Tag Archives: messaging

My latest article in GigaOM

16 Sep

It’s been quite the week on the Kosher Bacon Blog

First, my article, “5 Things That Don’t Make You An Entrepreneur (and 5 Things That Do)” was picked up by StartupDigest, and subsequently received an incredible number of page views, retweets and mentions as a result.  I’m very grateful for all the support and feedback the article received.

Next, a different article I wrote was just published by one of the top tech publications, GigaOM.  The article, “Enterprises find some valuable (and kinda awesome) uses for employees’ smartphones” lays out part of our vision for Zenput and enterprise mobility generally.

Our goal with the article isn’t so much to generate business directly (although that’s always a nice side-effect), but rather to start a conversation in an area of tech that’s ready to explode in growth.  Hopefully we can develop some thought leadership in the space. I’ll probably write more about this strategy in the future, why we think it’s necessary/useful, and its results.  But for now, please read the article and let me know your thoughts!


Why Is Google Glass Already A Marketing Disaster?

9 May

Google did not explain Glass’ compelling uses or discuss privacy honestly, and so it gave up control of the conversation.  But all is not lost…

Remember when products used to get lampooned after launch, when they were already successful?  Google Glass is getting pilloried, and that’s before you can buy the device.   And people are only starting to talk about the creepiness factor.  Google can overcome this huge messaging challenge, but only if it reasserts control of the conversation.

The Loooooong Pre-Launch Caused Google to Lose Control of the Message

Google Glass, a pair of glasses with a tiny display, video camera, and mobile computing functionality, has been openly discussed by Google for about 18 months. Google made a very public display of Glass’ potential in spectacular fashion  last June, with a skydiver flying into Google’s I/O convention all the time live-streaming from the glasses.

But why did Google publicize this so early?  Good question.  Partly, Google needed developers.  They wanted to generate worldwide attention so that developers could ponder the many different potential uses for wearable computing.  Unlike the iPhone, which married an mp3 player, a cell phone and a portable computer (as a converged standalone product), there isn’t an immediate mass-market need for a wearable device.  So Google needs to come up with some killer uses.

But even so, Google intentionally generated consumer-facing publicity.  Considering the product was half-baked, ugly, and lacked many compelling use cases, Google immediately lost control of the conversation.  Huffington Post has collected at least nine humorous parodies of Google Glass (bottom of this page).

Now that developers and journalists have gotten their hands on Google Glass, more blogs and articles are poking fun at the dorkiness of Google Glass.  And SNL jumped in one the joke with the video above.  Is all publicity good publicity, when there’s no product on the market yet?

And then there’s the Creepiness factor

I remember the exact moment I saw an iPhone in person for the first time in 2007.  I was at a coffee shop in San Francisco.  Someone sat down next to us with one of the newly-released, first generation (and still almost mythical) half phone, half mp3 player, half computer, touchscreen device Apple had just released.  It was like being starstruck.  I asked the owner whether I could play with it. (By the way, who does that?!)  I pinched-to-zoom, swiped across, and did all the other things that in hindsight seem so obvious and intuitive, but at the time were so groundbreaking.

By contrast, a few months ago I saw a Googler walk into a restaurant wearing a prototype of Google’s new glasses/wearable computer/Robocop device.  The friend I was having lunch with, and I, had the same reaction: “Is she recording us? Is she using facial recognition software to find out who we are?” Or, “Has she even noticed we’re right here in front of her, or is she just reading dlisted right now?”  I saw someone else wearing Google Glass on the street the other day, and had a very similar reaction.  My head turned on a paranoid swivel as I walked by.

It isn’t possible to tell if someone wearing Google glasses is recording you or not.   You also can’t tell what information the wearer is looking at while they’re talking to you.

(Sidenote – brilliant/scary Google Glass app idea: a dating app so your friends can “be there” with you on a first date, help you sound more charming, etc.)

In short, Google Glass can really make other people feel uncomfortable and is “creating paranoia.”  From a marketing point of view, even though Google is selling the product to the wearer, potential buyers will be deterred by the fear of being labeled dorky and creepy by those around them.

Re-asserting control of the conversation

There are many legitimate and potentially revolutionary uses for Google Glass.  But Google needs to get back on top of the conversation now.   It’s surprising that a company with as much marketing power and sophistication as Google has lost so much control over the message for its own product before it’s even on the market.

