Canadians should expect starting in 2012 to receive more what many regard as unwanted direct mail i.e. “junk mail”, disliked telemarketing and market research calls and commercial e-mail a.k.a. spam as a result of plans by the Canadian government to make responding to its long form national census questionnaire voluntary instead of mandatory.
Canada conducts its census every five years, with the next one in 2011; Statistics Canada (StatsCan) is the undertaking agency. Approximately 4.5 million households representing a cross-section of the country’s 34 million-plus population are selected by StatsCan to fill out census questionnaires, known as the National Household Survey or NHS.
While these Canadians will still be compelled to answer basic questions such as age, language use, sex and marital status published on a short form they will no longer be required to reply to more detailed questions such as on education, ethnic origin, income, housing and transportation on a long form. The government’s plans, announced in July, would also drop an up-to-three months’ prison sentence for not responding to the short form or to any other survey conducted by it, though there would still be fines of up to $500.
The information contained on the long form replies is vital for marketers because it enables them to target their prospects with relevant offers that will have a stronger likelihood of being accepted, resulting in sales as compared without having this data, explained Ed Cartwright, senior director, communications, the Canadian Marketing Association (CMA) in an interview with TMCnet. Ergo, fewer marketing solicitations made to generate the same number of customers, and income and less aggravation for Canadians who are spared from being solicited for products and services that they are not interested in.
Yet by making the long-form census questionnaire voluntary the chances are strong stated the CMA spokesperson that fewer Canadians will fill it out, resulting in less data for marketers and forcing to look at widen the nets at greater cost to generate the same returns via increasing their mailings, calls and e-mails including to those not likely to want them.
There may well be “a lot of aggravated consumers who are going to find out they are being pestered because of the number of offers they are going to be receiving that are not going to be of any interest or relevance to them,” warned Cartwright. “The reason being direct marketers will not have that information at their hands post-2011.
“The information from the mandatory long-forum survey is vital to direct marketers because it allows them to target their programs based on a representative national sample. They are then based on what they really know about Canadians in a certain demographic or geographic area.”
While Canadians can place themselves on the country’s blanket national do not call (DNC) list for telemarketers there is no such national registry for direct mail; the CMA runs one that its members are obligated to cleanse their lists against.
Canadians may also be getting more market research and survey calls as businesses seek alternative sources for this information. These calls are not covered by the national DNC list; however called parties can ask these firms to place their numbers on their own individual DNC databases so that they are not called again.
Moreover these services are expensive, explained Cartwright, which may shut out small-midsized businesses (SMBs) that have been using the Census data to accurately target prospects. Those knowledgeable say SMBs may have no other choice except to carpet-market via direct mail, telemarketing and e-mail even if it means annoying recipients.
The census changes would still have to be approved by Parliament, which resumes sitting next month. The Conservative party, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper forms the government, but it would have to get the consent of one of the other parties: the Liberals, which are the second largest, New Democrats and/or the Bloc Quebecois as it lacks the votes in its own ranks to pass legislation. Earlier this month, apparently in response to political pressure the government added questions on Canada’s two official languages, English and French and on language use in the home to the mandatory short form.
The federal government cited complaints about the mandatory long form infringing their privacy in announcing its census changes behind its moves. It also disagreed with having jail sentences for those who do not fill out census and surveys.
“The government does not think it is necessary for Canadians to provide Statistics Canada with the number of bedrooms in their home, or what time of the day they leave for work, or how long it takes them to get there,” said federal Industry Minister Tony Clement.
On Thursday Aug.26 the Liberal party introduced legislation to amend the Statistics Act to bring back the mandatory long form census questionnaire.
“Liberals believe that sound information helps make sound decisions,” said Liberal Finance Critic John McCallum. “That’s why we will fix the mess Stephen Harper created by reinstating the mandatory long-form census and ensuring the threat of jail time is removed in the Act.”
The bill, which will be tabled when Parliament returns Sept.20, clarifies that 20 percent of the Canadian population will receive a mandatory long-form questionnaire during the period in which the Government of Canada conducts a census. It will also remove the controversial threat of jail time for not completing the census.
“As one business person put it recently, the first rule of business is ‘you can’t manage what you don’t measure,’ said McCallum. “It’s also the first rule of government, yet the Conservatives have chosen to blindfold themselves by gutting the census.”
