Know Your Customers (All of Them)

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

Earlier this fall, business watchers were abuzz about the fallout from Netflix’s decision to separate its Internet streaming and DVD services into two distinct accounts. “How Netflix Lost 800,000 Members, and Good Will,” screamed a New York Times headline (10/24/11). “Netflix prides itself on its analytical, data-driven approach to making decisions,” the article explained. “But it made a classic business misstep. In its reliance on data and long-term strategy, the company underestimated the unquantifiable emotions of subscribers who still want those little red envelopes, even if they forget to ever watch the DVDs inside.”

That got me to thinking about the Census Bureau’s road from mail to cyberspace, a path which is now inevitable, given stern directives, coupled with tight budget reins, from Congress.

Netflix’s CEO reportedly told shareholders he was not sure if focus groups reviewed the proposed account changes before the company unveiled them. The New York Times article later opined, “How Netflix came to be so out of touch with its customers is a cautionary tale for other companies that try to transform to new media from old.”

Federal lawmakers have concluded that Americans will embrace electronic response to the next census with a vengeance, with traditional mail or hand-delivery almost an afterthought. Of course, Congress sometimes — how shall I put this tactfully? — gets it wrong. And the people’s representatives haven’t exactly been generous with funding to ensure appropriately comprehensive research and testing of how Americans of all ages, races and ethnicities, incomes, and places of abode feel about the pending changes.

My father is 80, retired, active on boards and in community and political affairs. Given the family genes, he’s likely to be around for the next population tally. But email? Can you spell F-A-X? He swears by it. Cell phone? Never had one. In March 2020, Dad had better get a nice white envelope bearing the official seal of the U.S. Census Bureau in his traditional silver suburban mailbox, along with a postage-paid return envelope. Otherwise, he might miss being counted in his ninth decennial enumeration.

# # #

Up next: An Internet Census and the Digital Divide