Here’s what Google needs to do:

1.  Warm the heart.

Right now Google Glass is cold, dorky and creepy.  The message needs to stop being “Google Glass records you in public.”  Give Google Glass to some doctors in remote areas that need real-time help from experts during surgery.   Give Google Glass to a climber about to summit a never-before-reached mountain and allow a worldwide audience to share the exhilaration.  These aren’t compelling use cases for the average consumer, but will shift the conversation away from creepy public recording.

2. Lead on privacy rather than being evasive. 

Google has been essentially silent on the privacy implications of Glass.  CEO Eric Schmidt is on record as having said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”  This is not a good way of framing the conversation, particularly for a company with a history of many, many, many privacy violations.

Ideally, Google would find a way for the device to inform people being recorded/photo’d.  A red LED may be too antiquated, but they need to find a way to manage the creepiness factor.

Moreover, Google should take the thought leadership here, coming up with recommendations on acceptable and unacceptable uses for Google Glass.  The laissez-faire alternative to industry leadership is having governments and private entities enact laws and rules regulating Google Glass, which will undoubtedly be less favorable to Google.

3.  Figure out ASAP how Google Glass is useful.

Again, it’s hard not to compare Apple’s approach to Google’s attempt at marketing.   Whereas Apple historically stage-managed with great precision how its products were publicized, the first images many people are seeing of Google Glass are weird photos of Robert Scoble in the shower and three VCs looking like Star Trek extras.

Google needs to shift the conversation from its current status (there’s literally a Tumblr called White Men Wearing Google Glasses) to a place where the product’s everyday uses are the focus.  If Google fails to manage this well, Wired magazine may be right that Google Glass will be nothing more than the next Segway, an over-hyped and under-utilized product that never gained widespread consumer traction.

I suspect that won’t happen here, but only if Google changes the conversation, and changes it now.

Make the Complex Simpler, Part II – Removing Obstacles to Action

3 May

Bump’s CEO explains Cognitive Overhead: why we expect too much from our audiences, and how to fix the problem.

cognitive overhead

This is Part II in a series on “Making the Complex Simpler,” whose inspiration came after I was asked to help students at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business prepare for their final presentations/pitches to VCs.  Part I is here.

This post owes a lot to David Lieb, CEO of Bump, and his brilliant article about Cognitive Overhead.  I want to summarize and then adapt his thinking in terms of strategic communications.  David’s perspective is invaluable to anyone designing a consumer internet product, or for that matter any product or process designed for large numbers of users.  But it has clear application to effectively communicating messages, especially when the goal is to produce a specific action from the target audience.

David’s message, in short: eliminate all unnecessary user thinking.  Do as much thinking for the user as possible.

Sounds obvious? Achieving that result can be surprisingly complicated and counter-intuitive.

What Is Cognitive Overhead?

Remember Amazon’s PayPhrase payment option (see image below)?  Amazon thought it would be a good way to eliminate a couple of steps during the checkout process, and make things simpler.  You could type a personalized PayPhrase on any Amazon product page, and skip the checkout process altogether – the product would be ordered based on a specific payment method and delivery address you’d previously specified.  The thinking was that this would significantly streamline checkout.

amazon payphrase

But I remember looking at it, and wondering: what is this and what do I need to?  Sure, I could have figured it out.  But that’s the point – I had to figure it out.  And I never did.  And apparently, nor did many other users, which is why Amazon canned PayPhrases last year.

That’s exactly what “Cognitive Overhead” is.  “Cognitive Overhead” refers to all the leaps or thinking required for a user to take a desired outcome.  The more steps a user has to take while engaging with a product, or the harder it is for a user to figure something out during the process, the less likely the user is to take the desired action.  And when you have thousands or millions of users, Cognitive Overhead can have big costs.

Amazon’s Cognitive Overhead for PayPhrase was actually highlighted by the “What’s this?” box.  Amazon was subconsciously telling users “you don’t know what this is, and you’re going to have to learn how to use it.”  In hindsight, it’s easy to see how Amazon created a ton of Cognitive Overhead and the product didn’t work out the way Amazon expected.

