Census Bureau Grapples With Social Media

This year, the U.S. Census Bureau has a presence on all major social media sites as it attempts to count as many of the 300 million-odd people that live in the U.S. as possible.

It’s the first year social media has played such a role in the Census, and it has come with a mixture of successes and failures. Critics say the content on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr and a “Director’s Blog” are good, but they argue the Census Bureau may have spread itself too thin. These sources say the agency would have been better off focusing on a single content hub.

Keva Silversmith, public affairs specialist with the Census Bureau, says the ultimate goal in using social media in 2010 is to increase participation and to facilitate a national dialogue.

“The Census only happens once every ten years,” Silversmith says. “We need to remember why we have this national ceremony. And this is the first time we’ve been able to use social media to the extent that we are.”

YouTube videos include a clip about the Census’s Road Tour that had 1,637 views as of yesterday; several “Real Life Stories” videos that try to make the Bureau’s work personal (One called “Dave and Breanne” had 1,117 views); and “Trusted Voices” testimonials from community leaders like Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (388 views).

As for Twitter, Silversmith said the Census Bureau has live-tweeted several events from its @uscensusbureau account. Recently it has been used to reference blog posts, such as one on the cost-effectiveness of reminder mailings and another explaining why you can’t fill out the form online this year. The Twitter account also references posts on sites like FactCheck.org and asked @Telemundo (in Spanish) if it had any questions about the Census.

Silversmith said the Bureau has found Twitter to be a great resource for engaging in conversation and disseminating facts, but notes it is difficult to boil down answers to 140 characters. As a result, it must often provide links to Web sites where more detailed explanations can be found. On the other hand, Twitter has enabled the Census Bureau to respond in real time to concerns like wasted money on its Super Bowl ad.

Social media sites also enable the public to express concerns and ideas, Silversmith added. And it’s easy to see that conversation on the Census Bureau’s Facebook fan page. Many of its 19,000 fans have posted comments about race, language, online options and tax dollars, for instance. “In the old days, you’d have to call a customer call center,” Silversmith says. “Now we have another avenue to ask questions and get responses quickly.”

One of the hardest to count groups is what the Census Bureau calls “unattached mobiles,” or people 18 to 24 who are primarily renters and/or college students. “This group lives a lot online and in social media and this is a great opportunity for us to reach these folks,” Silversmith said.

But it also boils down to the bottom line: It costs the Census Bureau 42 cents for every returned form, versus $57 to send a Census worker to an individual address. In other words, every 1 percent increase in mail response saves $85 million in tax dollars, Silversmith said.

Noah Mallin, director of social media at search and social marketing firm Reprise Media, says the Census Bureau has clearly created enough content to support its various profiles. But he questions whether social media will be effective in reaching undercounted populations that may not use these sites in large numbers. In the end, he says it may not have a huge impact on response rates.

Leslie Hall, president of digital agency ICED Media, is impressed that the Census Bureau understands social media is where people are online. In the Census’ defense, she says it’s rare that a brand attempts to reach every person in America. She also says the Census Bureau has been very responsive to people that are asking questions on Facebook and likes that the Census Bureau provides exact links rather than merely directing people to the Census Web site.

But Hall believes the Census Bureau may be trying to do too much. She’d recommend making Facebook the main content hub. And instead of posting many videos that have just a couple hundred views on YouTube, the Census Bureau would be much better off making one video that is super-targeted and then hosting it on multiple video platforms.

“I personally think they could better serve themselves with more behind Facebook and less behind secondary and tertiary platforms,” she said.

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