Cartwright said the concerns used by the Conservative government to justify its decision are vastly overstated. He points to statements made by the country’s Privacy Commissioner to the House of Commons Industry Committee earlier this summer that few complaints had been raised with the office.
Also, in an open letter written to Minister Clement, whose department is responsible for Statistics Canada, CMA president and ceo John Gustavson pointed out that “With respect to the suggestion that the long form is intrusive, this information enables marketers to reach consumers more effectively and reduce considerably the amount of communication an individual receives.”
“I would therefore respectfully suggest that the long form census does, in fact, limit intrusion into individuals' lives by reducing irrelevant marketing and market surveys that would otherwise be sent to consumers,” said Gustavson.
The CMA’s critique of the Conservative government’s rationale for the moves is being repeatedly echoed in the industry and outside of it. In a press release issued in July, Jan Kestle, President, Environics Analytics said “The government’s stated objective is to limit an intrusion of the personal privacy of Canadians. In fact it’s very likely that this decision will do the opposite in two ways:
--Consumers will receive offers or be exposed to advertising messages that are not relevant to them
--Businesses will have to collect more information from consumers to make up for the expected loss of data from the long-from census for small areas
“Since the census goes to one-fifth of the population every five years, any household has a statistical probability of getting the long form two or three times in a lifetime,” explained Kestle. “StatsCan’s rules ensure absolute confidentiality – no data about households or individuals are released or can be inferred. The use of the summarized DA (dissemination area) -level data by our industry ensures privacy-friendly marketing analytics and in fact helps limit intrusion into the personal privacy of Canadians.”
The issue of making the long-form census voluntary has united a wide spectrum of affected Canadians, while there has been little sign of strong support for the government’s moves.
Kestle noted that in her statement that “Local governments, academics, market researchers and business associations are among the many that have expressed opposition to this decision in recent days.”
In contrast the concerns by marketers from these moves have if anything been understated. This could hurt marketers targeting affluent and immigrants customers especially; many Canadians in the largest metro areas are both.
Kestle said thatthe main problem with a voluntary survey is that there will very likely be a differential level of responsefrom different population groups. It is well known by researchers and statisticians that people whovolunteer to fill out a survey are not necessarily representative of the population as a whole. Typically both high income households and marginalized communities such as Aboriginal peoples and immigrantsare underrepresented in voluntary surveys, she pointed out. In the past, organizations (including Statistics Canada) that carry out voluntary surveys have relied on the census, considered the ‘gold standard’ to evaluate the extent of bias and adjust for biases in reporting.
“Unfortunately, the elimination of the mandatory long-form census means that there will no longer be a “gold standard” to use in adjusting voluntary survey data. Statistics Canada will not be able to assess the extent of bias in responding to the NHS and will have no techniques for weighting, balancing, filling in the gaps or correcting this bias since no representative “universe” data will be available for this purpose.”
“It is ironic that, in these challenging economic times, a decision that is ostensibly being made for the good of Canadians may very well have a severe impact on the competitiveness of Canadian businesses,” Kestle added. “Consumer marketers have invested significant resources during the past 15 years to tailor marketing to smaller and smaller segments; one-to-one marketing is on everyone’s agenda. Consumers expect products and services to be tailored to their needs. This decision will make it harder for businesses to meet the needs of the increasingly complex and discriminating consumer marketplace.”
The CMA’s Cartwright gave this example of what would happen if the changes go through as planned. Let’s say a bank is offering a platinum version of a credit card to high-income individuals. If it doesn’t have the demographic information for income in a specific metropolitan census area it is targeting it cannot market in that area for that card because it would not know if it is hitting qualifying income earners i.e. $100,000 per annum or up or if they are making less than $50,000 a year.
“There may be a fair amount of wastage with this program because you’re not necessarily hitting the people you want to reach,” said Cartwright.
Now he said let’s add another overlay: ethnic origin. Let’s say the same institution has come out with a card aimed at the Asian (Chinese, Indian, Korean) community. The greater Toronto area (GTA (News - Alert)) and Metro Vancouver have large Asian populations.
“With the Census information you have the knowledge if knowing that in GTA you have a cluster of Asian people that live in Markham, a well-to-do GTA area or in Richmond, its counterpart in Metro Vancouver, “explained Cartwright. “You can target not only that you have a cluster, you can also target on income by send out offers in mother tongue and in English. Your response rates would be better, one would think than if you did not have that information which is what marketers are concerned about with the loss of the mandatory long-form Census.”
Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.
Edited by Patrick Barnard