I’m guessing most of us don’t envy the US Census Bureau’s job that occurs every 10 years: Advertise to every single household in the United States with the goal of a 100% participation rate.
Even with a $140 million advertising budget, this still seems daunting.
Sure, there’s been criticism of some of the Census ads—their “Snapshot of America” mockumentary ads (brought to you by the “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind” director) were knocked for appealing to a narrow audience. And for being too subtle or kooky if you’re trying to persuade millions of Americans to cooperate with the federal government’s population count. (I personally loved them but it’s my type of humor.)
But the Census Bureau is using a lot of other interesting communications tools that you might not have heard about. And like everyone else, they’ve evolved over these past 10 years given the changing media landscape. I had the chance to speak the Census Bureau’s spokesperson Steve Jost on what’s changed since 1990 and 2010.
First, some background. As always, in addition to the general public, they’re targeting traditionally hard-to-reach groups: youth; linguistically isolated; underserved communities (socially and economically) and the homeless.
Working with 12 ad agencies that specialize in outreach to undercounted populations, the Census has a $140 million total advertising budget. Sixty million will be spent to reach the general population (84% of Americans) and $80 million will be spent to reach undercounted populations (16%).
They launched their campaign in mid-January and go dark on April 22, ending their “Motivation” phase (that’s where they urge everyone to fill out the form). They’ll then come back on May 1 in the “Non-Response Follow-Up Phase” where they’re going door-to-door to track down people who didn’t fill out their form. By mid-July, they’re done!
So what’s changed from ten years ago? As we all know, it used to be just the major and newspapers. Now, there are gazillions of channels across so many media channels–YouTube, Itunes, Facebook, My Space, Twitter, etc. They also face DVR/TIVO challenges and an explosion of cable stations. They have to be everywhere—so, the Census Bureau has a twitter feed, Facebook and MySpace pages, Flickr and YouTube channel. Also, this time, their website is much more user-friendly and interactive.
What else is new? The Census Director has a blog and comments are enabled, which is uncommon for the Federal Government. (And do people like to complain! “why send reminder notices?” “can you make the return envelope pink”? “can I be removed from your mailing list?”) To their credit, the Census Bureau is patiently answering all reasonable questions which is admirable.
In my next post, I’ll talk about how it’s all working out and the success of their advertising campaign, so stay tuned. And mail in your census form if you haven’t yet!