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Marketers Have Big Plans for New Census Data
Alone or alongside private-label data, the 2000 census will be a powerful tool.
By Russell Shaw

March 27, 2001 — The 2000 U.S. census counted some 275 million Americans. Over the next several months, specific demographic numbers and trends, divined from the massive canvass, will be made available; businesses whose fortunes live and die based on decisions informed by census demographics are anxiously awaiting the data.

While the U.S. census, taken every 10 years, is a critical market-research tool, the numbers it comes up with are by no means the only demographical data available to marketing and advertising decision-makers. A host of private providers releases its own proprietary data. You may be quite familiar with some of them:

  • Claritas employs its PRIZM lifestyle-segmentation system to define every neighborhood in the United States in terms of demographically and behaviorally distinct "clusters."

  • Mediamark Research "conducts more than 26,000 personal interviews with consumers annually throughout the continental United States to produce syndicated reports and data for electronic access," according to the company's literature.

  • Simmons Market Research Bureau, a unit of Symmetrical Resources, matches demographic data with retail trends.

If you are an agency or advertiser, should you cast your lot with the publicly administered census or the for-profit custom-information gatherers?

  "Research as detailed as the census is hard to come by, even for a price, so the census data shouldn't be ignored by marketers."
  — Randall Whatley, president
Cypress Media Group

At first glance, this decision would seem to be a no-brainer. Popular wisdom tends to regard any enterprise run by the government as plodding, technologically wanting and prone to inaccuracy. With some justification, the privately run people counters claim to have some of the best equipment to crunch the numbers and the best brains to interpret what they mean.

There's only one thing wrong with that stereotype.

"The U.S. Census is the skeleton of the data that virtually all private companies provide. Thus, marketers need to make sure their private suppliers use the census as the basis for their individually detailed data sets," says Martha Farnsworth Riche, director of the U.S. Census Bureau from 1994 to 1998, and now a product-marketing demographics consultant with her own company, Farnsworth Riche Associates.

So for an agency or advertiser, it is not a matter of choosing between public-sector and private-sector information gathering, but rather, understanding how to make decisions using demographic data from both.

Farnsworth Riche also points out the unique value of the census findings: "Remember, the census has two characteristics that no other data set shares, no matter how broad its coverage. First, it is a complete portrait as of one moment in time (April 1), as opposed to records that are gathered over a sometimes lengthy period. Second, it places people at that time where they live. Most other sources focus on individuals, but their geographic ties can be tenuous, given Americans' chronic mobility."

Next page: The best uses for census data

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