The Secret Marketer: could the government’s marketing of the 2011 census have been better?

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As quantitative consumer research goes, the 2011 census is the biggest brief in town. This once-a-decade extravaganza collects statistics that are then used by central and local government to help with their planning. The first meaningful information gleaned from the exercise will not be made public until summer 2012 when statistic spinning will become an Olympic sport in its own right.

For the record, I have completed my form; but if it were not for coverage on national television news, I fear the entire event would have passed me by. This would have left me, with millions of others, facing fines for non-participation. The motivations for non-completion are many, ranging from pure laziness, total apathy, couldn’t do it this weekend as was attending a protest event at Fortnum & Mason, through to those genuinely opting to preserve their anonymity for reasons better known to them. Millions will also no doubt claim they believed their census form was lost on the doorstep among a sea of pizza menus, unlikely to trigger a response without a very strong meal deal offer.

“The government could abandon the census and do a deal with dunnhumby for Tesco Clubcard”

On a medium-sized serious note, I suspect I am not the only person out there who didn’t know failure to return the form will lead to a reduction in funding for my local authority. The maths is all based on numbers of people ’officially’ living in each borough. Failure to declare your occupancy and your council faces a serious shortfall on their share of funding. By way of example, Westminster council claimed that more than 63,000 people were ’lost’ in the 2001 census in its borough – that’s a £378m shortfall over the past decade. One can only assume that many of these were MPs confused about their primary place of residence.

It does make you wonder whether the government needs to adopt a new marketing strategy if it wishes to ensure a better strike rate. Yes it is indeed a criminal offence not to complete the census, but only a tiny number of people are successfully prosecuted.

The Office of National Statistics would do well to adopt best practice from their government colleagues at HM Revenue & Customs, whose tax return deadline seems to work just perfectly enforced by the old-fashioned threat of immediate fines. Failing that, the government could abandon the census altogether and instead do a deal with dunnhumby for Tesco Clubcard data.

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