Everyone Counts in Large Amounts


The US Census is the single most important social information collection event and it only comes once a decade. In partnership with Mercury Public Affairs, we were contracted to conduct message testing throughout the state of California to ensure statewide marketing efforts would resonate with identified vulnerable populations. These target audiences are historically undercounted, so the 2020 California Complete Count campaign included efforts specifically to reach these populations. Both quantitative and qualitative research was needed to do so, and we were initially tasked with the qualitative portion of this research.


Qualitative Research

As defined by SimplyPsychology, “Qualitative research is the process of collecting,
analyzing, and interpreting non-numerical data, such as language. Qualitative research can be used to understand how an individual subjectively perceives and gives meaning to their social reality.”

Driving Response

We accomplished our research through the use of focus groups (both in-person and virtual), phone interviews, and surveying. The way to achieve this gargantuan feat was months of detailed organization and communication with various community partners who served as hard-to-count ambassadors to assist us in recruiting focus group participants.

The approved scope of work was to split the message testing into three phases to target various hard-to-count (HTC) populations defined by the CA Census Office. Our methodology was designed to measure awareness and understanding of the Census, determine which messages resonated the most, document reservations or concerns populations had about the Census, and identify what motivators would ultimately persuade audiences to complete the Census.

Phase 1 message testing emphasized inlanguage messaging. Working with community partners, we translated all materials and have in-language moderators to make sure the focus groups would be as organic as possible. A total of 16 languages were tested.

In-Language Research

English, Spanish, Punjabi, Farsi, Mixteco, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Khmer, Vietnamese, Arabic, Tagalog, Armenian, Cambodian, Vietnamese

Research Results

34 homogenous focus groups
27 individual phone interviews
70 surveys
540 participants throughout the message testing
16 different languages

Priceless input from vulnerable populations that shaped the 2020 California Complete Count marketing campaign

Pushing for More

In addition, there were various other vulnerable populations related to race/ethnicity, age, sexual preference, occupation and income that were screened in focus groups. We saw more of emphasis on these in phase 2 and phase 3 based on live time reporting of the Census form fill numbers that were coming in.

Conducting Amidst COVID-19

While our original intent was to host all research via in-person focus groups throughout the state, this became impossible during shelter-in-place orders. Our team needed to shift gears quickly into formats for information gathering that was the most ideally suited to each vulnerable population which became a combination of virtual focus groups, individual phone call interviews, and surveying. For example, due to internet access challenges, information gathering for the Spanish-language farmworker population came in the form of individual phone interviews.


The 2020 Census data has not yet been released, but early findings suggest that our message testing work contributed to greater census participation by vulnerable populations
in California than documented in previous years. Because Census data shapes funding, this is a win for the entire state.