H&R Block virtually engages customers

While technology can confuse the tax return process, H&R Block is using it to its advantage

While technology can confuse the tax return process, H&R Block is using it to its advantage

Ah, tax season. It's the part of spring, possibly only rivaled by pollen, which receives the most complaints. No one likes taxes. But, to corrupt the old saying, two things are certain in life, and H&R Block can help with one of them.

With all the talk about technology making life easier, it seems taxpayers still aren't happy. Perhaps everyone is spoiled. Or perhaps it's because with every advance technology brings, the easier it becomes to get lost or confused in attempts to complete tax returns every April.

It's not an activity that's usually described as fun and engaging, either. The granddaddy of tax companies is trying to use some inventive communications and newly available technology to help make taxes more engaging and even a little fun. Over the past year H&R Block, with the assistance of Fleishman-Hillard, has set out on a campaign to make its presence felt everywhere potential customers are, and these days that includes the online world.

"We're meeting the audiences that we know are important to us in the places they are going," says Denise Sposato, PR manager for digital tax solutions at H&R Block. "Everybody has to do taxes. It's never been fun, but we're trying to inject a little fun into it."

Of course, just about everyone is a potential customer for H&R Block, which means monitoring contemporary trends is all the more important. And while tax companies may not have a reputation for being cutting edge, H&R Block isn't your father's tax adviser.

Last month, the company launched the first virtual tax experience in Second Life, the popular virtual online community, with digital tax professionals sharing free advice, providing access to the latest preparation products, and hosting tax-related events. It's another way the company is trying to connect with its customers, says Jan Rasmussen, SVP for Fleishman. The company's virtual tax advisers, avatars named Hope Bechir and Rex Philbin, will hold regular office hours through April 17.

Most important, a main auditorium will provide a place for visitors to watch a video describing the development of the company's newest tax preparation product, called Tango. The product, which will officially launch next year, but is enjoying a successful soft launch already, promises easier navigation than its competitors, touting flexible storage options, one-touch customer service, and ease of use.

With Tango, H&R Block spoke to Hollywood producers and directors to hear ideas on how it could tell a story, helping to keep the user engaged and mistake-free.

"When you're bored, you make mistakes," says Sposato. "You're doing fine, and then you make a mistake, and you use the back button, and suddenly you're lost or confused. With Tango, we wanted to keep people engaged. The first thing you see is a message saying, 'The IRS took a third of your paycheck: Now it's time to get it back.' You're engaged as you go through it."

On Second Life, users can earn "Linden Dollars" by helping to market Tango on their own virtual property. And guess what? For 100 Linden Dollars, the user gets an exclusive H&R Block Tango product bundle that retails in the real world for $70.

The Second Life announcement followed on the heels of a YouTube contest the company is running, called "Me & My Super Sweet Refund." Taxpayers were encouraged to show off their video production skills to answer the question "How will you spend your tax refund this year?" The response was noteworthy. The company received more than 125 video submissions, which have been viewed more than 2 million times.

The launch video for the contest, called "Candy," represents the most-linked comedy video and the third most-linked video in all categories in YouTube's history. Pretty hip for a company founded in Kansas City, MO, more than a half-century ago. The company began to adapt its strategy last year, says Rasmussen, when Tom Allanson, SVP and GM for H&R Block digital tax solutions, began his own blog called Fear and Loathing at Tax Time.

"Last year we kind of dipped our toes in," Rasmussen says. "When we started planning for this year, we said, 'Let's go full force.' It all comes back to having a conversation. Instead of putting information out there, let's converse, let's get a dialogue going."

All of this outreach, Sposato says, seeks to help people realize that H&R Block offers a lot more than its competitors. While other companies develop software solutions and leave it at that, she explains, H&R Block relies on people understanding it is a company that can help with taxes in a variety of ways.

"We're a tax company, not a software company, and we have a solution to meet everyone's need," Sposato says. "If you want to use a digital product one year, and you have a life change, sometimes you want to sit down across from someone and find out how this is going to impact your taxes. You can do that with us."

At a glance

Company:
H&R Block

Chairman and CEO:
Mark Ernst

Headquarters:
Kansas City, MO

Revenue:
2006 sales $4.8 billion

Competitors:
Intuit

PR Budget:
Undisclosed

Key Trade Titles:
Accounting Today; Accounting Technology; Accountants World Daily Newsletter

Marcomms Team:
Denise Sposato, PR manager for digital tax solutions; Paula Drumm, VP of marketing digital; Amy Worley, director of digital tax marketing

Marketing Services Agencies:
Fleishman-Hillard

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