November 20, 2017

Why salespeople should sell ideas: an FAQ

We all know the increasing importance of ideas in B2B marketing. But idea marketing doesn’t start and stop with marketers. For the program to be successful, those ideas must find their way into the hands of salespeople. And I’m not sure that salespeople share the same passion for ideas as we do. I think they need to be convinced. Please tell me if you think the following does the job:

  • Relationships are what matter in selling. Why should I start selling ideas instead?
    Relationship selling skills matter more than ever. Idea selling isn’t a replacement for any current selling skills. It is an additional tool.
  • But why are ideas so important now?
    Buyers are spending much more time online than they used to. A (fairly old) study by Forbes and Google found that 80% of C-level executives perform at least three web searches per day. That was in 2009. No doubt that number has continued to go up—especially with the rise of mobile and social media.
  • What does online search have to do with selling?
    As buyers do more searching, they are stretching the buying process earlier and earlier, to the point where they may not have a specific product or service in mind when they search. They are looking for inspiration and guidance on the business problems they face. Increasingly, they are going to the internet for that guidance before they speak with salespeople.
  • So you’re saying there’s a part of the buying process that doesn’t involve salespeople?
    No. I’m saying there’s a new part of the buying process that comes before buyers have decided what they want to do. They assume that salespeople can’t help them at that point. And for the most part, they’re right. Most salespeople are still focused on selling specific products and services.
  • C’mon, nobody goes in pitching anymore. I ask them about their pain points and work with them to resolve them.
    Well, ask buyers and they’ll tell you that you should know their pain points before you even walk in the door. They want to start the conversation with their pain points and work forward from there—without talking about what you have to offer them. They are looking for good ideas, facts, and data about how to solve their specific business problems. That’s what they’re looking for on the internet—why shouldn’t they expect it from their providers, too?
  • But I don’t have access to that kind of information.
    Maybe not, but someone inside your organization does. Every B2B company has subject matter experts (SMEs) who are working with customers to solve problems and have deep backgrounds in customers’ processes, industries, and functions. The trick is to discover those sources of ideas in your organization and capture their wisdom for wider distribution.
  • How do we find and tap into those sources of ideas inside the organization?
    Sales and marketing need to work together to develop an idea network—a group of internal and external SMEs that can help develop and vet new ideas and put them into the hands of salespeople. The big strategy consulting firms have been doing this for decades. But it’s only since the rise of search that buyers have begun to expect this kind of original thinking from all their providers. In a recent ITSMA survey, 88% of B2B buyers said that ideas are important or critical for providers that want to make it to their short lists.
  • How do I get these ideas in a form I can use with customers?
    Besides creating idea networks, B2B companies also have to become publishers. With the decline of B2B trade publishing, B2B providers have to pick up the slack. But it can’t be with warmed over brochures. Traditional forms of marketing are still incredibly value later on in the sales cycle, but at the early stages, companies must produce articles and surveys that can compete with what the journalists used to provide. The management consulting companies have built small publishing engines—with dedicated editors, writers, and other publishing experts—inside their four walls. B2B companies that are serious about idea selling need to do the same thing.
  • Great, so you want me to dump a bunch of whitepapers on my customers?
    No, you have to work with marketing to get those ideas translated into a form you can use with customers—whether that be idea salescards, demos, etc. Sales and marketing need to work together to figure that out. This is where many marketing groups fall down; they stop short of translating the ideas into usuable sales materials. Companies need to become as good at idea sales enablement as they are at idea publishing.

Does this look like a realistic list? What have I left out?

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9 attributes of the best idea marketing content

Some time back, I blogged about the attributes of a thought leader. Lately, I’ve been talking to B2B marketers about the content delivered by these thought leaders and asking, What defines good thought leadership content? Here’s what I have so far. Surely, you have a suggestion that will get us to ten attributes?

