H&R Block CMO On Broadcast TV, Watson And Which Metrics Matter Most

kathyFor the first time since 2009, H&R Block has bought a 60-second Super Bowl spot – just in time for tax prep.

The big buy follows a soft 2016 tax season when tax returns filed using H&R Block’s service declined 4.5% due to competitors like Intuit’s TurboTax, which “took share from all major branded competitors,” CEO Bill Cobb noted during an earlier earnings call.

H&R Block is also partnering with IBM Watson to improve its in-store tax prep process.

“We have been very transparent about the fact that we did not have a good tax season last year,” Kathy Collins, H&R Block’s CMO, told AdExchanger. “Our business is either make it or break it in 100 days. So we had to do something different and bold to reposition the brand experience.”

Collins spoke with AdExchanger about H&R Block’s investment in TV, Watson and how it’s getting more targeted with consumers.

AdExchanger: What are you doing with IBM Watson?

KATHY COLLINS: We’ve worked hard over the last seven or eight months to do more research around what consumers were looking for in terms of tax prep. A lot of consumers were saying, “We just want to get our taxes done,” which is what one of our competitors says. We thought there was more to it.

We had this moment where my boss [Bill Cobb] and our VP of advertising were sitting in a room with our ad agency and this whole idea of artificial intelligence came up. We called the folks at IBM and they were fascinated by this idea of man and machine, which was so similar to what we’re all about – having the tax professional at the center of everything we do. 

How does it work?

Instead of sitting across from the tax pro and watching them input your data, the client has their own monitor and Watson is built into that. It’s not so much that the content is different from what the tax pro can offer, but Watson can scan hundreds of millions of data points and find every credit and deduction for that client in real time.

If, for instance, there’s a farmer from Iowa as a client, Watson can look for other farmers from Iowa and prompt the tax pro to ask additional questions to ensure there aren’t other deductions they can claim. And the client can watch in real time.

Did Watson influence your decision to invest in a Super Bowl ad?

We knew we had a huge opportunity. We were transforming the category and the timing was perfect. The beginning of February works very well for getting this kind of message out and in what better venue than the Super Bowl? We, of course, hope to get people’s attention, but it’s really more strategic to us. We’re thinking two to three years out.

So the Super Bowl is an audience reach play for you, but what about digital?

Traditional media still works very well for us, to be honest. TV and radio are very important to our mix. We, however, invest a great deal in digital media and have gotten a lot savvier this year becoming more targeted in our digital video and banner ads.

How so?

We have slightly different businesses. We have an online, do-it-yourself product and we have a promotion there targeting the DIY’er. We also have retail offers we’ve had out there like the refund advance. And we have a free, federal 1040EZ product, which targets someone with a fairly simple federal return. We have many audiences, and some trend younger and a little more digitally savvy.

We know where they’re browsing and we’re able to be a little more targeted because of it. We do see a big spike in some of our social activity around our [TV ads], so our digital investment is really important to us.

What are you getting better at in digital?

Targeting acquisition or retention-based clients based on where they are online. If we know they’re already an H&R Block client and what they’re browsing for online, we can target them differently than someone who’s never come to our site before.

That data is power and then you think about, on the retail side of our business, we completed over 700 million tax returns in our history and we have a lot of data on people.

And of course, we’re very protective of that data, but we do know who they are, when they like to file, if they’re a retail client or DIY client, so that even with things like email, direct mail and social, we can be very targeted based on who they are.

What’s your ultimate KPI?

“Get your taxes won” (H&R Block’s campaign featuring Jon Hamm) and the partnership with Watson are a long-term play. It’s very strategic. It’s not a promotion for us where we’ll just measure to see if we got eyeballs. In terms of our advertising, we track it on a continuum across likability, memorability, brand and message recall, but to your point about online and digital – we can follow those people to see if it’s working.

We can see if they’re coming to our website and then converting. We can see if they click on an ad and then go to a store versus registering online as a client. All of those metrics we roll into one – traditional, brand metrics, but also conversion-based metrics – to make sure we’re doing more than just entertaining people with our ads.

Interview condensed and edited.

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