How to Get to Cognitive Simplicity

David doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to overcoming Cognitive Overhead.  That’s not surprising – if there was an obvious answer, there wouldn’t be any overhead in the first place.   But his suggestions are surprising, because many of them are diametrically opposite to what you’d expect.

  1. “Make People Work More Not Less.”  This is a brilliant insight.  If you force users to take a simple additional step like pressing a button, they become more engaged. If they’re more engaged, they’re thinking more, and less likely to get confused or left behind.  With David’s own app, Bump, users have to physically touch their phones to exchange their contact information.  Of course, there’s a delicate balance in getting the right amount of involvement, but the big picture message is that automation is not the be-all and end-all.
  2. Give users positive feedback.  This one is pretty straightforward.  Let the user know they successfully completed the task.  Slot machines in casinos don’t need to make those electronic gaming noises when you pull down on the handle to play the game, but the mere act of spinning the wheels generates excitement and itself becomes a small reward (as opposed to winning).
  3. Slow your process down.   Another great insight.  Sometimes speed is everything.  If Google took 5 seconds to return search results, but Bing took 0.001 second, Google would be out of business.  But for tasks that we do less frequently, slowing the process down can be beneficial.  David points to academic studies showing that “slowing down results on travel search websites can actually increase perceived user value” because it creates the perception that the service is doing hard number crunching.  I must admit to having the same reaction when using SoundHound or Shazam, where the whole process can take 10-20 seconds to identify a song (that may actually be a case where it literally takes that long though).
  4. Test your product on the old, the young and the drunk (!).  People who are cognitively impaired or undeveloped can help you identify leaps you’ve made, that are not necessarily obvious to everyone else.
  5. Ask users to verbalize what your product does and the process.  Another good one.  Sometimes when users explain things in their own words, it can cast your product and processes in a different light to how the core team is looking at it.

There are probably plenty more strategies like this, and I don’t consider this list comprehensive by any means.

But understanding Cognitive Overhead is as vitally important for effective communications as it is for the actual products, services or ideas being marketed.   If you have spent hundreds of hours on a project, it is nearly impossible to eliminate all of your cognitive leaps and assumptions because you are so absorbed in the work.

Take email (which is generally a terrible marketing tool, by the way).  If you ask someone “why are you writing this email” they will tell you “because I want [audience] to do [specified action].”  But then when they sit down to write the email, how do they start it?  “Dear Joe, How are you?…”  And they end up writing a letter, or extended essay.  But that ends up diluting or confusing the “ask” – the single action you want the recipient to take.

Surely, it makes more sense to start by writing down the “ask”, and then thinking about what minimal amount of information the recipient needs in order to get from their current state of inaction to the point of action.  That process forces you to place yourself in the other person’s shoes, and figure out what connections or leaps you need to be make induce them to act.  In particular, figuring out how to get someone involved or actively engaged (David’s point #1 above) is likely the most important point – but is notoriously difficult to do with email.

I’m going to write a ton more about this, because it really is vital to effective strategic communications.  It’s crucial to think about Cognitive Overhead and what mental obstacles stand in the way of getting your audience from inaction to action.

Screw the Polar Bears: How to Effectively Frame “Greater Good” Messages

26 Mar


New Research Is Clear – Appealing to Americans’ Sense of Independence Works;   Appealing to the “Greater Good” Actually De-Motivates!

One of my core messages about Communications Strategies is: Be Authentic! How do I reconcile that with the following new research from Stanford – to motivate Americans to do something for the greater good, you have to appeal to their independence and individuality.  Surely, this encourages dishonest and disingenuous communications strategies?  Not really.

This research recently came up in the context of the difficulties President Obama has had selling gun control to Americans, even in the wake of Sandy Hook.  Obama was quoted as arguing:

We don’t live in isolation. We live in a society, a government of and by and for the people. We are responsible for each other.

So what’s wrong with that?  Well, the Stanford research found that when people (specifically white Americans) are asked to perform tasks explained to them as being part of the greater good, it actually demotivates them.   It doesn’t have a neutral effect – it actually undermines their performance.  Wow.

Independence is apparently so wired into Americans’ DNA that anything perceived to restrict individual liberties just doesn’t resonate.  In the gun control debate, this hurts liberals.  However, in another hot button image, gay marriage, one reason the liberal position has gained popularity is because it actually appeals to individual rights and freedoms (less government restriction on how people live their lives).

