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A NEAT WEBSITE HELPS CHILDREN UNDERSTAND MONEY

Financial institutions are not wallflowers when it comes to touting their products and services. Walk into a branch, pick up a newspaper, listen to the radio -- even watch television -- and you'll be pitched.

Now the pitching has moved to the Internet. Web pages abound for all of the major players and even many of the lesser-known banks and thrifts. The medium has changed, but the purpose remains the same: The Fleets, the M&Ts and the Marine Midlands of the financial world want you to know what they can do for you. And that's fine -- that's advertising.

An eastern Pennsylvania bank has taken a different, more subtle approach. In addition to its standard "what we offer you" web page, Sovereign Bank of Wyomissing has created a separate page geared to teaching youngsters about money and banking. No hard sell, but rather a generic approach to helping elementary school kids get a handle on financial basics.

The Pennsylvania institution appears to have taken the lead in developing a website specifically for youngsters who may not know the difference between a nickel and a knuckle, but can point a mouse and click.

The results have been encouraging. Local banks take notice.

"In our first full month of usage, we recorded 1,500 user sessions, which means people went in and actually used the site, as opposed to a hit, where they might take a look and leave," said Eric Hien, Sovereign's technology product manager. "We've also gotten a lot of publicity."

The kids' website actually was an afterthought for Sovereign, a $13 billion financial institution headquartered about an hour northwest of Philadelphia. The bank had offered a traditional website for more than a year, but determined in late 1996 that it needed a fresh look.

"One of the firms which made a proposal on our website also brought up the idea of a children's tutorial site," Hien said. "We took a hard look at what was out on the web and really found nothing like this. In March, we launched our new web site, and in June, we launched our kid's page."

Located at www.kidsbank.com., Sovereign's kid-oriented site has everything a youngster age 5 to 8 could want: cute characters, bright colors and interesting, easy-to-understand text designed to draw the child into the action -- with mom, dad or both sitting right there to help.

The five primary characters found at kidsbank.com include:

Penny, who tells kids where money came from and how it's made.

Dollar Bill, who teaches the importance of saving.

Interest Ray, who stands ready to explain the concept of interest.

Checks, the KidsBank.Com dog, which "digs up" information about checking accounts.

Mr. EFT (electronic funds transfer), who explains how money moves electronically around the world.

The stories told by each character can be separated; there is no mandated user's path. And, kidsbank.com supplements the characters' information with additional entertaining and informative characters and sections. Click on The Professor, for example, who provides more detailed information about the topic under discussion. This data is designed for older children, to provide a clearer understanding of a subject.

There also is a game room, which offers 10 multiple-choice quizzes based on information learned in a story. Do well on a quiz, and little Joey can receive a certificate of merit, provided you have a printer connected to your PC. The ol' professor likewise offers quizzes, although they are based on both the story and supplemental information.

An electronic bulletin board allows inquisitive kids to receive answers to questions, while a trio of interactive calculators demonstrate savings and interest principles -- like how long it will take save a million dollars. A links page lists other Internet sites deemed appropriate for kids.

Sound interesting? Marine Midland's Anne Nelson thinks Sovereign's kidsbank.com makes a lot of sense.

"Sovereign is taking a good strategy, making the web page fun and educational," said Ms. Nelson, Marine's executive vice president for marketing. The Buffalo institution is planning to introduce its new and improved web page in early 1998.

Sovereign is pleased with the user sessions recorded during August and with the incalculable benefit of getting its name in front of current and future customers. Grab a child and the parent will follow.

"But our main intention is not to sell products," Hien maintains. "If we can help kids learn more about money, about how banks work, that's what we're hoping to do."

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