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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Census Bureau has placed a big bet on digital outreach, especially on social media networks, as it enters the last big push to get people to respond to the 2020 count.

The big picture: Not only is this year the first online census count, it's also a giant experiment in how to reach people virtually in a fragmented media environment during a public health crisis that sidelined in-person field operations.

Why it matters: The census determines how $1.5 trillion in federal funding gets allocated across state and local governments.

Ten years ago, 8% of the bureau's advertising budget was spent on digital outlets, and that was mostly banner ads on websites.

  • This year, approximately 30% of the budget (about $105 million) is getting spent across programmatic, search, site direct and social media advertising, Stephen Buckner, the Census Bureau's assistant director of communications, told Axios.
  • He said about 80% of the people who've responded to the 2020 census so far have done so online — a much higher percentage than the bureau expected.

Details: Census ads (in 13 languages) have appeared on Facebook, Twitter, Google search, YouTube and Nextdoor.

  • The single biggest day for responses was in March when Facebook displayed a message encouraging people to respond, driving a spike of traffic to 2020Census.gov. Facebook did another push last week.
  • Nextdoor has proven effective in urging neighbors to respond, Buckner said. Census staff members have been posting messages on the social network since March to increase awareness and correct misinformation about the count.

Text messaging has also become an important form of outreach in the mobile era. For example, more than a dozen states have partnered with CommunityConnect Labs and Twilio to provide information about the census to respondents via text.

What's next: Door-to-door canvassing will be in full swing beginning Aug. 11 to follow up with nonresponders and historically hard-to-count populations.

  • "Under normal circumstances, we are pretty much done with the census at this point," Buckner said. "But we still have the biggest operation to go, which is the follow-up efforts in August."
  • So far, nearly 4 in 10 households haven't responded. The census concludes in October.

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Why it matters: Most of the new policies haven't been tested in real time yet, and the platforms have a record of confusion, inconsistency and self-reversal as their rules land on the information battlefield.

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