So, as far as communications strategies, here is the significance of this research for me:

Focus on direct individual benefits to specific audiences, rather than intangible abstract universal goals.

For someone passionate about climate change, talk less about polar bears.  Instead, tailor messages to the disruptions in specific groups’ current ways of life.  For example, emphasize to skiers and snowboarders in Northern California that Lake Tahoe’s snow could well disappear over the coming decades unless more actions are taken to prevent climate change.  For gun control, talk less about “gun control,” and more about individual safety, reduction in violence, and billions of dollars of savings for taxpayers from the reduced deaths and injuries.  To get your selfish friends to take a flu shot, ditch the argument that they could be spluttering next to your grandma on the bus, and instead focus on days they will lose of work, activities they may miss by being sick, and the costs of hospitalizations.

So does this encourage inauthentic messaging when the “greater good” is actually the “true” goal?  Not really.  The “selfish” selling points described above are all assumed to be true.  And in many cases, those individual rewards, if aggregated together (by motivating people to take the specified actions) will actually produce the underlying societal benefits.

The American military got into the act years ago, with their early 2001 “Army of One” recruiting campaign, which replaced the famous “Be All That You Can Be” slogan.  The point was to highlight the career opportunities that the army could produce, and to make the army seem less dehumanizing.  The then-Secretary of the Army admitted to the New York Times the contradiction of selling individuality to recruits for the ultimate collective unit.  But he understood the need to effectively frame the message to get those recruits in the first place.  “They are going to get the ethic of selfless service, duty, honor and country in basic training and in every unit they are assigned to . . . But you’ve got to get them in the door… And you’ve got to let them know that even though it is about selfless service, they are still individuals.”

I will leave it to others to analyze whether all this reveals something dark and disappointing about human motivations.  But, the take home is this: to motivate people to support the greater good, focus on individual benefits.  If you’re uncomfortable with that, realize that those small rewards, when all taken together, are just the flip-side of the same coin!

Why Songza Brilliantly “Gets” Its Users

20 Mar

The music app creates an emotional connection with users – all startups should take note.

Many startups try to create products that fill large unmet needs.  It’s not a good idea to “to solve problems no one has.”  But creating a functional website, app, or business that solves a real problem is only the start.  The best products or services understand the need to create an emotional connection with users, because this creates “experiences that deeply engage customers.” Music streaming service Songza is a brilliant example of this, as both its app download and user retention statistics reveal.

Understanding what a user really wants and needs creates meaningful connections and success.

Songza’s Unique Approach

For Songza, the above images of its various landing screens explain everything you need to know about the app. Songza’s unique insight is simple and brilliant.  Many people want to listen to something, but don’t know what.  Songza doesn’t force you to choose a genre or an artist, a la Pandora.

Instead, Songza’s “concierge” asks what you’re up to. It already knows the time of day.  So, on a Friday night, it knows you’re probably either in the mood to relax, getting ready to go out, or possibly “entertaining cool friends.”   On a weekday afternoon, you either need a pick-me-up, or need to crank out work.

After clicking on your mood, Songza gives you a couple more choices to help narrow things down, and then – boom – it has a ready-made playlist for you.  (My favorite weekday productivity mix is called “Code Your Face Off”.)

This approach is so effective that the Clear Channel-owned iHeartRadio app decided to blatantly rip off Songza’s interface, probably after learning about Songza’s millions of active users.

Why is this approach so effective?

Is Songza’s music selection better than Spotify’s collection? No.  Is Songza’s musical expertise any better than Pandora’s?  Probably not.  So why is Songza so brilliant?  Because it understands the user better.

The Songza team figured out that many casual music listeners want to listen to music that reflects how they feel, or want to feel.  They combined the “mood” insight with the equally sharp observation that people’s moods correlate to the time of day, and day of the week, and that most people follow somewhat similar schedules. After a while, a lot of music listeners get tired of having to ask themselves “okay, which artist or genre do I really want to base my listening choices on today?”  Songza instead asks you what you are feeling.  When it comes to creating an emotional connection between a consumer and a brand, can it get any better than that?

This doesn’t only apply to music.