  1. Visionary. It’s best to address a problem before customers realize that it’s a problem.
  2. Provocative. The best thought leadership pieces are bold and attack conventional wisdom.
  3. Differentiated. No “me too” ideas allowed. The ideas should be new (to the target audience, anyway) or offer a unique angle on a familiar subject.
  4. Relevant. Defines a problem or issue that is important to the target audience.
  5. Timely. Being first to interpret the impact of a new regulatory requirement, for example, reduces the chances of being perceived as “me too” thinking.
  6. Has a narrative. Great ideas are better when they are presented in the context of a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
  7. Demonstrates mastery. The ideas should be presented against a backdrop of deep contextual understanding and experience.
  8. Can be delivered on. There’s little point in doing thought leadership if it’s something that the company can’t follow through on.
  9. Backed up by proof. Thought leadership is little more than an interesting opinion unless it is backed up with data and case studies.

What else would you add to this list?

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The 2 questions on every buyer’s mind

At any moment in time, C-level executives are looking for answers to two questions:

What should I be doing right now?

What should I be preparing to do in the future?

We need to create a mix of these two types of thought leadership content to maintain strong relationships with their target audiences. Here’s why: Marketers who do this are more successful. In ITSMA’s Thought Leadership Survey, marketers with formal thought leadership processes segment their ideas this way 95% of the time. And those marketers tell us that they are much more satisfied with the quality of the ideas from their SMEs than marketers who have ad hoc processes for thought leadership development and dissemination. Among those who parse ideas, most split the pie in half between two types of ideas:

  • Aspirational. These are the ideas that prompt buyers to think about change. Assuming that you’ve done the necessary research to understand your target audience, that change can be on a personal, organizational, or industry level. These ideas aren’t necessarily about predicting the future or painting a picture of how it will look. Often, they focus on a catalyst for change that may not be obvious. Consultant Fred Reichheld didn’t invent the concept of customer loyalty, but by identifying the marker for it, he changed how many companies approach managing customer loyalty. These kinds of ideas are generally most useful at the Epiphany Stage of the buying process, when buyers are casting about for ideas but haven’t formulated any specific plans.
  • Practical. If these ideas were offered up at a newspaper’s editorial meeting, they’d go in the news hole. They identify a current trend, say a regulatory change, and offer perspective on what the trend means and how companies should react. An excellent, though controversial, example of this is the McKinsey article I wrote about a few weeks ago, about how US health care reform will affect employee benefits. Another great aspect of that piece is that when you click through to the article, you’ll see an aspirational piece positioned next to it entitled “Redesigning Employee Benefits,” which advocates taking a product development approach to the employee benefits process. Practical ideas tend to be more useful to buyers who are in the later stages of the buying process, when they have a more concrete idea of what they want to do but are looking for insight into how to do it.

What’s unspoken here is that you need to develop thought leadership that is appropriate to each stage of the buying process so that buyers (and salespeople) can get the right information at the right time. For example, buyers who are in the Epiphany Stage are looking for new ideas and industry news, while buyers who are actively getting ready to buy and are creating a short list of providers will be looking for case studies that profile how their peers have generated business results. Marketing and sales must agree on the alignment of content to the various buying stages so that sales will get the right signals about when and how to approach customers for a sale. For example, IBM creates specific versions of its thought leadership materials for salespeople to use during their discussions with customers.

Do you segment your thought leadership content?

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3 ways to link marketing to revenue without metrics

I’m looking forward to our annual ITSMA spring road trip. This time, I’ll be speaking about how to tie thought leadership to revenue, starting in Santa Clara, CA next Wednesday, and in New York and Newton, MA the following week. Hope you can join us.

Now, you may think that because I’m using revenue and thought leadership together in the same sentence that I’m going to reveal some secret way to measure the link between the white paper you published last month and the complex solution sale you make six months from now. Alas, no such magic metric exists.

We’re focusing on the wrong things
In fact, our most recent thought leadership survey found that few marketers are measuring much besides consumption of their marketing content. I’m not saying that you should stop measuring consumption; but it’s clear that those kinds of metrics don’t give business people the answers they’re looking for when they ask about the value of marketing. They want more strategic answers, such as whether marketing is increasing the velocity of contacts through the buying process and reducing the time and effort that salespeople need to expend in making a sale.

