Intuit Program Combines Reviews, Social Networking

This tax season, Intuit’s TurboTax is hoping to get big returns out of a marketing push that combines product reviews and social networking.

The Friends Like You program, which launched this month, identifies people within a consumer’s Facebook, MySpace or Twitter networks who may have reviewed the product and lets consumers “friendcast” those reviews on their social networks.

Though it may seem unlikely that a person in any given network has reviewed TurboTax, Seth Greenberg, director of national media and digital marketing for Intuit, has done the math and says it’s plausible.

About 20 million people use TurboTax and roughly 5 percent of them—or 1 million people—review it. Meanwhile, about 50 percent of TurboTax users are on Facebook, and each of them has, on average, 150 friends. “The odds are,” Greenberg said, “you’ll connect with someone you know.”

TurboTax’s current strategy seems a less onerous variation of what Facebook attempted with Beacon, an ad program it rolled out in late 2007 that relayed information about consumers in its news feeds (example: “John just bought a pair of shoes at Zappos”). After users complained of privacy issues, Facebook hastily extinguished Beacon, with copious apologies.

For its current initiative, Intuit worked with Bazaarvoice, an Austin, Texas, firm that outsources product reviews to Best Buy, Dell and Macy’s, among others.

In addition to identifying Facebook and Twitter friends under a “your friends” link, the program also lets consumers see reviews from people in similar tax situations, like those who just bought a house or had a baby.

“The key to reviews is people are looking for authentic recommendations from people [who are] like them,” explained Sam Decker, CMO of Bazaarvoice.

The push comes amid conventional wisdom in the marketing world that holds that customer reviews—even if a few negative ones are included—tend to convert shoppers into buyers. Jeffrey Grau, a senior analyst with eMarketer, said that consumers often regard reviews from fellow consumers even higher than expert opinions such as those published in Consumer Reports.

“If a mother with two kids is thinking of buying a stroller, she might find another mother of two kids who would have insights you wouldn’t see in a clinical examination,” Grau explained, adding that identifying reviewers who are also social networking friends will help lend authority to the reviews. However, according to Grau, “If there are a lot of reviews, you will will put more faith in them. If there’s only one or two, you might think someone at the company wrote it.”

Not everyone agrees that linking reviews and social networking is a great idea. Pehr Luedtke, CEO of Bazaarvoice competitor PowerReviews (which handles reviews for Staples and outdoor equipment retailer REI, among others), said he believes people in social networks aren’t in a buying frame of mind.

“We’re not seeing a lot of activity coming from social networks and back into retail sales,” he said. “The consumer mind-set is that they’re there [at a social network] to socialize and learn, not to buy.”

For his part, Greenberg said he sees what Intuit is doing this year as an experiment. The consumer review/social networking aspect of the campaign is combined with a more traditional TV effort, handled by NBC, that shows consumers casually tapping away at their laptops doing their taxes as they converse with friends.

In one spot, a man is working on his taxes as he has lunch with a friend. As he begins asking work-related questions, the friend figures out that the goal is to write off the lunch as a business expense.

So far, it’s too soon to tell whether the enhanced customer reviews have increased conversions. Greenberg said that so far he’s learned that most consumers do not wish to friendcast their reviews.

“We’re trying to establish whether social media can really drive revenues,” Greenberg said. “I really feel that we’re going to learn something here.”