In many cases, you may hear the terms “census” and “survey” used interchangeably, but they aren’t quite the same. Before you start your next data collection project, do you know the difference? Let’s dive in!
Census vs. Survey
While a census and a survey may sound like the same concept in the broader sense, in theory and practice they are very different.
A census gathers information from every entity in a population. As a result, data is accurately representative of the whole population and detailed data can be made available right down to the smallest areas.
In a survey, however, only part of the total population is selected. A survey population can vary based on various parameters — like age or location. The appropriate survey sample size can be used to narrow the survey audience, making the final data collection much more focused with respect to the insights gathered.
The Census Benefit
The advantages of a census include accuracy and detail. However, they are also expensive and time consuming. Collecting data from a larger population involves lengthy analysis and a significantly longer publication time-frame. You’re probably familiar with the world census that occurs every 10 years, which is conducted over a long timeframe. With the world census, we get specific information, primarily about world population. The US Census information is used to help set budgets, establish seats for the U.S House of Representatives, and many more important decisions.
Is it really possible to collect feedback from every single person? The larger the group, of course, the most difficult this challenge becomes. Plus, consider who is actually included in “everyone” — is it only adults? The word “census” comes from the Latin word “censere” meaning “assess”, which suggests that the earliest census was conducted by the Romans — although they may have only counted men. These kinds of decisions clearly have an impact on the results of the study. If you only hear mens’ opinions, will you be able to address the issues and concerns of women?
Even in a perfect world, where it’s possible to collect relevant feedback from every member of a group, the questions asked can cause challenges too. In 2019, the Supreme Court was asked to rule on whether a question about citizenship should be included in the 2020 Census. The court’s decision to block the question was seen by many as the fair and just way to conduct a census, as well as the most appropriate way to protect privacy and security.
The 2020 Census was the first the US conducted primarily online — a decision made before the discovery of COVID-19 — and it is clear that concerns about privacy and security still continue, along with concerns about the digital divide and accuracy of representation. In some cases, census takers in 2020 still collected door-to-door feedback, and offline participation may still be the best choice in some places around the country and around the world to truly hear from as many people as possible.
The Survey Advantage
Surveys, on the other hand, are far less time-consuming and more cost efficient. They are especially useful when the situation requires a quick turnaround time (for example, customer satisfaction surveys).
When conducting surveys, researchers may use a sample size calculator to make a decision about the group or audience they need to study in order to make an informed decision based on the data collected.
Surveys are more useful when you want feedback from a specific population. For example, if you’re conducting market research for a new product targeted for working men in their fifties, you might define a complete set of parameters that would ensure your results are useful. In this case you might only want to collect responses from participants who identify as male, who are between 50-59 years old, and who are employed. (If you don’t happen to have that specific audience available, consider survey panel services!).
By combining a relevant sample size and a well-defined participant group, analytics can help the survey researcher identify meaningful takeaways that will likely apply to a larger group. Businesses often use surveys to better understand customer experience, from satisfaction at a specific touchpoint to overall perception. While not every customer will fill out a survey, the experience gaps these surveys reveal can be applicable to all, making surveys an indispensable tool to quickly collect critical data.
So, while census and surveys both involve data collection, they differ in their objectives and practice. Before deciding which one to conduct, think about your goals, analysis needs, and about which is a better fit. Consider what you need to find out (a shorter list of questions is always better, no matter your type of research project!) and the time and resources you have available to conduct this project. While hearing from everyone can certainly be valuable, it’s not the only way to collect valuable data to inform your next decisions.
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