Why H&R Block Is Thinking and Acting Like a News Outlet During Covid-19

Statewide shutdowns, stimulus checks and deadline extensions has made this tax season extra confusing

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In the two weeks following April 15, the company's year-over-year web traffic has jumped 205%. H&R Block
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Filing taxes is nearly always a complicated and stressful process, but this season is proving even more difficult than usual thanks to the economic turmoil brought on by the Covid-19 crisis.

With statewide shutdowns, stimulus checks and deadline extensions, tax preparation company H&R Block has seen its busy season extend months beyond its usual timeline—and more consumers than ever turning to them for help.

Data from market intelligence company SimilarWeb shows that year-over-year traffic to H&R Block’s website was up 6% between April 1-14, and 11% on April 15, the typical deadline for filing taxes. Throughout the final two weeks of April, however, traffic spiked 205%.

With this boom occurring, H&R Block decided to focus on keeping consumers informed amid the rapidly changing developments.

“One of the things we realized is that we have to shift from being a classic marketing planning organization to being one that thought and acted more like a journalist enterprise,” said Vinoo Vijay, CMO at H&R Block. “Because it was changing so fast, we needed a cadence that was very different from what we were used to.”

In response to the unprecedented situation, Vijay and his team built new webpages geared toward keeping consumers and small businesses informed on current events that might alter how they file taxes. The company already had content written for search engine optimization purposes that more or less remained the same from one year to the next, but the new task involved a different way of communicating that balanced speed, accuracy and precision.

Without making any new hires, the team got to work creating content educating people on the Paycheck Protection Program, unemployment benefits and new state deadlines for filing taxes. They built infographics and sections dedicated to answering a growing list of common questions. They also designed an online calculator that provides an estimate of how much people could expect to get from their stimulus payments. Vijay claimed they were the first to do this, beating publications such as The Washington Post and CNBC, giving the company a bump in web traffic.

“We knew that we had to shift a whole bunch of our team to be accountable for understanding what’s the latest information, translating that into messages that the clients will understand and then turning that around into not only these properties, but our social properties so that consumers have that information,” said Vijay.

While brands have long produced original content on their websites and social media channels, efforts to act more like publishers seem amplified during the Covid-19 crisis—a time when many people are sheltering in place and turning to the web for both news and distraction. Johnson & Johnson, for example, turned its search for a Covid-19 vaccine into a weekly web series hosted by CNN’s Lisa Ling. Pebbles cereal began putting out daily videos featuring magicians, dancers and artists to keep kids stuck at home from school entertained. Spice manufacturer McCormick & Co. has rolled out step-by-step cooking shows on Facebook and Instagram.

Due to social distancing, H&R Block also introduced options to do a no-contact physically drop off tax documents at one of the company’s 9,500 locations or do a digital drop off, allowing customers to upload their documents from home and get assistance going through them with an H&R Block employee online.

“There’s a lot of clients who are very comfortable going to the office and getting that experience,” said Vijay. “And we knew we had to find a way to serve them in a way that still fit with both our operating model and the safety of our employees.”

In partnership with ad agency Deutsch, H&R Block also shot numerous spots in anticipation that tax deadlines would be pushed back. “When the deadline got extended, we already had our spot,” said Vijay.

In 2019, H&R Block’s marketing and advertising expenses amounted to $269.8 million, up 8.3% compared to the year prior, according to the company’s latest annual report.

When Vijay began his career in marketing at FedEx, he was required to help sort and load packages during the busy seasons of Thanksgiving and the winter holidays. Those days have helped inform his mindset for the present situation.

“Sometimes the most important thing you can do for a company is not what your day job says, but what the company needs at that moment more than anything else,” said Vijay. “What do we need to get done right now? Our clients need to understand as quickly as possible what all these Covid-19 changes mean to them. And that is far more important than creating an ad campaign.”

@hiebertpaul paul.hiebert@adweek.com Paul Hiebert is a CPG reporter at Adweek, where he focuses on data-driven stories that help illustrate changes in consumer behavior and sentiment.