How to use screening questions to reach your target audience

A screening question is a powerful type of survey question that can be used to narrowly target an audience based on behaviors, interests, or attitudes that aren’t available in the general demographic screening criteria. 


Unlike the rest of the questionnaire, these are set up at the same time as other demographic targeting questions. While things like age, gender, and location can be pre-selected in audience targeting, screeners allow respondents to self-identify with specific characteristics or behaviors, and are best used to filter for a qualified audience at the beginning of the survey.

Best practices for writing screening questions

Like all good survey questions, screening questions should be clear, concise, and unbiased. However, these have a few challenges specific to their question type. 

Avoid “yes” or “no” answer choices

While it can be tempting to build survey screening in a “yes or no” format, this creates bias within the question. Respondents are more likely to choose a response that is positive or that will obviously allow them to complete a survey. It’s best practice to create questions with multiple answer choices where it is not clear which is the desired response. This encourages respondents to answer honestly, rather than to choose something that they think will move them forward in the process, and you will end up with a more qualified pool of respondents. 

Example of an unbiased screening question

Use question types correctly

Screening questions can be single or multiple-selection. It’s important to know that answers that are “allowed” mean that respondents who select them will be able to participate in the survey if they choose any of those responses. In the “dog owner” example, users may select ownership of more than one pet, but will not be screened in (allowed to take the survey) unless at least one of those pets is a dog. If “cat” were also allowed, then any respondent who chose “cat” or “dog” along with a combination of other pets would be screened in.

Screening questions can allow multiple responses to be screened in

Limit answer choices

If you’re screening for a very specific answer, don’t provide many additional options that will be screened out. Disqualifying answers is how the incidence rate is determined, and a low incidence rate suggests a narrower, harder-to-reach audience. Many survey tools charge more for lower incidence rates, as this audience will be harder for them to provide. (Pollfish doesn’t charge a premium for incidence rate, however, if the incidence rate falls below a certain percentage, the survey will be stopped automatically and adjustments will need to be made).

Limit answer choices to reduce disqualifying a matched audience

Remember to shuffle answers

Like regular best practices for writing good survey questions, screening questions should be shuffled when they offer an unordered set of answers to select from. If the answer choices are ordered, such as those presented in a Likert Scale, reverse the order to provide some randomization, but maintain the order so as not to confuse respondents.

Shuffling answer order reduces bias

Don’t overuse

Screening questions are powerful when used correctly, and are a great way to narrow in on behavioral attributes that can’t be achieved through regular targeting. However, when too many screening questions are applied, the incidence rate drops, respondents can become confused, and ultimately results will suffer as the audience becomes less representative of a total population. Try to use as few screening questions as possible to maximize your survey’s reach, ideally fewer than 3 screening questions.

Don’t use them if you don’t need to

Screening questions are to be used as an additional layer of targeting but should not be used instead of the regular targeting parameters. Demographic targeting filters are more easily segmented and controlled than self-reported behaviors in screening questions, and allow a broader audience to reach with your survey. Make sure you check all of the available targeting filters on a survey and use them first, then add a screening question (only if necessary) to supplement the targeting criteria.

Set targeting first and screen respondents from a qualified audience

Benefits of using screening questions

Screening questions provide a number of benefits. When designed properly, survey screening can reduce overall cost by eliminating respondents from the survey early on who do not fit the criteria. They’re especially great for businesses looking to reduce cost on research overall by limiting the amount of unusable data.

The most common uses of screening questions are to identify populations of interests that: 

  • Share a similar opinion
  • Behave in specific ways
  • Have similar experiences

Brands, agencies, and other businesses commonly use screening questions to identify audiences that are loyal to competitors, desired behaviors (such as frequently purchasing a type of product), or to survey their current target audience on new features, packaging, or products. 

To learn how to use screening questions for the most effective targeting on the Pollfish platform, you can check out our expert tips from the customer experience team.