After the census - an opportunity to refresh our audience understanding

March 2021

Why are censuses important?

A national census is a survey that is intended to be completed by the vast majority of a country’s population. The completeness of this data makes it different to every other data source available. Across the world censuses provide governments, businesses and charities with the information to help them direct their services to the people who need and want them.

The census provides detail on the population, their location, characteristics, education, religion, ethnicity, working life and health. This data is used to shape investment in infrastructure and public services like healthcare, schools and transportation. It is also used by businesses to identify local needs and choose store locations. In addition, the census can inform the population models that sit behind consumer insight tools.

Given their significance, the UN recommends a census at least once every 10 years, and once every 5 for even better data. The US, who carried out their latest census last year, will use this data to shape how $1.5 trillion a year in federal tax dollars are shared across the country over the next 10 years. Census population counts also impact political power, determining the number of congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets.

Similar to the US, the UK has carried out a census almost every 10 years since 1801 and completion of the survey is compulsory by law. Those who do not complete it, or who are found to have completed it falsely could be fined up to £1,000.

But a lot can change in ten years

In 2011, when the UK carried out its last census, Uber hadn’t launched here yet, the gig economy was still a merch table at the back of a music venue and the word of the year would be ‘squeezed middle’ referring to struggling middle-income families at a time of austerity. Census results become more inaccurate over time.

And yet today the data from this census, who we were, the way we worked, the way we travelled is still used to inform decisions across the public and private sector. This is why companies such as CACI have moved away from relying on the census to produce

ACORN, their geodemographic segmentation.

Why is it still used?

Censuses are the only exercise that provides us with a detailed, comprehensive and accurate picture of the society in that moment. Because of the granularity, the identity data is robust enough to go down to a local authority level, to groupings of 150 households, which may not be possible otherwise.

This granularity could be more of an opportunity post cookie as we are able to build census level audience clusters, linked to postal geography that can be used to augment first party data.

Could there be an alternative?

The UK’s national statistician Prof Sir Ian Diamond has said that the 2021 census could be the last one to be carried out in the UK.

This year potential alternatives will be tested alongside the census to evaluate their accuracy. An alternative could be delivered through a combination of data sources, such as the Ordnance Survey, GP lists, council tax records and driving licence details. Combining this ‘administrative data’ with regular, large-scale population surveys – could provide “better and more granular” information in a “cheaper” and “more timely” way.

Now what?

As the census data ages many insight sources will seek to correct for the changes in society, however it is still likely that many of our current audience assumptions are out of date. In particular when considering the effect of shifts involving urban migration, increased ethnic diversity and contract working.

Therefore, when the new census data becomes available next year brands should plan to take advantage of this moment of clarity. It will naturally be a good time to refresh segmentations, update audience insights and resize growth opportunities.

At m/SIX we will be creating a census data user group including our Audience Planners, to uncover interesting insights from the new data when it arrives.