If you have the ability to measure those two things, then great. But if you don’t, there are still ways to make sure that those things are happening. Here are three ways to do it:

  • Connect ideas to offerings. Too much of our content just tries to look and sound smart—great focus on ideas, but no real connection to how our companies can solve the problem. At the other end of the spectrum are the brochures that masquerade as idea marketing by making the offering descriptions longer and the production values higher. One great way to connect ideas to offerings is to create a business theme—think IBM’s Smarter Planet or Cognizant’s Future of Work. Both of these themes give subject matter experts and marketers plenty of leeway to focus on ideas while maintaining a link to the company strategy and its offerings.
  • Use ideas to attract and nurture leads. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’m constantly beating the drum of integrating content with an automated lead management process. A lead management process gives you the ability to get the right content to the right people at the time they need it.
  • Train salespeople to use and talk about ideas. Creating good idea-based marketing content is hard and takes a long time if done right. That’s why the urge to start drinking kicks in about the time the white paper finally hits the website. But hold the beverages. Most salespeople don’t know what to do with a 20-page white paper. Marketers tell me that if they can get salespeople to even send the thing to prospects and customers they’re happy. We need to do much more than that. We need to create talking points for salespeople to use when communicating to customers and prospects, and we need to find ways to integrate salespeople into the content development and dissemination processes from the start.

How do you link content to revenue? Please give me your thoughts. Hope to meet you live, in-person soon!

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Why Lead Management Automation Really Matters

We should care more about lead management automation in B2B marketing. Maybe we don’t care enough because we’re focusing on the wrong reasons for doing it.

It isn’t because the software for automating this stuff has improved, or because it’s available through the cloud so you don’t have to deal with those people over in IT.

No, there’s something bigger going on here. And that is a huge change in the buying process.

In part it is being driven by social media. ITSMA’s annual survey of IT buyers found that this year, for the first time, a majority of buyers in the US—and 75% when you include other countries—are using social media in the purchasing process—especially the younger ones.

In our research we’ve also seen consistently over the past few years that two-thirds of buyers prefer to research their buying options themselves rather than waiting for vendors to contact them. Indeed, research by Forbes and Google found that 80% of C-level executives perform at least three web searches per day.

And finally, the trade press and general business media are dying. We have fewer and fewer outlets to do the heavy lifting of thought leadership for us by featuring our subject matter experts in in-depth analytical articles. Yet buyers are hungrier than ever for this kind of information and insight.

Buyers are removing salespeople from the buying process
What this all means is that buyers are really trying to remove salespeople from the earliest stages of the buying process. They want to become as informed as possible about current trends and their buying options before they ever speak to a salesperson.

This is where we as marketers need to provide more content—but not sales content. This content must be like what the press used to provide, objective, idea-based, and educational—not selling. Put another way, we have to use content to establish a relationship with buyers where our salespeople can’t. And we have to continue to build that relationship over time until those buyers are ready to talk to us.

That’s why lead management automation is important. It’s too difficult to track that relationship and know when someone is ready to do more than just read your white papers unless you have a process for lead management and can automate it. You have to be able to connect content with behavior with action. That’s not possible manually. It just won’t scale.

What do you think? What is stopping your company from creating an automated lead management process?

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Should sales enablement be owned by sales rather than marketing?

I’m wondering if it’s time to take sales enablement away from marketing.

What do I mean by sales enablement? I heard a great definition from my former ITSMA colleague Jeff Sands the other day: Sales enablement is helping salespeople be more credible with customers.

We all know how sales enablement got started in B2B. Marketers helped salespeople put words to the insanely complex products and services they were trying to sell.

Sales enablement used to mean brochures
These words, mostly in the form of brochures, specification sheets, and boilerplate PowerPoint slides, helped salespeople—especially those new to the company—get a conversation going with prospects.

But then the internet came along.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to say, “and then everything changed,” because it didn’t. From what I can tell, the internet didn’t disrupt the basic model for the sales enablement process; it just moved much of it online. Salespeople remained dependent on marketers for information. The internet didn’t make it easy for them to enable each other. Knowledge management systems, for example, were difficult to use and difficult to keep up to date. Salespeople mostly ignored them.

Social media changes sales enablement
But then social media came along and it really did change everything. Salespeople are becoming heavy users of social media, and it takes less than a minute to set up an internal-only micro blogging network, wiki, or online community for them to share their own words with each other.

