2 Sep 2021
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Campaign Review

Australia had its five-yearly census on 10 August 2021. There was an active internet campaign beforehand, partly funded by Humanists Victoria. The intention was to encourage people to consider whether they were religious and, if not, to mark ‘No Religion’ on the census form.

    The starting position was that the data on religion was not accurate. This was evidenced by a comparison with several highly respected surveys administered by the Australian National University. We believed that the question itself was flawed, as was its location in the census – following on from questions about the person’s cultural background.

    We also felt that the background guidance and information offered by the Australian Bureau of Statistics deviated from the High Court’s benchmark definition of a Religion (and hence, what it took to be ‘religious’). The introduction of the loose concept of ‘affiliation’ blurred the purpose of the question. By doing so, the question seemed deliberately framed to serve the interests of religiously based organisations.

    A coalition of freethought organisations funded the campaign of $50,000. After considerable discussion we resolved to work with an agency to provide a level of professionalism in campaign branding, strategy, and execution. The agency was tasked with providing an independent and experienced voice to complement in-house skills such as website creation and maintenance, creative design, copywriting, vision, and project management.

    The campaign was not intended to be anti-religion, and we avoided the temptation to pillory or ridicule the well-publicised, inappropriate behaviour of clerics and institutions.


    The UK held its own census earlier this year, and we were able to learn from and adapt the experiences of the Humanists UK campaign. They faced very similar challenges – seeking to compensate for an equally poor census question and aiming to achieve a census result that was more in line with other well-respected surveys.

    Early campaign meetings determined that the campaign should be conducted almost entirely through social media. Given the uncertainties of COVID-19 and the reduced circulation of people, it made sense to avoid any expensive outdoor options such as billboards and transportation advertising.

    Our campaign was supported by six major pillars:

  • A contemporary website;
  • A campaign Facebook page;
  • Promotion to the collective membership bases – the ‘soft’ launch;
  • Advertising on social media (predominantly Facebook, with additional use of Twitter, Instagram and YouTube) – the ‘hard’ launch;
  • An aspiration to contribute op-ed articles and achieve a launch article in a respected masthead;
  • Associated ‘earned’ media (free media coverage stimulated by other activities).

    Research commissioned by the Rationalist Society of Australia and published in the early stages of the campaign provided a useful way of segmenting the market into discrete groups. This segmentation was used to create six Facebook ‘audiences’ (e.g. Culturally Religious), reflecting segments who would be receptive to our message. We then used the wide range of Facebook selection criteria – demographic, geographic and behavioural – to create targeting rules. 

    After brainstorming and defining our ‘Five Good Reasons’ and five slogans, we drew on the design skills of Peter Monk (National Secular Lobby) to create graphic representations of our core reasons and slogans.


    The single most important outcome is, of course, not yet known. Our agreed goal was to raise the 2016 figure of 29.6% ‘No Religion’ to 40%, with a stretch target of equaling the most recent New Zealand figure of 48%.

    In the meantime, we have to focus on measures that relate to our pre-requisite objectives, which were to reach as many of the right people as possible, encourage them to reflect on their religiosity, and promote dialogue in the hope of achieving national exposure.

    We had 27,000 contacts, with our collective membership bases achieving e-mail ‘open’ rates of around 40%. People who subscribed as campaign supporters num­bered nearly a thousand with open rates of almost 60%.

    In addition, from a standing start on 10 June, our website attracted well over 35,000 Australian visitors and 44,000 page views. The campaign Facebook page attracted almost 1,200 followers and our posts achieved a reach of well over 400,000 people, at virtually no cost to the campaign.

    The video contributions from Adam Spencer and Tim Minchin were central in raising the profile of the campaign and in stimulating media interest.

    Paid advertising with Facebook achieved a reach of 4.7 million different individuals and 5.6 million impressions. This latter figure compares favourably on a per capita basis with the UK campaign which achieved 12 million from a similar budget.

    Over and above that, we were pleased to achieve good coverage in print, radio and TV, the latter courtesy of our ‘friends’ at Sky News. An Op-Ed piece by Heidi Nicholl and a feature article in the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age were complemented by positive radio exposure on Joy FM, 3AW, 2SM, ABC Sydney, Adelaide, Illawarra, and Perth, as well as Heidi’s appearance on RN Late Night Live.

    It’s impossible to measure how our messages resonated with media audiences. But in terms of exposure, we consider we were successful in broadcasting our key messages and in promoting discussion. 

    And now, we must wait until next June to assess the single measure that matters most.

Michael Dove