But now you’re thinking “that’s great for a music app, but this doesn’t help with my boring enterprise software or cloud security app.”  WRONG!  Even for B2B, you are dealing with people.  Yes, you have to be cost competitive and offer a compelling product.  But decision-makers are people with emotions too, whether they admit it or not.  And those emotions influence decisions.

Take WuFoo for example.  Could anything be more boring than a website that helps you build online forms?  No!  So what did WuFoo do?  They made it look fun.  They combine usability and a beautiful interface with little bits of humor, and they sprinkle exclamation marks next to anything boring (Login!).  Yes, you still have to build the forms yourself, but WuFoo makes it as pleasurable as possible.


There are lots and lots and lots of examples from both the online and offline worlds of companies successfully using emotional engagement to differentiate themselves and create more meaningful connections with their customer.  Emotional engagement completely dovetails with storytelling as an increasingly vital piece of your successful communications strategy.

Why Nick Bilton Only Loves His Mother 140 Characters At A Time

11 Mar

A NYT reporter highlights how much thought people don’t put into their digital communications   

Nick Bilton’s new NYT article about digital etiquette was mind-blowing for anyone interested in communications strategies.  He identified a growing trend of intolerance for numerous inefficient or redundant types of messages.  Whether you welcome this streamlining or find hyper-efficient messaging to be dehumanizing, it is certainly provokative and worth keeping in mind before hitting send.

The full article is worth a read, but, in addition to revealing that he communicates with his mom mainly via Twitter (!), Bilton’s take-homes were:

  • Don’t leave voicemails, and never ever send an email telling someone you just left a voicemail
  • Never ask anyone anything you can look up on Google yourself 
  • Don’t bother with “Dear….” at the beginning of emails or sign-offs at the end
  • Don’t text someone a question that takes more than a grunt to reply to.   

His points were actually a bit more subtle than that, and he suggested that a lot depended on the audience.  Someone older would expect more of the formalities and P’s and Q’s than someone in college.  

The article struck home as remarkably intolerant (as well as amusing):

I once asked a friend something easily discovered on the Internet, and he responded with a link to lmgtfy.com, which stands for Let Me Google That For You.


But that intolerance was probably the point. 

On the one hand, it’s probably not necessary to be a dick like Bilton’s friend.  On the other hand, people are inundated with emails, FB messages and notifications, tweets, DMs and so much more.  Many people receive work and personal emails in the same gmail account, only making the “noise” all the more difficult to manage. 

And that was Bilton’s real point.  

Particularly in the business context, it’s never been more important to put thought into the method and substance of communications for them to gain any attention at all, let alone to make them really stand out.  

I’m going to put together some future posts on this subject.  A blog article about writing emails might be the most boring subject possible.  But that’s why few people pay attention to it, and most  suck at it surprisingly badly.  So there will probably be some interesting things to say.  Stay tuned!  


Make the Complex Simpler, Part I – Storytelling

7 Mar

Whether selling wine or pitching a cow poop startup, audiences are more receptive to internalizing new ideas when the speaker begins with a story.


I was asked last week to help several groups of students at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business prepare for their final presentations/pitches to VCs, as part of the Ignite program.  These students were terrifically talented, but their ability to convey their ideas was still very raw.  I got very confused listening to pitches ranging from molecular diagnostics to monetizing agricultural waste (aka cow poop).

It’s inspired me to put together a series of posts about taking complicated ideas and creating simple, digestible messages that others can understand.

The ability to convey information succinctly and effectively is one of the most difficult but important skills to master.  In my careers as a trial lawyer and a startup CEO, I’ve found it vital to improve myself continually in this regard.   One of the best ways to make the complex simpler is through stories.  This post is somewhat geared towards presentations but, as the next story reveals, is applicable to many different forms of communicating ideas.  


The San Francisco Chronicle recently ran an article about how storytelling was changing the wine industry.

“There’s a rising generation of consumers, part of the Millennial surge, who are compelled by a wine’s story, not its score.”  No more floral bouquets, or tasting notes with hints of oak and vanilla.  Instead, the new generations of wine drinkers want to know the winemakers, the vineyards, and “a winemaker’s ethical and technical decisions.”  The article suggested that both wineries and wine critics should take notice of this change in consumer demand and adapt accordingly. 