I know what you’re thinking: when it comes to anything besides selling, salespeople have the attention spans of gnats. They’ll never set up one of these things themselves much less contribute to it.

The link between sharing and fatter bonuses
If they don’t it’s because they don’t see the link between sharing information and fatter bonus checks. Yet as more salespeople start using social media, the link will become more obvious. Sharing information in a way that doesn’t overly sap productivity (hard to do before social media came along) raises all boats. Aberdeen Research has found that salespeople that share information with each other make more money than those that don’t. That same report also found that salespeople that coached one another also made more money.

Who should own the process?
So my question is, now that the center of gravity is shifting from content (brochures, specification sheets, etc.) to conversation (tips on handling an account, coaching videos from sales peers and external experts, etc.) should responsibility for all this stuff remain with marketing? If so, why?

I’d really like to know what you think.

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Is lead generation killing marketing?

What happens when you stake the value of your contribution to the company on something that you’ll never do as well as someone else?

This was the gist of a very controversial assertion made by a senior marketer from a very well known B2B technology company during dinner at our ITSMA Marketing Leadership Forum (download highlights from the ITSMA Marketing Leadership Forum) when he said: “An overemphasis on leads is damaging our relationship with sales.”

You could hear the proverbial pin drop in the room after he said it.

On the one hand, what he was saying seemed ludicrous. How could emphasizing leads not improve the relationship? The perceptions that marketers send nothing but junk leads to sales and fail to measure the impact of those leads on revenue have been hurting marketers’ relationships with salespeople—and the business—for at least a decade.

But his point was that marketers will never be as good at handling leads as salespeople are. In my research, I’ve never seen anyone claim that marketing contributes anywhere near 50% of the leads that turn into sales. Most anecdotal estimates I’ve heard range from 10-35%.

Now, you could argue that if marketers improved their ability to generate, nurture, and manage leads from start to finish that those numbers would improve.

But can we ever say that marketers will become the leading contributors of leads that wind up as closed business? Maybe if you’re selling Apple iPads, but if you’re selling complex B2B services and solutions? Seems doubtful.

Meanwhile, an overemphasis on leads causes salespeople to devalue the things that marketers really do best. The mysterious arts of reputation, idea marketing, segmentation, and value propositions move from mysterious to stupid in the eyes of salespeople if only viewed through the prism of leads.

In the current climate, the psychosis over leads to continuous pressure on marketers to provide more and better quality leads. The overall success of marketing is defined by increases in those two things.

But, argues this marketing leader, are we going to allow our success to be defined this way? If so, we will never win. Salespeople will never respect us because we will never contribute as much as they do.

While I don’t think we can just walk away from the lead problem and go back to designing logos, I do think we need to compartmentalize it a bit. We need to be measured on what we really do well—the creative, right-brained stuff. Here are some ideas for how to calm the battle over leads:

  • Create a lead system of record. The most contentious aspect of marketers’ contribution to revenue is that it can’t easily be measured. That means installing a system that can follow leads from the website to sales and back again. Marketers can send more leads to sales every year and still be seen as failing because they can’t track those leads. Other functions have systems of record. We need one, too. Within that system, we need to agree on ground rules for lead management—such as the definition of a qualified lead, lead scoring, etc. People respect rules more when they’re written in stone.
  • Agree on a realistic level of contribution. Most reasonable salespeople will agree that marketers can only do so much in terms of lead generation. Sure, the totals should go up each year, but the proportion of leads supplied by marketing can’t be expected to rise forever—otherwise, why do we need salespeople? Sales and marketing leaders should decide on a target goal of proportion of contribution and then get on with it.
  • Split the short term from the long term. It seems only fair that marketers should be judged more for their contribution to longer-term revenue—to the sales pipeline rather to sales themselves, in other words—than to short-term revenue goals. Most marketing leads are people who are not ready to buy. We need to make allowances for that.

We need to get past this battle over leads and get back to doing what we do best.

What do you think?

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How social media will change lead generation in B2B

The era of the sales process beginning with a lead is over. The number of B2B buyers who are ready to buy as soon as they engage with our marketing is small—and social media will make it even smaller.

