and they want to demonstrate their modern stance and relevancy. They also want to feel confident that their insight has taken into account the under-represented voices in their target market.

This is logical. If a national cinema chain wants to gain insight on venue experience for cinema-goers or what range of audiences they need to cater for, they need to understand factors beyond basic demographics. They will want to make informed decisions that take into account disabled and LGBTQ+ audiences for example, and ask the right questions.

Or a woman’s clothing brand might want to understand the trans community better to inform decisions around inclusive sizing and marketing.

The tricky line to establish is what weight you give a minority group’s insight, from a mathematical point of view. Taking the cinema brand example, if a very small proportion of survey respondents identify as having a specific disability, how far should that cinema brand go to make films and experiences accessible for that audience? Particularly if other insight, at a more mathematically significant level, indicates investment or review is needed as a priority elsewhere? It’s uncomfortable analysis. We want under-represented voices heard, but if the numbers are small, what weight do those voices have when it comes to decision making?

Culturally speaking, it’s clear these voices need amplifying and accounting for. But when it comes to a marketing budget and target audiences, priorities and decisions have to be made, and it’s new territory for a lot of brands to navigate.

Barriers to embracing more representative sample in market research

The article in Impact magazine also notes the barriers experienced by brands and agencies when it comes to using surveys targeting minority groups. Cost was one element but using the right language was what really resonated with us and our clients. For brands new to this area of research, it can feel like a minefield when surveying minority groups, especially when sensitive and personal questions are being asked.

What is the right, inclusive and best practice language to use when engaging with minority groups? Currently, this guidance doesn’t exist in the research industry, but thankfully it’s in motion. Last year the Market Research Society commissioned work on making nationally representative surveys more reflective of modern society. Additionally, they are working with ONS and will be putting together guidance on best practise language to use which is inclusive and appropriate.

This will be a welcome evolution to brands and agencies alike to ensure we are operating in a way that engages with our society as a whole, to the benefit of our survey respondents, agencies, brands and consumers alike.

 Neil Cary

Lead contact for survey design, project management and data reporting.