Count it up

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Count this among the lessons learned from the 2000 national census: Advertising works, but paid ads work best. After decades of relying on donated public service ads that aired in the wee hours of the morning or in otherwise unsaleable TV time slots, the U.S. Census Bureau this time took a leap. In a first, it spent $130 million on paid ads to convince more people to voluntarily fill out and return census questionnaires.

The result? Mail-back response rates stabilized (and actually rose nearly a percentage point) after steady and troubling declines in recent decades. That, however, brought the response rate to just 66% By government standards, perhaps, that 1% improvement over 1990 is worth crowing about. But by private industry standards it's hardly an outstanding return on such a substantial advertising investment.

Clearly, there's no turning back, however. Now that paid advertising is proving its worth, it would be foolhardy for the Census Bureau to go back to relying on free media. But it's also clear the bureau has a big job ahead of itself in making those millions of ad dollars work harder next time. Running the ads in 17 languages and varying the effort among different populations is a start. But targeting hard-to-reach populations should be even more of a priority, whether it be through specialized media, more grassroots efforts or new media.

Now is the time, as the Census Bureau begins planning for 2010, to tally what worked and what didn't in the 2000 census marketing program. In other words, this advertising evaluation is the bureau's future. Don't leave it blank.

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