We have to come to terms with the fact that there is a stage of the buying process that comes before the buyers we are pursuing are ready to become leads.

We call it the epiphany stage.

This is the stage that occurs long before any discussion of products, services, or RFPs—indeed, it occurs before customers have even begun to think about a purchase.

However, there is something important that happens at this stage: It is the point at which customers come to the realization of an important business need.

This is where social media comes in. As social media expands our opportunity to reach people who have never heard of us or our services, we need to be prepared to engage them during the epiphany stage. We are trying to generate demand during this stage, not create leads, because these people aren’t ready to become leads. We have to generate demand before we can generate a lead.

The best way to do this is with thought leadership. We need a content engine capable of gaining the attention and respect of people who have never heard of us before. These people are not leads—they are not ready to be contacted by anyone. But they may be open to building a relationship that could someday lead to a sale.

These people are prospects, not leads. The way we turn prospects into leads is to gain their trust. We gain their trust by reaching out to them with smart, engaging, educational content. The trust leads to a more personal relationship and hopefully, a purchase. As I said in my last post, social media simply makes starkly plain what we’ve known for some time but haven’t had to face yet: We don’t have a lot of content capable of generating trust and relationships. We need to create that content.

But getting to that realization requires that we first acknowledge that there is a whole world that comes before a lead and before the interest phase of the buying process. We need to see that we are ignoring many people who aren’t leads. If we ignore them, they may never know that they need something that we have to offer.

What do you think?


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Social media isn’t enough. We need a marketing transformation.

During one of the first few days I went to work at CIO magazine in 1995, I had what we called a “vendor visit”—one of many I would have in the coming years. The idea behind the visits was to avoid having us journos become isolated in our ivory tower. We needed to hear from marketers who were out there day-to-day listening to CIOs’ problems and aspirations. Plus, many were advertisers, so the visits made it seem like we weren’t completely ignoring what they had to say.

But mostly we were.

Back then what marketers had to say was all about their offerings. And why not? The IT industry was on fire and the stuff was flying out the doors. Marketers and salespeople didn’t have to do much coaxing to get CIOs to buy, so why get complicated?

But a quick read of our magazine showed that we didn’t write about products. We wrote about the typical concerns of a C-level executive, such as strategy, leadership, organizational design, and change management. Kind of a Fortune magazine for IT executives.

Bibles, vacuums, and boxes
But the vendors had little need to engage with CIOs at that kind of level. And the guy that showed up to see me that day was a representation of the times. Big, stony-faced and intimidating, with a lapsed football player’s gut and a big school ring buried into one of his fingers. He wasn’t a marketer, but he had been sent by a marketer, who hadn’t bothered to accompany him or even send an agency PR person for translation and kind supplication. So much for hearing about the latest strategic trends affecting CIOs.

This guy was a salesman. Could have been bibles or vacuum cleaners, but they didn’t need sales guys for that stuff anymore. They needed guys to take orders for these boxes. He swung his expanded briefcase up onto the table, pulled out a media kit bulging with press releases about speeds and feeds and plunked it down on the table in front of me. “That’s for you,” he said. Then he launched into a pitch, delivered in a tone and with an expression that made it clear that this time could be money in his pocket if it wasn’t for me.

For my part, I made sure I conveyed the same body language, while choosing the chair nearest the door. I counted the minutes (these things go even more slowly when you have to listen).

Michael Jordan and the baseball bat
When it finally ended he said something that I’ve never forgotten. As he grandiosely snapped the buckles on the briefcase and dragged it off the table, he snorted, “CIO magazine, huh? Why don’t you have CIOs writing it?”

At that moment, I realized that I wasn’t just wasting his time. In his mind, I shouldn’t even have been working there. Given my minimal knowledge of IT at the time, I guess he had a point.

But it was clear that he had no concept of how difficult it is to write clear, compelling content about complex subjects. Assuming CIOs would be willing to accept the pay cut, and smart and determined as they are, I’m certain that few have the talent for or interest in the publishing process.

What am I paying for?
Marketers today are in the same position I was with that sales guy in 1995: Wondering how to explain the value and difficulty of creating clear, compelling content about a complex subject.

