U.S. Census Fail

Most people agree that there is need for the 2010 U.S. Census. However, many people are finding flaws with the methods as to which the census is being rolled out and marketed. The census is important because it allows tax dollars and government programs to flow into communities with the most needs, based on information gathered in the census.

The challenge, of course, is to get the general population to see the value and importance of filling out their census forms. How is this accomplished? More importantly, how do you engage Generation Y, the generation that has never directly participated in this process?

As of March 10, the U.S. Census was struggling to reach the audience that it so badly needs to engage. It has fewer than 3,000 Twitter followers and 14,900 friends on Facebook. Are you kidding me? A grilled cheese sandwich with the image of the Virgin Mary has more followers. On top of that, the official U.S. Census website is both aesthetically abysmal and hard to navigate, not to mention that you can't fill out your Census form online.



Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau spent millions of dollars to mail letters to millions of households to let them know that they will be mailed a Census form in the future (thick irony given the announcement that the inefficient U.S. Postal Service will be cutting Saturday delivery). Throw in some odd commercials that ran during the Super Bowl featuring obscurely dry humor, and you have officially reached the status of EPIC FAIL. This FAIL is actually surprising given the relatively successful branding and marketing of Cash for Clunkers, the First Time Homebuyers Tax Credit, and the Obama campaign.

Can we learn any lessons from this disaster? Yes, we can learn a lot about how to focus a message when the target audience is ... well ... everyone.

1. Focus the message towards Gen Y, and work outward from there. Instead, the Census chose to market to Boomers (a generation that has already participated in several censuses), and work outward from there. I feel that this approach has, thus far, been unsuccessful. The real measure of success will come with the Census results.

2. Just because a product or service isn't "cool" doesn't mean that you can't make it "cool." You did know that the prune community started marketing prunes as dried plums, right? I think we would all agree that there is nothing less "cool" than concern for regularity. In other words, can you take a product that naturally has an alternative demographic, and through marketing, open the door to a new market?

3. An investment in engaging Gen Y will lead to a legion of brand advocates. If you are reading this article, then you probably already know this. Gen Y will become your marketing department. Marketing dollars are best leveraged with Gen Y. This fact actually makes your job easier. The U.S. Census Bureau chose to ignore this.

The U.S. Census Bureau's strategy is shocking. These are modern times. I get email from Barack Obama. As marketers we must understand that stodgy programs can have life, via our efforts. If you are marketing across several age demographics, consider spending your money on Gen Y, and let them do some of the work for you.

10 comments about "U.S. Census Fail".
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  1. Michael Kaplan, March 19, 2010 at 12:47 p.m.

    Not sure I agree with your Gen Y-centered approach, but I have to agree that the Census website is absolutely horrible. It looks like the sort of template-based site your average lawn maintenance company might have set up. Sad.

  2. Kern Lewis from GrowthFocus, Inc., March 19, 2010 at 1:11 p.m.

    I accuse you, sir (in humor), of being as myopic as the Census marketing team! I agree that all generations must be engaged. I disagree that a Gen Y-focused approach would be better. Many of them are still dependents of and/or living in some way with their parents, and will be counted by those Boomers on whom the Census is focused.
    Plus, filling out a census form online is piled high with issues, not the least of which is controlling for fraud.
    Next, the Census team can only e-mail those who have opted-in. (As you, for instance, have done with President Obama.) Opting-in to get Census updates is far less attractive.
    Finally, how can you declare something a failure before the results are in? Most Americans still get mail, and still read it, even if they prefer electronic communications.
    I think this is a bit of a rush to judgment.

  3. Edward Lehwald from Arundel Federal Savings Bank, March 19, 2010 at 1:31 p.m.

    "Most people agree that there is need for the 2010 U.S. Census."
    Really? Do you think that's because it's written into the US Constitution that we have to do it every 10 years?

  4. Kenn Kozerski from, March 19, 2010 at 2:42 p.m.

    amen brother

  5. Peter Dunn, March 19, 2010 at 3:08 p.m.

    Edward, just because something is in the US Constitution (or its amendments) doesn't mean that people have to agree with it. Based on that logic, women wouldn't have thought they should have been able to vote, when they couldn't.

  6. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., March 19, 2010 at 6:31 p.m.

    I don't agree with some of the premises here: Since when is having lots of Facebook friends or Tweets a guarantee of success? There's nothing "social" about the census. Its purpose is just what the ads say, to make sure we all get our correct share of government attention, services, funding. There's no reason whatsoever for the census to be my or anyone's friend. The additional mailing is a calculated risk. It is well-known that multiple mailings increase response, and they are much less expensive than sending someone out to the person's home, which is what the Census Bureau is required by law to do if people don't respond to the mailed form. It may very well prove to have been a great investment. Finally, if the census fails, it may be as much because of a right-wing nutjob with a big microphone as because of any failure of the Census Bureau itself. Why not wait until the returns come in before calling the election?

  7. Peter Dunn, March 19, 2010 at 7:12 p.m.

    Tim, I agree that having facebook friends isn't a measure of success. However, nothing is necessarily "social". Apple Computers, Jay-Z, and Betty White aren't "social" yet many people pledge allegiance to them everyday. My point was that gen y has never participated in the census, and the govt should have used different means to reach this audience. But, your point is well taken. Thanks for the feedback.

  8. Jonathan Madnick from Mobile Ecosystems DC, March 19, 2010 at 7:36 p.m.

    Follow the us census on Twitter. why?

  9. Mahala Renkey from Renkey Marketing, March 19, 2010 at 8:02 p.m.

    There is mis-information in this article. The Census is mandated by the US Constitution and is the data base from which $440 billion a year is distributed. It is critical that every single person be counted. It was not targeted to boomers - who know about it and participate. The US Census is more concerned about all the people who feel threatened by being counted in the Census and has worked with groups of all colors and places to get them to participate.

    It is a once every ten year event and it only takes a few minutes to fill out the form. As others have commented, there is no base for a Facebook Fan or Twitter relationship.

    Did you get a Census form and did you fill it out and mail it. That is the relationship. Get all your friends to participate by April 1 so the US Gov doesn't have to send a person to find you to answer the questions. It is so simple and straightforward. Go with it.

  10. Peter Dunn, March 19, 2010 at 8:04 p.m.

    There is no misinformation. I am simply pointing out that they could have employed gen y to help with the heavy lifting.

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