Telling stories is as vital for startups and scientists as it is for established businesses.  Psychologists have studied the powerful effect storytelling has on the brain.  In short, we listen to stories on a deeper, more emotional level than many other types of information.  We relate much more easily to human stories – they absorb us and become embedded within us on a level that cold facts and data do not.  It’s no coincidence that most religious texts take the form of stories, political candidates hawk their autobiographies, and parents teach children with stories.   Storytelling simplifies and humanizes otherwise difficult, abstract concepts. 

Direct Benefits of Storytelling

When communicating an idea that is unfamiliar to the audience, telling a story is almost always the most effective way to begin.  There are a number of direct reasons why this is so:

  • Focuses on what’s most important. Telling a story forces the speaker to identify the most signficant pieces of information upfront.  I recently heard a pitch for an iPhone app for restaurants.  The presenter started with a story about a restaurant owner and customer, which cut right to the chase about the problem owners face and the potential solution.  It didn’t cover every detail, every use case, or all the intricacies of creating a platform to maximize restaurant revenue and assist consumer menu choices, but it didn’t need to.  It was instantly understandable and allowed the listener to quickly drill down on the most important parts of the business model.
  • Discards irrelevant/complicating information.  When you work on a project all day, every day, you get bogged down in details.  I’ve seen many presentations that start off on the wrong note, because the speakers can’t separate the tiny details currently in their minds from the big picture.  Starting with a story forces you to discard that distracting minutiae.
  • Helps the audience relate.  Everyone is human.  Not only are stories effective for sharing ideas, they also unconsciously signal to the other person that there’s another human being behind this business, project, or idea.  Never underestimate the importance of this.

Other important reasons to begin with a story

In addition to those direct reasons, there are several more subtle reasons for telling a story, especially in the context of beginning a presentation, or pitch, when the speaker and audience are not well acquainted. 

  • It’s easier for you.  People naturally get nervous when they begin a presentation.  Telling stories does not require the same precise language as some of the more detailed concepts that will follow.  Starting with a story allows the speaker to get comfortable with the audience and settle down before getting into the nitty gritty.
  • Your audience needs to get used to you.   I recently presented my medical startup to a group of 20 angel investors in the midwest.  I have a mutt of an accent, having lived half my life in England and half on the West Coast. I lead off the pitch with a story about my dentist.  It honestly wasn’t my best delivery and the story ran a bit long.  But by the end of my story, the audience was used to a half-Limey with a weird accent and was fully absorbed (and told us afterwards they wanted to proceed with us).  Telling a story upfront allows the audience to “settle in” and get used to your individual characteristics (voice, haircut, mismatched socks) by the time you get to the meat and potatoes of your presentation.
  • People pay attention to different things.  I’ve always been amazed at the questions I get after presentations.  I often have to bite my tongue when my instinct is to say “were ya listening at all?”  The truth is, people listen in different ways, and listen for different things.  Some fully engage and “get” everything.  Others are still thinking about their previous meeting, what they said on last night’s first date, or how long it is until dinner.  When talking to any sort of group, the goal is to capture as many people as possible, and explaining ideas in different ways and at different levels of abstraction can help achieve that goal.  Someone only half-listening will be able to follow a story much better than a complex scientific explanation.  

What the Story Should and Should Not Capture

The story should be short, simple, and very high level.  Describe your business or idea in one sentence.  And then build a story around that and that alone. In the iPhone app example above, the story involved the restaurant owner and a customer who walked into the restaurant.  The speaker even gave them names.  (Not necessary, but sometimes useful).  The story provided a single use case.  In other words, only one example.

Personal stories are the best, because they introduce you as well as the idea you are conveying.  But only tell personal stories if they’re authentic and believable.  Don’t make up a story about you if it’s not plausibly true.   

And finally, stories don’t need to capture every nuance.  They likely would not hold up to scientific scrutiny and they’re not always 100% perfect analogies.  They don’t need to be – they’re just stories meant to introduce the subject to people unfamiliar with it.   Don’t over-think things, but do try to capture the essence of the idea with your story.

You’ve made it to the end of this long post.  If you made it this far…

… it was probably in part because of the stories.  By my count, there were 7 or 8 stories and personal tidbits.  I tried to start with a story, introduce different sections with stories, and throw in some anecdotes when things started getting dry.  If you got this far, it hopefully shows that storytelling really does work!

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