Editor’s note: Ashley James is vice president at ENGINE Insights. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared under the title, “Using charts and tables to convey audience composition.” 

In market research, we often need to understand the composition of an audience. Understanding who we surveyed provides context that’s necessary to properly interpret the results. For example, we might need to know if there were more women or men in a B2C sample, or we might want to see the distribution by industry of a B2B sample.  

Often, the findings can also be thought of in terms of composition. How do customers break down into promoters, passives and detractors? How is the universe of potential customers split into segments? How are targets divided by their intent to purchase a new product concept? 

You might think of these as different ways to slice the respondent pie, but pieces of a pie might or might not be the best visual metaphor. There are several ways to display audience composition, each with pros and cons. Understanding these pros and cons can help you select the chart type that will best enable your readers to see what’s important in the audience composition data. 

Pie charts make it obvious that the slices are parts of a whole. The reader immediately understands this and doesn’t have to determine whether the numbers add up to 100%, like they might with a bar chart.  

When there are a small number of categories, pie charts are easy to interpret. In the example below there are clearly a lot more women than men in the audience. The reader can even estimate that the audience includes just over one-quarter men, despite the lack of data labels. 

Interpretation is tougher with more categories, especially when some or all of them are similar in size. In the example below, it’s not as easy to compare the slices of the pie or estimate the size of any one slice. At a gl...