The Tax Man Gets Social

Last Updated Apr 11, 2011 12:05 PM EDT

If you hate thinking, let alone talking, about taxes, you're not alone.

A recent Rasmussen Reports survey found that around 40% of Americans still hadn't filed their taxes as of March 29. That gives you less than a week to get all your ducks in a row, unless you're filing for an extension.

But you know who does want to talk to you about your taxes? And not in an "I'm going to beat your door down and take you to the poorhouse" kind of way?

The IRS.

That's right. The Internal Revenue Service has been making a concerted effort to educate American taxpayers about the ins and outs of one of the two certainties of life... through social media. And it seems people are listening.
Terry Lemons, director of IRS communications, says the agency's three YouTube channels (one of which is in American Sign Language) have racked up 667,000 combined views for the period Oct. 1, 2010-Feb. 28, 2011; up from 225,000 combined views for the same period during the previous year. YouTube is one of three focus areas for the IRS' social media efforts, the other two being Twitter, where the agency has five handles and, most recently, a smart phone app. All three platforms let the IRS cost-effectively disseminate useful information, says Lemons. "With limited resources and when using taxpayer dollars, we can't just chase the 'flavor of the month,'" he adds.

For the most part, the agency's social media efforts resemble news feeds, not two-way conversations. Usually I don't think this is a wise strategy, but I think it works given the IRS's constraints. Answering specific taxpayer questions would be tricky because it would involve knowing extremely sensitive financial information, and it would require more taxpayer resources to hire experts who could respond. It's smart of them to direct a lot of their attention to YouTube (it's the world's second-largest search engine), and their ASL channel is especially innovative.

Is the strategy working? Lemons says the increase in traffic is enough to convince him that it's a valuable service.

If the IRS isn't in a position to talk back to you via social media, H&R Block sure is.

The company embarked on its social media efforts back in 2007, and its focus, as described by Social Media Director Zena Weist is four-pronged: listening, responding, resolving, and sharing. The most trafficked of H&R Block's strategies is its GetItRight community, where taxpayers can get expert advice from the company's network of tax pros. H&R Block uses Facebook as well as Twitter to engage in active and timely two-way conversations and for client resolution (it landed on Time's 140 best Twitter feeds list). Since joining the company a little over a year ago, Weist has seen a 230% increase in overall conversations in the company's social media channels, year-to-year.

What I like about them is that they keep it real:


And while follower and fan numbers are great, that's not the company's raison d'être; what they look at, when measuring the success of their social media efforts, is primarily client resolution. That is, how many issues are resolved by making social media the first point of contact. "If we can increase our 'first contact' numbers," says Weist, "we're not just saving the company money, we're saving our clients time and money."

If you're still stressed out over your taxes... well, I can't blame you. But at least now you know whom to talk to. Just remember to do it before April 18.

In the meantime, what do you think of these social media strategies?

Title image: lucyfrench123 via Flickr, CC 2.0
Shonali Burke is Principal of Shonali Burke Consulting where she helps turn businesses' communication conundrums into community cool. She opines on PR and social media at Waxing UnLyrical and is considered one of 25 women that rock social media.