How accountants and business can use the census

Who are your clients? Target your business with the wealth of information from the Australian census.

Drilling down into Australia’s census data can offer a wealth of information to help make business decisions.

When Dave Shurey was looking to launch his bill-payment app Splitr, he dived into Australia’s census data. With a background in engineering and robotics, the entrepreneur can’t help but think logically.

Shurey knew his product – a smartphone app that allows people to split nearly any bill, including restaurant and bar accounts – would appeal to a certain group of consumers. 

He says he was also fairly certain that his customers wouldn’t be “tradies from [regional] Albury”. More likely they would be at university or in their very first job.

The 2016 Australian Census, home to nearly three million tables of data, helped Shurey zero in on where his young, upwardly mobile customers clustered. Shurey also drew on some paid information, such as market reports from IBISWorld.

“There were instances of … areas where your 18-24s had a bigger propensity to spend. We used the census data to help confirm that,” says Shurey, who has taken leave from his management consulting role to get his new business off the ground.

Use census data to back up your business idea

Likewise, census data proved useful for another start-up, Dinner on the Table.

Self-proclaimed “recovering academic” Rachel Golding stumbled upon the idea of selling ready-made meals to families when her hairdresser complained about being too busy to cook.

“Her kids were old enough to stick something in the oven but she couldn’t be in her kitchen sorting out dinner and in her salon cutting people’s hair,” Golding recalls.

Golding started cooking for her hairdresser, and then branched out to a few more families. Now she operates her business full-time out of a commercial kitchen in Sydney’s north-west.

Golding has a firm idea of who she is targeting: time-poor working women struggling to serve their families decent meals. 

“They don’t want to eat out of the frozen section of the supermarket, or at least not every night,” she says.

The census helped Golding shed light on which areas of Sydney she should target.

“We look at ‘where are our people?’” she says. “We know we are in a growing area, we know all those people are going to need to eat dinner and we know the average household’s size is decreasing slightly but not markedly, so we know the growth in this area is families, essentially.”

Use the census to find your target market

Phillip Wise, spokesman for the body charged with overseeing the census, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), says accountants could use census data to judge which areas their firm could expand into – whether in terms of type of client, or geographically -  or to advise their clients. 

The census can track population movements and, as Shurey and Golding have demonstrated, direct businesses to potential clients.

“It’s a goldmine of information,” says Wise. “One example that springs to mind is those DVD hire booths that you see in shopping centres. That company uses census data because they know which one of those booths generates the most revenue and then they can match that to population characteristics.”

Another user group is the private education sector. It tracks the growth of families with children under five years old to help identify opportunities for new schools that are “easily accessible to that population”, says Wise.

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How to identify trends from the census

One man who praises the census perhaps more than others is Bernard Salt, KPMG Special Adviser and demographer.

Salt says that beyond the initial headlines every five years, the census is widely underutilised. However, he jokes, that’s just the way he likes it. After all, he gets calls from businesses ranging from shopping centre operators to funeral directors wanting to pay for his insights.

The Australian census is unusual in its breadth and depth. While the US has a census every 10 years and asks 12 questions, Australia’s takes place every five years with 62 questions. 

“The level of detail you can get is five or six times better than [nearly] anywhere else,” Salt says.

Australia’s lower population makes the census even more important. 

“When you’ve only got 24 or 25 million people stretched across the Australian continent you need to get the numbers right,” he adds.

It is one thing to know the population is expanding in a certain area but it’s another to be able to use data to predict when it will reach the critical mass needed to support certain businesses.

The sheer scale of the data can intimidate people. Salt’s advice is simple: “dive in, swim around and get used to it”.

He adds, “You can’t just look at one census, it doesn’t mean anything. You need to compare between the two censuses. It is growth and change that creates opportunity.”

The ABS began releasing data from the 2016 Census, conducted in August of that year, in 2017 and in October/November 2017 will release more data on employment, qualifications, population mobility and country of birth.

More census data will be released

From December 2017 the ABS will bring together data from the 2006, 2011 and 2016 censuses to create a research tool for how Australian society is changing over time.

Although the 2016 Census was disrupted by a cyberattack, the final response rate was 95.1 per cent, which the ABS says is comparable to the 2006 and 2011 census response rates.

Used correctly, the census should be the gift that keeps on giving, providing insights that your competitors can’t – or don’t – access.

Read next: How Power BI can supercharge your Excel data


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August 2020
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