A Campaign that Engages Every American: Five Lessons from the 2010 U.S. Census

How do you create a communication campaign that reaches every single person in the nation? More specifically, in a world of information disparities and fragmented attention, how do you create a campaign powerful enough to span people living in mobile homes, on Native American reservations, the homeless, people in remote parts of Alaska, non-English speakers, and young people?


Every ten years, the U.S. Census Bureau’s communications team faces this challenge.

On Monday, Steve Jost, Associate Director of Communications for the U.S. Census Bureau, dropped by American University Professor Joe Graf's course to talk about the challenges and strategies behind the 2010 Census Integrated Communications Campaign.  AU graduate student Trina Stout reports.--Matthew Nisbet

Background: What Is the U.S. Census?

The Census is a constitutionally mandated count of everyone in the country that occurs every ten years; the results are used to allocate electoral votes, seats in Congress, and government funding. Census workers must count every single household.

The economic stakes are high: If a household mails back their Census form, it costs the government $0.42 in prepaid postage. If they don’t, the follow-up house call costs $57.

The goal of the Census team’s communication campaign was to get people to participate in the Census. This involved making people aware of what the Census is and why it’s important, and encouraging them to take action -- to mail back their forms. (And after the mail-back deadline, to respond to a house call.)

Challenges Faced in 2010

Aside from reaching 300 million people, challenges to undertaking the Census included:

  • Declining civic engagement.  How do you inspire people to mail back their forms?
  • Unprecedented levels of mistrust in government.  How do you convince people this isn’t an invasion of privacy?
  • The worst recession in half a century. How do you reach the newly homeless, or people who are temporarily couch surfing?
  • Uneven mail-back rates across ethnic groups. How do you increase response rates across cultures?
  • Changing media consumption. How do you reach people in a fractured media age?
  • Ultimately, the Census team decided to reach people through five platforms: paid advertising, partnerships, earned media/PR, digital, and the Census in Schools program.

    Here’s what they did in five steps you can adapt to any communications campaign.

    1. Use Research-based Targeted Advertising

    The Census spent $374 million on advertising, or $1.20 per person. You don’t spend that kind of money without doing major research first, so the Census team conducted over 4,000 surveys and 115 focus groups in 24 languages. Then they hired a New York ad agency, which subcontracted out to 12 other agencies that specialized in different demographic audiences. Most of the ad budget was spent locally, in ethnic markets, with ads customized to those target audiences.

    2. Get Creative with Partnerships

    The census partnered with 257,000 organizations, ranging from churches to community groups to corporations.  Some examples of how these partnerships played out: Best Buy showed Census PSAs in their stores, the Postal Service printed “Mail back your Census” reminders on their envelopes, and Spanish television channel Telemundo created a storyline in a popular show about a woman who mailed back her Census.

    3. Generate Newsworthy PR and Anticipate Problems

    Census workers hit the road on a national Road Tour, earning mentions on The Today Show, local news, and several other outlets, resulting in 217 million “earned media impressions,” meaning that coverage of the Road Tour was seen or heard about 217 million times. The Census team feared that an embarrassing photo -- a Census bus stopped by police, for example -- uploaded by a citizen journalist would go viral, tarnishing the Road Tour. So they required drivers to blog twice a day, flooding the web with positive Road Tour content. (And luckily, there were only two speeding tickets.)

    4. Meet Your Audience Where They Are on the Web

    The Census team made a dynamic, multimedia website available in 57 languages. The Census Director had a blog. They established a presence on Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and Twitter, where they uploaded photos and video from the Road Tour, sent updates, invited citizens to post testimonials, and more. They created an interactive, Google-like map of mail-back rates so people could see the response rate in their neighborhood, and compare it to other parts of the country.

    5. Reach Influentials -- Even in Unexpected Places

    The Census team launched an assertive “Census in the Schools” program that reached 56 million schoolchildren. They provided 130,000 teachers with materials on how to teach what the Census is and why it’s important in their geography, political science, history, and other classes.

    How are schoolchildren influential? In many immigrant families, they are the only ones who speak English. And in general, children can bring the Census message home to parents who might otherwise have missed it.

    What Were the Results?

    The Census team’s integrated communications campaign succeeded in raising awareness and participation. People who had heard or seen anything about the Census increased from 35% in December 2009 to 92% by April 2010, when Census forms were due back. Those who intended to participate increased from 77% to 96% in the same period.

    In the end, 72% of households mailed back their Census forms, the same as in 2000. Because so many people mailed back their forms, the Census was able to return $1.6 billion to the Treasury. Census workers followed up with house calls to the remaining 47 million households.

    What do you think of the campaign? What would you have done differently? What do you think the challenges will be for the 2020 Census? How do you think the media landscape will change in the next 10 years?

    --Guest post by Trina Stout, a graduate student at American University's School of Communication. Before graduate school, she worked for the environmental news and humor site Grist.

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    Image: @TrackingTalons / Ruland Kolen
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    • Watch these six dots move across the map and be moved yourself: this is a story about coming of age, discovery, hardship, death and survival.
    • Each dot is a tag attached to the talon of a Swainson's Hawk. We follow them on their very first migration, from northern California all the way down to Argentina.
    • After one year, only one is still alive.

    Discovered: destination Argentina

    Image: @TrackingTalons

    Young Swainson's hawks were found to migrate to northern Argentina

    The Buteo swainsoni is a slim, graceful hawk that nests from the Great Plains all the way to northern California.

    It feeds mainly on insects, but will also prey on rodents, snakes and birds when raising their young. These learn to fly about 45 days after hatching but may remain with their parents until fall migration, building up flying skills and fat reserves.

    A common sight in summer over the Prairies and the West, Swainson's hawks disappear every autumn. While it was assumed they migrated south, it was long unclear precisely where they went.

