Understanding Target Population in Research

Jim Whaley
Reach Your Target Market
Market Research » Understanding Target Population in Research


When designing a market research study and considering goals and objectives, an early step is to determine the target population to be studied.

The target population: the entire population, or set, that will be considered qualified for data analysis. 

Having a clear definition of this group is necessary before planning your sample design as it will be an important factor driving your sampling methodology, feasibility, and sample size.



What is the target population?


Given the target population represents the entire population for which any given study intends to examine, it is important to be precise in defining this group also sometimes referred to as the theoretical population.


Here is a partial list of example target population definitions:


  •  Adults 18+ U.S. census representative
  • Delta Airlines Diamond and Platinum Elite Frequent Flyers
  • Individuals who are registered to vote in a primary or an election contest held in the state of South Carolina
  • Certified public accountants with businesses located in Atlanta, New York, Miami
  • First and second-generation Haitians living in Paris



From this list, it is clear that having access to the total population of all the theoretical individuals in each of the above categories is virtually impossible regardless of which methodology you deploy. Therefore you need to evaluate the assets available to you for each of the target population groups.

Next, choose a sampling technique that will allow you to build a sample frame that will yield that sample size you require with the least sampling error and non-response bias from the data. It is also important to avoid ambiguity when defining your target population. Take this political polling example:


‘Individuals who are registered to vote in a primary or an election contest held in the state of South Carolina’


If this were the general election this would be a perfectly appropriate definition. If this were the democratic primary, it would still be valid as South Carolina is an open primary state where members of any party affiliation can vote for the other parties candidate.

Since there are many states which don’t hold open primaries, it would be important to specify registered: Democrats, Independents, etc..


Here is a partial list of example ambiguous target population definitions:


  • Russians who have left the country
  • People who have recently become mothers
  • Frequent travelers
  • Individuals who are “gifted”



The list above is meant to highlight different cases where ambiguity can cloud the study design. In the first example:


‘Russians who have left the country’

It is unknown where the Russians are living. It has not been defined which country they have departed. We might assume it’s Russia. But we could be mistaken. In the case of ‘Recent mothers‘, it is difficult to determine whether they have achieved this status through pregnancies for the first time or pregnancies and/or adoptions, foster programs, through marriage, or any number of other modern social scenarios.


Look at ‘Frequent travelers‘; you stop and ask is this business travel or leisure? Is this overseas or do trips to the next town count? Lastly, when it comes to people in the ‘Gifted’ category this day and age, in our estimation doesn’t everybody get a gold star for just getting through life? Absolutely!


The point is this, be extra cautious and thorough when defining the target population and when beginning to map out your study and it will guide you in setting up your sampling design. Otherwise, you may end up with ambiguities in your data that will be hard to resolve or impossible to conduct any kind of meaningful analysis.



How does the target population differ from the sample?


Why is the target population important?  With a working knowledge of what the target population is and how you should be “particular” in creating a clear and precise definition, we can discuss why this target audience is not the same as the sampled population. It is actually more akin to what the sample would resemble if we had an infinite measure of time and access to unlimited resources.


The target population is important for three primary reasons:


  1. Sets clear direction on the scope and objective of the research and data types
  2. Defines the characteristic variables of the individuals who qualify for the study
  3. Provides the scope of the total population or universe for determining sample size



The target population is the master blueprint for the sample. It defines (variable characteristics) the overall set or sets of all items (or people in the case of market research) who will qualify for your study.


Next, the researcher then will identify what sampling methods should be considered for the survey respondents or study participants that will yield data with the least amount of bias. If the study is quantitative, ideally the researcher can make observations and draw statistical inferences from the data. If it’s a qualitative study, the researcher will likely generalize the findings. The qualitative data analysis is not normally a probability sample method and randomly selected.


Depending on the sampling methods chosen, a sample frame is built and a plan is executed to reach each group of people from the target populations from a selection process defined in the sampling frame.



What are the considerations for the target population in online research?


All data collection methodologies carry with them strengths and inherent weaknesses. These strengths and weaknesses are typically expressed in these terms:


  • Data Collection Time (Field Time)
  • Data Collection Costs (Fielding Costs)
  • Response Rate
  • Non-Response Bias
  • Selection Bias (Sample Frame Error)
  • Data Processing Time (Cleaning, Validating, Coding)


Due to advances in mobile and wireless technology and the availability of high-speed internet, including the most remote regions of the world, today access to global audiences for research is growing in size. Because of this more businesses are interested in reaching their target market with an online questionnaire to conduct market research or see if they qualify for clinical trials, or participate in a political poll.


You can conduct both probability and non-probability sampling methods online depending on the panel provider you choose, their sampling knowledge, and what panel resources available. With planning it is possible to have a probability sample of registered Democrats in Ohio, or a cluster sample of restaurant owners ( 3-5 years in business and over 5 million in sales) in Atlanta, Chicago, and Pittsburgh.


As you design your online study, consider survey questions, and you think about the target population remember that your selection criteria should be precisely defined. Each sampled population or cohort should have clear define variables from which to build quotas and targets. And whether you are going for large sample sizes or small, it’s your data analysis and target population that will guide you.


About Us

Jim Whaley is CEO of OvationMR and posts frequently on The Standard Ovation and other industry blogs. OvationMR is a global provider of first-party data for those seeking solutions that require information for informed business decisions. Ovation MR is a leader in delivering insights and reliable results across a variety of industry sectors around the globe consistently for market research professionals and management consultants. Visit: https://www.ovationmr.com.

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