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How Do You Connect With Your Hardest to Reach Customers?


At the Census Bureau, our statisticians work hard to reach a fully representative sample of people to include in a survey. For Census to continue to be the gold standard of data collection and keep our customers’ trust, people have to know that our datasets truly represent the full portrait of America.

While the survey experts are busy in the field, those of us on the communications side do our part to help promote participation from across our diverse population. We do that by creating outreach efforts for everyone, including people who are hard to reach.

What do I mean when I say “hard to reach?” I’m talking about people who are a bit tougher to engage when we use traditional methods like the mail. Examples include people who move a lot or don’t have fixed addresses, military personnel on the move, and people who do not trust and do not want to interact with the government.

Let’s start with the first group, which includes the 12 percent of Americans who changed their residences in 2015. In particular, 18- to 34-year-olds move frequently, with about 1/5 of them moving during the same period. People experiencing homelessness or housing instability also fall into this category.

Reaching military personnel also presents a challenge because they are frequently reassigned or deployed overseas. Communicating with them and getting their responses to our surveys requires strong collaboration with the Department of Defense.

Finally, we have the challenge of getting people to participate when they don’t trust the government. And according to the latest Pew Research Center survey on “Public Trust in Government: 1985-2015,” only 19 percent of Americans say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right. That means our team at the Census Bureau needs to work even harder to ensure all survey participants understand and believe our commitment to confidentiality and privacy.

So how do we reach the young and mobile, the recently deployed, and the skeptical? At the Census Bureau we have a couple of outreach strategies that may also work for other government agencies:

  1. Trusted Intermediaries

In most instances, federal agencies have to admit that we’re probably not always the best-equipped entities to reach some people, and that’s okay. Instead, we have to figure out who can reach them or who has the most access to them, and that usually means people who are living and working alongside them. Think of these go-betweens as “trusted intermediaries” because they already have strong relationships with the people you are trying to reach — and that means when they share your information, people will listen more closely.

Federal lawmakers, as I mentioned in my last post, are good intermediaries. Other candidates for this role, depending on whom you’re trying to reach, include local officials, faith leaders, educators, civic tech developers, homeless shelters and social service organizations, and local businesses.

Using trusted intermediaries to assist us is a particularly good strategy for the Census Bureau because we conduct surveys. Intermediaries can give their audiences a sense of pride or accomplishment in responding to Census survey takers and representing their area well. And they can show participants how Census data can help them and their communities.

  1. Advertising and Social Media

If you have an advertising budget, digital advertising may be a good bet and a cost-effective one. And, even if your budget isn’t quite flexible enough for advertising, targeted content via social media can be an effective and far less expensive outreach channel. In either case, you can aim your outreach at specific groups, such as young adults in a certain metro area, or whatever set of people your efforts needs to reach.

To be a relevant and trusted resource for the American public, those of us in the federal government need to make every effort to connect with people beyond our usual users or customers. We can’t exclude groups because reaching them is a challenge or because it takes a little more work. But we also can’t reach them alone.

In my next post, I’ll talk about using an even broader range of intermediaries to communicate information and services to customers who aren’t necessarily hard to reach but definitely need to hear what you have to say.

Jeannie Shiffer is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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