Is the Count Half-Full or Half-Empty? How to Adapt Your Census Messaging During Coronavirus

Assaf Frances

Assaf Frances

Director of Urban Policy

Every ten years, the US Census Bureau counts every person in the United States thus enabling government agencies to allocate resources effectively. The last time the census was conducted the nation wasn’t facing an unprecedented global virus; how has this affected this year’s count? On April 18th, the country reached an important Census milestone when half of all households in the U.S. self-responded to the Census. Whether you are a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty type of person, doesn’t really matter here – for the money to be distributed correctly we still need to reach an accurate count, and that means counting everyone.

The COVID-19 crisis intensified its grip on the U.S just as Census 2020 was about to begin. Months (and even years) of communication and field-ops preparations by the federal, state, county and local governments had to be adjusted as residents’ attention moved almost entirely to the pandemic and social-distancing measures began to prevent in-person events and tallying from taking place. 

If generating engagement with online census content seemed difficult before, during the COVID-19 crisis it became even harder. On the one hand, people are constantly online, tuning in to official sources more than ever. But on the other, residents are currently experiencing an overload of information which means that for non-COVID related content to be seen, it needs to really stand out. This requires Census messaging to be more creative and attention-grabbing as well as be relevant to the context of this new reality. 

Up until last month the bureau had suspended all in-person census surveys until further notice. Currently, a handful of local census offices began to reopen, based on public health guidance and the availability of protective equipment. However, the process is still slow moving and the bureau is continuously updating the operations’ timeline as new guidelines take effect. These changes have and will undoubtedly negatively impact those who are the usual undercounted populations, including the homeless, immigrants, those without a stable address and many more. Therefore, until all field operations commence, and real innovation will be needed to support it, a stronger emphasis than ever needs to be given to the self-response options. 

For census content to cut through the online noise, it needs to be relevant, digestible, engaging, and even a bit humorous. Following are a few tips, resources, and ideas for how to increase awareness to your census content and increase response rate during this time.

Make your coronavirus message relevant and use the right messenger

The large scale impact of COVID-19 actually emphasizes the importance of having an accurate count. For example, Public health experts are currently having to use aggregated Census data to respond to the pandemic. Moreover, Census data impacts funding for hospitals, health services, and facilities as well as various school and after-school programs.

Using these strong arguments in your posts, alongside specific examples of health and educational facilities and programs that would have benefited from an accurate count, could, in turn, increase the understanding of the Census impact.

By analyzing census related interactions and discourse across the Zencity Network of 130+ cities and counties, data indicates that official city sources, and particularly those of Mayors, are leading in generating the most engagement with census content. Government and health officials who are currently at the forefront of communicating with the public about the pandemic should use their channels to disseminate COVID-related census messages. Since most official communications about the crisis are already being translated to other languages, the reach of these messages to different populations would naturally increase.

Additionally, many residents are seeking opportunities to volunteer during the crisis and aid the first responders in their efforts to battle the virus. Cities can acknowledge this need and drive census completion by communicating to residents that filling the census is an easy, essential way to help first responders. Incorporating images of first responders at work with a direct call-to-action should increase engagement even further.

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Example texts for a post could be:

Messaging at this time needs to also take full advantage of the fact that most people aren’t leaving their homes. Many local authorities are encouraging people to self-respond to the census from home, online or by phone, using infographics and hashtags such as #netflixandfill and #netflixandfillyourcensus

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Relaying to your community simplified census processes in the context of COVID-19 could help them understand the power of their participation.

Use creative and engaging content to stand out

Census memes and gifs are also a quick and easy way to stand out from heavier and more serious COVID-19 content. Following a contest for Census memes and gifs creation initiated by the bureau, there are plenty of options for you to choose from. Being witty and funny rather than simply informative and formal  will help get people’s attention. These can be used by the city’s official channels and also shared by community partners who are able to use a more relaxed and humorous tone. Be sure to also check out the creatives for the count website, with over 500 census-related pieces.

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Finally, now is the time to be more engaging and try to drive organic reach around your content. Sharing with your residents the current local response rate on a city or area/neighborhood level will expose them to the progress and might encourage some to complete it or convince their friends. Some cities are using a ‘challenge’ methodology to get people to pledge they’ve filled out the census and tag their neighbors and friends. Again, going for a light and casual tone rather than a serious one can make the posts much more relatable at this time.

Example texts for a post could be:

Ensuring a complete count is perhaps more critical and challenging than ever before – yet it also presents powerful new opportunities to reach your community. In addition, The Zencity platform allows cities to follow all the Census-related feedback from residents in real-time. By assessing this discourse, you can accurately adjust your content and messaging to address their needs and questions associated with the count. When trying out new and adapted messaging, you can also use Zecnicty to monitor community perception and adapt as necessary. 

Are you a Zencity? Directly access your Census Project here.

Not a Zen-city/county? Learn how we can help you navigate this ‘New Normal’ with our unique Action Plan for cities and counties. Read more.