Alexander Hamilton nuzzled Pierce Thiot’s chin bristles. Washington took to his mustache. Lincoln hung from his mutton chop.
The presidents were posing for a picture in the Instagram star's beard, which was stuffed with cash as part of a social media stunt for a tax preparer. Thiot (Tee-oh) is well-known on the Internet for Will It Beard, an Instagram account with over 125,000 followers where the 29-year-old art director tries to stick various items (Peeps, carnival beads, Legos) in there to see if they will, in fact, beard. He had bartered his advertising services for free tax prep from a firm called Fishback Tax, which offers certified-public-accounting services online and by phone.
“We find the people most comfortable with our services are millennials,” said Catherine Fishback, head of marketing. “It just connected to me that he might be a good person to reach out to."
"It made sense for the account as well," Thiot said, "because I hadn't stuck any money in [my beard] yet."
The U.S. tax prep industry, from small players like Fishback, a three-year-old Nevada shop, to big ones like Intuit Inc.'s TurboTax, is stepping up its efforts to reach America's 83 million millennials. They are increasingly of tax-filing age and present their own business opportunities—and challenges.
TaxSlayer, an online service, says 60 percent of its customers who file electronically are millennials. Twitter, where TaxSlayer has launched a marketing campaign geared to the group, is used mainly by 18- to 32-year-olds, according to the Pew Research Center.
TurboTax has turned to mobile devices and apps, including SnapChat, the platform of self-dissolving images, where it ran a 10-second ad in January 2015 and plans to run another this tax season.
As for Fishback's gambit, the vast majority of Instagram users are millennials, most of whom Pew determined earn between $30,000 and $74,999 a year.
The challenge of reaching this group is authenticity, said Jeff Fromm, president of the marketing consultancy FutureCast and author of Marketing to Millennials.
“I think that a hashtag works if the brand has a passionate group of followers and the hashtag is relevant to the conversation,” he said. “Otherwise it’s #EpicFail, if it’s a piece of marketing stuffed in my face.”
Even when social media marketing is entertaining—Will It Beard's sponsored post gained over 7,000 likes—it isn't necessarily pushing business for the brand. Fishback said reaction to the post, which she praised as creative and fun, was less than she expected, partly because people scroll fast on Instagram and don't always read the captions.
#TaxSwag, a campaign that TaxSlayer launched two weeks ago to target taxpayers between 21 and 44, enters e-filing customers in a sweepstakes for stereotypically millennial prizes. There's a belt buckle featuring bacon, a retro 80’s mug, and, of course, a poster of the world’s most beautiful beards. (Marketers seem a little obsessed with millennials and beards, perhaps emboldened by Google Trends, which shows a steady rise in searches for "beard" and "hipster beard.")
Though millennials increasingly consume marketing through mobile and social media rather than television, "if all things are equal they will prefer a trusted brand,” Fromm said, based on a survey he took. To build that brand, he said, and name recognition for it, you have to consider various media, including TV.
TaxSlayer ran a television campaign this tax season in which e-filers declared, "I am not a tax expert." The spot was viewed on YouTube more than 1.1 million times. Across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, #TaxSwag reached over 3.2 million users. This tax season's crop of TV commercials from TurboTax, which features famous brainiacs such as the theoretical physicist Dr. Michio Kaku showing an ordinary person how to file a return, emphasizes filing through mobile devices.
“It’s a nod to where we feel the puck is going,” said Cathleen Ryan, TurboTax’s director of advertising. She said TurboTax also gears its app to younger taxpayers but doesn't focus whole campaigns on millennials.
Indeed, Fromm cautions clients not to treat the group as “a monolithic cohort.”
Maybe not monolithic, but the way Thiot arrived at his barter deal with Fishback is kind of ... millennial. Fishback offered a base price "of under $500, with commission for each referral we received," as she described it. He declined.
"I've never wanted to do a [brand] collaboration," he said. "But being a millennial myself and hating doing taxes, I said I would help out if they helped me out."