Census plans unprecedented online campaign for 2010 count

The bureau has customized its media campaigns based on how different age and ethnic groups use the Internet and certain platforms.

The Census Bureau plans to rely on numerous online applications and platforms to reach out to various demographic groups in its campaign planned during the next few weeks to convince as many U.S. residents to mail in their census forms for the 2010 count.

The bureau expects to spend $133 million in advertising to reach more than 300 million residents, both citizens and noncitizens, tailoring their message to specific ethnic groups. "This census faces challenges unlike the previous one in 2000 because of the wave of immigration that has taken place since," said bureau Director Robert M. Groves. "The census that has followed also has the special burden of communicating why it's safe to take part in it."

To produce its advertising, the Census Bureau considered how certain demographic groups consume media. "What works for some audiences may not work for others," Groves said. "Wisdom is required on what reaches different groups. Ideally, each group is reached by the medium that they most use."

One group that the bureau identified, for example, is what it called the single/mobile cohort, made up of young singles in school, or just out of school, who have entered the workforce for the first time and who are racially diverse, according to Tasha Boone, assistant division chief of the Census 2010 publicity office. "As a result of these characteristics, we have developed an online social media strategy to reach these individuals," she said.

The bureau has produced videos in partnership with advertising agencies to post on YouTube and other interactive media, hoping they will go viral among online users and spread the word of the importance of participating in the census.

"What's great about social networking is that we just need to create a basic skin and a page, and it takes on a life of its own," said Timothy Queenan, executive director of the digital business strategy for Draftfcb, the advertising agency network that worked with other partner agencies to develop paid media plans to advertise the census.

Market data also revealed that Asian-Americans on average used the Internet at a higher rate than other groups. But the bureau might have a difficult time communicating to that group via the Web. "When it comes to the online campaign, the challenge is that there is no one language for the Asian group," said Tina Vanichsarn, a senior account executive for IW Group, which created advertising concepts for 13 Asian languages. In all, the bureau developed advertising messages in 28 languages in its campaign.

"You have to look at every audience differently," said Taso Mouhteros, co-founder and president of Plum Agency, the advertising firm the bureau contracted to work on advertising to diverse audiences.

Mouhteros identified three groups that have different media consumption habits: those who have been displaced because they lost their homes to a natural disaster or foreclosure and might not have access to the Internet; older residents who do not use the Internet as much as other groups; and younger adults, who are active Internet users.

The bureau also will provide an online application so that the public can monitor the percentage of residents in a neighborhood who have returned their census form on a daily basis, allowing the public to view the response rate in to their neighborhood. "We're hoping that the transparency of the process will encourage more to respond," Groves said.

By convincing more people to mail in forms, the bureau will be able to reduce the number of residences that temporary Census workers will have to visit to collect the data. Door-to-door canvassing is the most expensive part of Census's operation.

The bureau also will send out 13 road tour vehicles nationwide to raise awareness of the census. Staffer plan to Tweet and blog about their experiences on the tours, and the public can track the tour vehicles online in real time.

Seven percent of paid advertising budget was allocated to online advertising. In contrast, the bureau plans to spend 52 percent of its budget on TV advertising.