First Union Corp., emphasizing the increasing importance of telephone banking, has mounted an aggressive campaign in Georgia to sign up new accounts exclusively through its telephone bank, known as First Union Direct.

First Union National Bank of Georgia has been running ads in Atlanta newspapers offering new customers $50 to open an interest bearing checking account over the phone. The offer comes with one important caveat: Customers must maintain a balance of at least $1,000 for 90 days to claim the bonus.

David M. Carroll, the Georgia subsidiary's president and chief executive, described the promotion as a pilot effort that may be unrolled elsewhere in First Union's 12-state territory. He said it was an outgrowth of the company's ongoing Consumer Bank Reegineering Project, which is designed to build alternative delivery channels such as telephones, personal computers, and smart cards.

"We think there's a lot of money to be made on the price-conscious shopper if you deal with them through" a channel that isn't cost- prohibitive, Mr. Carroll said.

First Union's promotion has already attracted the attention of competitors. Patrick M. Blanchard, general manager of Wachovia Corp.'s telephone banking service in Columbia, S.C., said his bank will soon unveil a "similar" promotion in Atlanta.

But Mr. Blanchard, a senior vice president with the Winston-Salem, N.C.- based bank, said it would be careful not to exclude branches as a customer option.

"You don't want the customer to feel your delivery channels are competing with each other," he said.

While First Union's specific promotion may be unusually aggressive, the effort fits in with banks' efforts to shift customers away from branches and toward less expensive delivery channels. Huntington Bancshares, Columbus, Ohio, and Detroit-based Comerica Inc. are among other banks that offer financial incentives to customers who conduct transactions outside the branch.

"It's obviously part of the trend to get consumers to do telephone banking," said Anne Moore, president of Synergistic Research Corp. The Atlanta-based consultant added that First Union's offer would help the bank build a base of convenience and technology-oriented customers.

"The most difficult thing to do is get a customer to open up an account remotely," she said. "Once you can get them to do that, it's pretty much a slam dunk that they're going to do transactions over the phone."

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