TurboTax's comms commitment pays off

For 25 years, PR has been vital in propelling the product now used by 20 million taxpayers

From January to April, the communications team at TurboTax, Intuit's consumer tax preparation product, operates at a supercharged level, communicating across a breadth of outlets. Yet, Julie Miller, director of corporate communications, leads a team that's not only up to the task, but committed to constantly expanding reach.

“Last year in the four-month tax season, we delivered more than 3.2 billion media impressions online and offline,” she says. “That's about two thirds of the overall media impressions for [Intuit].”

TurboTax is a $1 billion business, says Miller, with revenue more than doubling over the past five years. The brand, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, “was built on PR and word of mouth,” she adds. In fact, it didn't advertise until five or six years ago. Internally, Miller has a team of five, which gets support from MS&L, TurboTax's AOR for more than a decade.

“There's a heritage of PR... that will continue to evolve,” Miller explains. “There's complete connection between our brand marketing, online marketing, and communications team because [our] PR plan ties directly back to our strategic business priorities.

“We do not do PR in a vacuum,” she says. “We're thoughtful about what we do and don't do. Resources are tight. We make compelling business cases to get funds.”

About 20 million people currently use TurboTax. The communications teams continually aims to increase that number by using a multitude of channels to reach as many of the 140 million taxpayers as possible.

“TurboTax stories [are] in The Wall Street Journal and on Good Morning America,” Miller says. “But we're also on taxgirl.com and WalletPop.com. Online and social media are growing rapidly – that's where consumers [go] for information, and it's critical that we have a substantial presence there.”

Miller says a lot of resources are dedicated to closely monitoring online chat rooms, and hundreds of tax blogs, mom blogs, and more. TurboTax also has its own Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and MySpace pages. Scott Gulbransen, senior manager of corporate communications, explains that the entire internal team communicates with the public via social media every day – including weekends.

“Times have changed,” Gulbransen says. “We're interacting directly with people... even with customers who have issues. Five years ago... we couldn't communicate with customers directly in a way that was scalable.”

Gulbransen recalls someone on Twitter who wasn't sure whether to use TurboTax or a competitor. He responded by pointing that person to a review in PC Magazine.

“When a potential customer gets [referred to] a third party... that person will tell their friends about their experience with us,” he says. “We're able to communicate directly with the public in a way that makes them feel a human element to the brand.”

The scope of outreach and the short time frame of tax season are both challenging –and then there's always the chance that something could go wrong.

“There's tremendous scrutiny... and we've not had flawless execution as a business,” says Miller, citing a Tax Day incident two years ago that left about 170,000 customers unable to file.

“Within moments, we had a tremendous amount of media interest,” she continues. “We worked very quickly with the IRS to ensure they could file without penalty, and we refunded about $10 million. Within 36 hours, we had several hundred media stories. We're adept at [managing issues] and we learn from every hiccup.”

The company demonstrated that expediency recently when Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner blamed, in part, TurboTax for his tax troubles during his confirmation hearing. The same day, January 21, Intuit released a statement in response to the allegation.

While the statement read, “Federal law and our own privacy policy prohibit us from discussing specifics of any customer's return,” it did acknowledge Geithner's allegations by stating, “TurboTax also has built-in error-checking tools that routinely catch common taxpayer mistakes.”

At a glance

Company: TurboTax

President/CEO: Brad Smith, president and CEO of Intuit

Headquarters: Mountain View, CA

Budget: $1 million-plus

Key media outlets: National print, broadcast, and online media; PC Magazine, CNET

Marcomms team:
Julie Miller, director of corporate comms; Scott Gulbransen, senior manager of corporate comms; Colleen Gatlin, manager of corporate comms; Ashley Kirkendall, manager of corporate comms; Chelsea Marti, manager of PR and social media

AOR: MS&L

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