    A group of researchers that has been studying raptors in northern California for over 40 years has now established exactly where young Swainson's hawks go in winter. The story of their odyssey, summarized in a 30-second clip (scroll down), is both amazing and shocking.

    Harnessing the hawks

    Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

    A Swainson's hawk, with tracking device.

    The team harnessed six Swainson's hawks in July, as they were six weeks old and just learning to fly. The clip covers 14 months, until next August – so basically, the first year of flight.

    Each harness contains a solar-powered tracker and weighs 20 grams, which represents just 3% of the bird's body weight. To minimize the burden, only females were harnessed: as with most raptors, Swainson's hawk females generally are bigger than males.

    The first shock occurs just one month (or about 2.4 seconds) from the start of the clip: the first dot disappears. The first casualty. A fledgling no more than two months old, who never made it further than 20 miles from its nest.

    By that time, the remaining five are well on their way, clustering around the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. Swainson's hawks usually travel at around 40 mph (65 km/h) but can almost double that speed when they're stooping (i.e. dive down, especially when attacking prey).

    'Migration unrest'

    First year of life for six Swainson's Hawks [OC] from r/dataisbeautiful

    There's a strong genetic component to migration. As usual, the Germans have nice single word to summarize this complex concept: Zugunruhe ('tsook-n-roowa'), literally: 'migration unrest' (1). It denotes the seasonal urge of migratory animals – especially birds – to get on their way. Zugunruhe exhibits especially as restless behavior around nightfall. The number of nights on which it occurs is apparently higher if the distance to be traveled is longer.

    The birds may have the urge to go south, but genetics doesn't tell them the exact route. They have to find that out by trial and error. Hence the circling about by the specimens in this clip: they're getting a sense of where to find food and which direction to go. Their migratory paths will be refined by experience – if they're lucky enough to survive that long.

    Each bird flies solo: their paths often strongly diverge, and if they seem to meet up occasionally, that's just an illusion: even when the dots are close together, they can still be dozens if not hundreds of miles apart.

    Panama snack stop

    Image: @TrackingTalons

    The Central American isthmus is a major bird migration corridor

    They generally follow the same route as it is the path of least resistance: follow mountain ranges, stay over land. Like most raptors, Swainson's hawks migration paths are land-based: not just so they can roost at night, but mainly to benefit from the thermals and updrafts to keep them aloft. That reduces the need to flap wings, and thus their energy spend – even though the trip will take longer that way.

    As this clip demonstrates, the land-migration imperative means the Central American isthmus is a hotspot for bird migration. Indeed, Panama and Costa Rica are favorite destinations for bird watchers, when the season's right. A bit to the north, Veracruz in Mexico is another bird migration hotspot.

    It's thought most hawks don't eat at all on migration. This clip shows an exception to that rule: on the way back, one bird takes an extended stopover of a couple of weeks in Panama, probably spending its time there foraging for food.

    So, when they finally arrive in northern Argentina, after 6 to 8 weeks' migration, the hawks are pretty famished. Until a few decades ago, they fed on locusts. For their own reasons, local farmers have been getting rid of those. The hawks now concentrate on grasshoppers, and basically anything else that's edible.

    For first-time visitors, finding what they need is not easy. Three of the five dots go dark. These birds probably died from starvation. But two birds thrive: they roam the region until winter rears its head in South America, and it's time to head back north again, where summer is getting under way.

    Both dots make it back across the border, but unfortunately, right at the end of the clip, one of the surviving two birds expires.

    Harsh, but not unusual

    Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

    This old lady is 27 years old, but still nesting.

    While a one-in-six survival rate may seem alarmingly harsh, it's not that unusual. First-year mortality for Swainson's Hawks is between 50% and 80%. Disease, starvation, predators and power lines – to name just a few common causes of death - take out a big number.

    Only 10% to 15% of the young 'uns make it past their third or fourth year into adulthood, but from then on, annual survival rates are much better: around 90%. Adult Swainson's Hawks can expect to live into their low teens. There's one documented example of a female Swainson's Hawk in the wild who was at least 27 years old (and still nesting!)

    The Californian population of Swainson's Hawks plummeted by about 90% at the end of last century but is now again increasing well. The monitoring project that produced this clip has been going for about four decades but is seeing its funding dry up. Check them out and consider supporting them (see details below).

    Image: Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

    Migration trajectory of B95, the 'Moonbird'.

    Not all migrating birds shun the ocean. Here's an incredible map of an incredible migration path that's even longer than that of the Swainson's hawks.

    In February 1995, a red knot (Calidris canutus rufa) in Tierra del Fuego (southern Argentina) was banded with the tag B95. That particular bird, likely born in 1993, was recaptured at least three times and resighted as recently as May 2014, in the Canadian Arctic.

    B95 is more commonly known as 'Moonbird', because the length of its annual migration (app. 20,000 miles; 32,000 km) combined with its extreme longevity (if still alive, it's 25-26 years old now) means its total lifetime flight exceeds the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

    As many other shorebirds do, the red knot takes the Atlantic Flyway hugging the coastline and crossing to South America via the ocean.

    B95 has become the poster bird of conservationists in both North and South America. A book titled Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 (2012) received numerous awards, B95 has a statue in Mispillion Harbor on Delaware Bay and the City of Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego has proclaimed B95 its natural ambassador.

    Perhaps one day the nameless Swainson's Hawks in this clip, fallen in service of their ancestral instincts – against the odds of human increasing interference – will receive a similar honor.

    Migration clip found here at the DataIsBeautiful subreddit. Read through the comments to learn a lot more about Swainson's Hawks, and raptors in general.

    Check out the California raptor tracking programme 'Tracking Talons' on Twitter at @TrackingTalons, on their Facebook page, and on their website.

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