Except that today many of those sales guys are gone. Today, more salespeople are able to have business and strategy discussions with customers and take the time to listen to their needs. Thus, their skepticism becomes sharper and more justified. If I can do all this in a sales call now, why do I need you?

At ITSMA, we’ve seen investments in the things that we used to identify as the key contributions of marketing—like advertising, brochures, events, and trade shows—shrink consistently. And today we’re seeing marketing budgets as a percentage of revenue dipping to their lowest levels ever—at or below 1%.

Businesses are asking if you’re not doing all these things you used to do anymore, why should I give you more budget? And if I do, what am I paying for?

The model needs transforming
Pledging to do more with social media isn’t the answer. What we need to be telling the business is that we’re going to transform marketing completely. Getting into social media really means getting into publishing. It means creating a constant stream of idea-based content that keeps buyers interested and engaged. That’s hard, and it means a real shift in skills for many marketing departments.

I think the suspicion that we see of social media, which is justified, is mixed with fear. Let’s identify that fear so that marketers will have an easier time making the transition. I think it’s fear that the hardest aspect of marketing, content development, is ascending to become marketing’s most important role, as advertising, traditional PR, and events shrink and fall away.

The content engine
Marketing departments are going to have to transform themselves into content development engines. And just as important, they are going to have to sell the value of that engine to their businesses to prevent further cuts to the budget. As McKinsey consultant David Edelman said at the ITSMA annual conference last November, we can’t make social media an add-on to a system that isn’t adding the value that it once did. We need to look at how to do things differently.

Here are some of the key aspects of that transformation:

  • Marketing is becoming data. We couldn’t measure the effectiveness of ads in the old days, but the CEO saw the ads and signed off on them, so that made it okay. We couldn’t measure the effectiveness of events and trade shows, but sales people saw the crowds at the booth and the bar and so it didn’t matter. But as we shift to a content focus, it is all online and its impact is invisible. There is no visual, visceral confirmation of its impact. But a white paper isn’t just content; it is data. It can be tracked and measured.
  • Automation creates metrics. We tear our hair out trying to devise metrics that we can’t report on because we don’t have the data. If we automate the processes that matter, the metrics we need will be staring us in the face.
  • The funnel becomes electric. The impact of our content will be visible if that content is linked to an automated, closed-loop lead process. Getting agreement with sales on a sales-ready lead is critical. And with all the SaaS-enabled software available today, there’s no excuse for not automating the lead management process—at least up to the point where marketing hands over sales-ready leads. You don’t even need to involve IT anymore. And the excuse that these systems don’t integrate with old CRM systems is becoming less and less valid. If the vendors can’t help with the integration, IT can. Marketing needs a better relationship with IT.
  • Content creates relationships. It isn’t enough to develop idea-driven content and ship it out; we have to redesign the creation and dissemination processes so that readers are lured into conversations and relationships. This is where social media tools are helpful. But developing and disseminating content that builds relationships—think publishers and subscribers—takes different skills.
  • Buyers become approachable. After consolidating their power for years through internet search, B2B buyers are beginning to emerge from behind their firewalls and show up in places where marketers can find them. We have to meet them halfway. That requires a culture shift in the company and new skills for marketers and employees.
  • PR becomes conversation. We’re all PR now. Employees, subject matter experts and marketers all need to represent the company, but in a way that is transparent, constructive, and cordial. PR people meanwhile should use their thick skins and relationship skills to help build the conversation in social media. But it means shaking up the PR department and our relationships with PR agencies.

At ITSMA, we’re calling 2010 the year of marketing transformation. We wouldn’t use such grandiose terms if we didn’t see a real need for change. When she saw the trend in the numbers that we prepare our annual budget study, my colleague Julie Schwartz asked an important question: “Do we want to spend another year doing more with less? Marketing has to do things differently.”

We’re going to offer more specific on how marketers should make this transformation backed up by selected data from the 2010 survey at our webcast, The Year of Marketing Transformation: ITSMA’s 2010 State of the Profession Address on January 26.

In the meantime, do you agree that marketing needs a complete transformation? If so, how would you do it?

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