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Census 2000 Data: The Next Goldrush

by Glen Emerson Morris

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The US Census Bureau has posted a page on their Website that should be of interest to nearly everyone in media and advertising. In part, it reads:

"The Census Bureau is preparing to release a wealth of statistics from Census 2000, beginning in March and lasting for several years. This information will give reporters and editors many opportunities to develop stories targeted to local areas, as well as to their states and the nation as a whole. The amount of data, cross-tabulated by a variety of subjects, is unprecedented. In addition, the primary method for releasing these data will be electronic, as outlined below. Because of the newsworthiness of this material, the Public Information Office (PIO) is taking steps to ensure that interested media outlets are informed of the schedule, table structure and file formats before the products are released. Our goal is to ensure that all media have equal and timely access."

"As stated above, the Census Bureau's primary method for releasing data from Census 2000 will be electronic -- Internet, CD-ROM and DVD. For those media wishing to access data from the Internet, the Census Bureau will offer compressed Census 2000 data files on its Census 2000 FTP server at no cost. Users will hyperlink from various locations on the Census Bureau's Internet site to the downloadable FTP files containing Census 2000 data, as they become available. No software is provided with these data but the files are in a format that allows them to be imported into standard database or spreadsheet packages."

To rephrase the above paragraphs for those in advertising and marketing, the biggest giveaway of free marketing data in history has started, and all advertisers need to start taking advantage of it is a computer and access to the Internet. The only cost of Census 2000 data will be the cost of the media it's distributed on. (While the data is public domain, the government is required by law to charge for the cost of distributing data on media like CD-ROM, DVD, and printed material.) As a result, costs in time and money will vary, depending on whether you're selling to a small town, large state, or the whole nation.

In February 2001, the Census Bureau announced that all machine readable files from the 2000 census would be made available on CD-ROM, and even more importantly, some would be released on DVD. This is a substantial departure from the 1990 census, of which only a seventh of the data was released on CD-ROM, and none on DVD.

A move to the DVD format matters here because the volume of data about to be released is somewhat overwhelming. The Census Bureau estimates that even with data compression, it will take around 1,000 CD-ROMs to hold the complete Census 2000 results. The price tag will be large-scale as well. Even if sold at cost of manufacture, any set of 1,000 CD-ROMs is going to be priced in the thousands. The government usually charges $50 to $150 per CD-ROM, so by traditional pricing, a complete set of the Census 2000 results could cost in the neighborhood of $50,000. With some luck, the Census Bureau will switch to DVD format for the entire release, which would lower the number of disks required substantially. If not, we can only hope the Census Bureau will discount the sets.

Fortunately, the Census Bureau is going to release the information organized in several different ways, so advertisers will be able to limit the data downloaded or purchased to just what they need. If, for instance, an advertiser wanted to do a direct mail campaign to the 200 most affluent city blocks in Colorado, they wouldn't need data for the whole state, just data for a few counties.

It is to be remembered, however, that to use the Census 2000 information advertisers will have to buy the actual mailing lists elsewhere, since, by law, the Census Bureau can't include names and addresses in the data it sells. This is understandable, but also unfortunate. There are a number of very affordable mailing lists available on CD-ROM now, and some have reasonably sophisticated search engines, but usually about the smallest group they deal with is a ZIP code area. However, it probably won't be long before affordable mailing lists become available that are linked to Census 2000 data, and provide a number of useful ways to sort and filter the data.

It will be interesting to see what third party software evolves to correlate census data with other key Department of Commerce publications, like the just released 2000 Statistical Abstract of the United States. This is the best general statistics book on the United States, containing approximately 1500 tables on nearly aspect of life and the economy, so a system which hyperlinked its tables to direct mailing lists would be quite a useful marketing tool.

The Census Bureau has already committed itself to developing products to integrate Census 2000 data with other Department of Commerce publications, like the "geographic data viewer" LandView IV. A version of LandView containing Census 2000 data is scheduled for release in Fall of 2001. Other Census 2000 products are in development, and their release schedules are posted on the Census Bureau Website (

To help you keep up with the latest Census 2000 news, Advertising & Marketing Review is covering Census 2000 and other Department of Commerce data releases on our recently redesigned Website ( As a further service to our readers, Advertising & Marketing Review has subscribed to the Department of Commerce information service Stat-USA, and will be posting the most useful of its reports and raw data for free download.

Over the next two or three years, a gold mine of information from the 2000 census will become available to advertisers. The information will age quickly, so it will have to be used soon, or not at all. Since it will be ten years before the next census makes this kind of data available again, it might be worth making the effort to use it. After all, we've already paid for collecting this data, out of our corporate and private taxes, we might as well pay a little more to use it.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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