Tyler Barnett is a millennial and runs his public relations firm in Los Angeles to target members of his generation. Its website does not list a phone number on the home page.
“Dropping the number weeded out cold-callers and time-wasters,” said Mr. Barnett, 35, adding that he prefers email and does not use business cards. “Millennials are generally more stubborn regarding communications, and if you’re not communicating with them in ways they appreciate, you could see them just not caring.”
He is exactly the type of potential respondent that Census Bureau officials are puzzling over as they prepare to conduct the once-a-decade tally of the U.S. population in 2020.
Millennials (born from 1981 to 1996) and Generation Z (born after 1996) account for about 35 percent of the approximate 325 million people in the U.S., according to estimates, and census officials say their traditional means of outreach — mail-in questionnaires, landline phone calls and door-to-door surveys — are failing to connect with this significant segment of the population.
The Census Bureau plans to conduct its first-ever online headcount, which it predicts will generate 60 percent of the total responses for 2020.
But Mr. Barnett, whose firm promotes Hollywood celebrities on social media platforms, expresses doubt that “out-of-touch bureaucrats” can navigate the online universe that millennials and Generation Z have created, although he believes Washington is “right to recalibrate its approach to counting this generation that has grown up with so much technology.”
Amanda Slavin, founder of the Las Vegas-based marketing firm CatalystCreativ, agrees. She said census officials must grasp how mercurial social media can be if they wish to penetrate online noise, and she notes how little even experts understand about what drives traffic and emotions online.
To illustrate her point, she noted how a picture of a plain brown egg became the most-liked post on Instagram. In January, Chris Godfrey, a 29-year-old marketing professional, uploaded the photo with the aim of collecting more likes than Kardashian celebrity Kylie Jenner’s birth announcement. Nine days later, the egg surpassed Miss Jenner’s 18 million likes to set the record.
Mr. Godfrey later acknowledged that his intent was to evoke debate about social media’s obsession with celebrity versus the power of simple communication.
Ms. Slavin said the lesson for census officials is that millennials and Generation Z gravitate to things that have a ring of authenticity.
“Millennials and Gen Z have grown up in such a content-heavy environment that they have well-developed filters for endorsements and advertising that is not authentic,” said Ms. Slavin, who frequently lectures on millennial consumers and online culture.
Census officials are keen to get the constitutionally mandated count right because about $800 billion in federal funds, the redrawing of congressional districts and major business decisions depend on it.
However, social scientists suggest that millennials and Generation Z could have a hard time appreciating the importance of the census, having grown up amid a distorted media landscape of instant online gratification, “fake news” and a culture of likes on social networks.
Census Bureau officials declined to provide details about the agency’s online strategy and social media efforts for next year’s count. A spokesperson said, “The world has changed, and we’ve changed to keep pace.”
Last month, census communications chief Burton Reist was quoted as saying endorsements from celebrities such as LeBron James are being considered. He described a hypothetical situation in which the NBA superstar urges young people during halftime to pull out their cellphones and “answer the census.”
Ms. Slavin warned that celebrity endorsements are tricky and can backfire easily.
“If the census is going to use celebrities, they need to make sure there is a legitimate context to create credibility and believability,” she said.
More than credibility, security concerns about the collection and storage of respondents’ data should be paramount for the census, cybersecurity analysts say.
Census officials have said cybersecurity is a priority and that specific measures will remain secret to avoid giving “adversaries wanting to discredit the federal government an advantage.”
Harvard researcher Shom Mazumder studies the political and social forces that shape the census, including the complexities of counting America’s population after the Civil War and during the major waves of immigration from the 1850s to the 1930s.
For the 2020 count, he sees “digital literacy” of less tech-savvy Americans as the major issue.
“The census will be competing for younger individuals’ time,” Mr. Mazumder said. “But have people looked at this from the other side and asked if older individuals have the digital literacy to access an online census?”