Despite Social Media Claims, Census is a Potential $340 Million Money Pit

By Erik Qualman

Many applaud the U.S. Government for using Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube and a Blog (Robert M. Grovers Director of the United States Census Bureau) for this year’s Census.  None of these tools existed the last time the census occurred in 2000, so kudos for the progression and a hat tip to social media.  However that is where the applause possibly ends.  In 2000 the Commerce Department spent an estimated $147 million dollars to promote the census.  census social mediaTen years later, the budget has grown to $340 million dollars.  This dramatic increase of the budget is a marketers dream as they already have plans to spend it frivolously on Super Bowl Ads, NASCAR, Winter Olympics and tailgate parties.  Marketers’ collective jealousy across the land is palpable for such a campaign that seems to have little accountability as indicated in an article by Mike Riggs of thedailycaller.com:

“In its review of the 2000 Census’s marketing efforts (which also included a road tour) the Government Accountability Office (GAO) observed that the bureau had spent 260 percent more to market the 2000 census than its predecessor — $3.19 per household in 2000 versus $0.88 in 1990 — but fared worse in every category: The response rate was 65 percent in 1990 and 64 percent in 2000, and the return rate, which the GAO considers “a more precise indicator of public cooperation with the census than the mail response rate,” declined from 74 percent in 1990 to 72 percent in 2000.”

Also palpable is the ire and bewilderment of  taxpayers, who are skeptical of a $340 million dollar spend in this difficult financial climate.

Ironically, it was less than two years ago that Obama was able to fund raise record amounts of money with little upfront investment.  His team was able to do this through creative use of technology and social media and it empowered young and old alike to make a historical difference.

Hopefully some of this progressive thinking can be used to correct what appears to be a $340 million dollar boondoggle.  While offline marketing activity is needed it needs to be used in a coordinated fashion with newer mediums like search, social media, mobile, etc.   Also, I’m not sure that we needed to more that double the marketing budget.  For example, why not use tools like Facebook and Twitter so that users can easily fill out the 10 minute questionnaire?  People are more than willing to help out as the indicated by the Causes application of Facebook that has over 24 million active monthly users that help donate dollars to various causes.  Most recently over $100,000 has been raised for the Haiti relief efforts.

Hence, if we (it’s our tax dollars remember) run an ad during the Winter Olympics why not prompt users to fill out the census via Facebook, Twitter, Text Messaging?  There are over 100 million users on Facebook in the United States.   To be fair, Mr. Grovers may already have plans to do this in the $340 million dollar marketing plan.  However, the beauty is that if it isn’t currently in the plan it can easily be adjusted to accommodate such; that is one of the true beauties of online, social media and mobile.

As of now, unless I’m at an appropriate football tailgate or receive a knock on the door, I ‘m not sure where I can easily fill out the census.  Another quick thought, why don’t they try to capture as many names electronically saving on the cost of paper/shipping/environment and then suppress the names (i.e. don’t mail paper to those that have already completed the form) they capture before starting the mailing a few weeks/months later?

If we are going to double the budget we might as well be progressive than simply buying more traditional media and putting up a Facebook Fan Page .  For example, why not have a page that shows a current tally/ongoing results of the census itself?  We live in a world of transparency, what would be more transparent than that?  Instead if I go to the Census Bureau site, in regards to filling a form out online  it tells me:  No, not this time. We are experimenting with Internet response options for the future. The tag-line of the site is “It’s in Your Hands.” Maybe this is appropriate since it doesn’t appear to be at my fingertips.

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6 responses to “Despite Social Media Claims, Census is a Potential $340 Million Money Pit

  1. Very interesting stuff! It is amazing to see how much the Census Bureau is spending (maybe this is another example of the age of transparency) and how they are pressing so much in the new media sector.

    It is amazing to see what they are doing with new and social media given that the majority of the census (especially the questions) was finalized five years ago by Congress and now they are working to keep that updated, but there is definitely work to be done. I was stumbling around today and found a similar article hitting the high and low points of the Census media blitz. On http://www.ohmygov.com (which appears to be a site which multiple articles about gov 2.0 and government and social media) they had a pretty interesting piece (http://ohmygov.com/blogs/general_news/archive/2010/03/08/just-what-are-the-census-promoters-trying-to-do.aspx).

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the 3 weeks to “Census Day”

  2. Erik, Agree that that marketing budget is too big and wonder at the value of the Nascar marketing and the road tour – but the Census Bureau is definitely participating in social media at the Census site. They just hid it under a strangely named navigation tab labeled “Take Part” which leads to their social media page and lists YouTube, Twitter, Facebook Fan Page and links to their press section and the Census Blog. I did a blog post on this Monday.

  3. you have to add link to your twitter profile in the website URL input field however, you can modify the same code above to scan through the actual comment and add twitter icon beside the commenter profile but if there are enough requests, I will blog the recipe.

    I also like the http://tinyurl.com/y8wqgap/ at the end, like you have it

  4. There is no reason to be visited by a census worker if the Census Data is filled out properly (when it is received) and if it is returned by their due date. Every address on file will receive a form to return. As far as I can tell from spam emails about the census, minority communities that speak English as a second language are being bombarded with bogus Census info and have become bewildered and somewhat frightened. They should be creating ads that are serious about what the census is, what it is for and why they should help the government to gather the correct information. I’ve seen some of the email spam and it is filled with garbage to frighten folks. ok .. little rant over.. 🙂

  5. You might be able to get 5 or 6 million Americans to register for the census via Facebook if that means they can skip the visit from a census worker – I can’t think of too many Facebook pages that have over 7 million fans.

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