*H&R Block Reaches College Students for Online Filing

With electronic filing and do-it-yourself tax software threatening its market share, H&R Block Inc. today inaugurates its first marketing effort for college students in a bid to get customers for life.

Starting this year with 40 universities in California and New York, the tax preparer’s Free Your Money Fast outreach program invites students to visit www.hrblock.com/free for free online filing and quicker refunds. In all, 800,000 students will be targeted.

“The long-term future of H&R Block is going to obviously be the younger generation,” said Aaron Horvath, interactive marketing manager at Kansas City, MO-based Block. “As they get older, they’re going to be our customers.”

This push comes at an embarrassing moment for Block. The company last week shut down its online program for a few days after 10 customers saw portions of other customers’ information on their files. Blaming a programming bug, Block said that glitch wouldn’t hamper the college effort.

Block’s site allows students to fill the 1040EZ federal and state forms in a quick, interactive manner. The service is free for the simple tax returns suitable for most college students. Those with more complicated returns are charged $9.95 for a federal 1040 filing and $4.95 for a state filing.

A major attraction is its Electronic Refunds Advance feature. For a $19.95 flat fee, Block wires refunds of up to $5,000 within 48 hours to the student’s bank account. Normally, refunds take two weeks for returns filed electronically and six to eight weeks for mailed forms.

To convey this online opportunity, Block has crafted a grassroots plan to reach students. These include full-page, weekly print ads with a $5,000 Spring Break Cash Sweepstakes prize in university publications. VML, Kansas City, handles the advertising.

Campus leaders play an equally important role. Media kits with posters, letters and Web site information will be mailed to 1,200 leaders pulled from lists of sororities, fraternities and university clubs. Telephone calls will precede and follow the drops. Librarians and possibly faculty members will be sent letters in the hope that they recommend Block’s online service when asked by students.

Block extends special treatment this week to five universities each in California and New York that are expected to respond most favorably. Company executives will set up tables with notebook computers for demonstrations and on-the-spot sweepstakes registrations.

The online component includes banner ads on StudentAdvantage.com and run-of-network across Internet ad placement firm DoubleClick’s range of college-oriented sites.

Block’s research shows that college student are the demographic most likely to forfeit their refunds. College students, on average, are due $800 in refund on estimated annual income of $8,000, Block said.

“The biggest challenge for them is doing a process that they never had to do before – dealing with tax forms – and they view this as another homework assignment,” Horvath said.

It is that apprehension that Block hopes to capitalize on.

“We want them to have a positive online experience with H&R Block where they’re at a stage when they’re building brand loyalty,” Horvath said. “This is the age when they’re making big decisions [for] long-term relationships.”

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