When Word-of-Mouth Advertising Isn’t Enough

December 31st, 2010

The number one way small businesses advertise and market is through word-of-mouth. This works because the owners of the business are almost always involved in the direct day to day business. They are the primary face of the business to the customers and clients.

This works extremely well if you see your customers every day or every week. Membership in the Chamber of Commerce and service clubs like Rotary, Kiwanas, Lions Club, and so forth are one of the main ways of doing this. When the subject of printed apparel comes up, you are the natural name that comes to mind.

This only works to a point. As the business grows, it becomes too much for the owner to do it all. Sooner or later a front office person is hired and they begin to take on some of the customer service duties. As hard as they may try, it just isn’t the same as being an owner. Now instead of seeing the owner every time they do business with you, they may deal with the customer service person.

As the order volume grows customer contact time decreases further. When this happens, you begin to lose the connection to the customer and that constant presence in their mind. If printed apparel comes up in a conversation, you may not get mentioned, or if you are, it doesn’t have the same enthusiastic response it used to have when there was the owner connection.

Over time, the situation continues to degrade, and WOM becomes less and less effective. It becomes an effort to maintain your existing customer base, much less grow the business with any kind of confidence.

To improve this situation, it’s a simple matter of increasing your contact time with your customer base. It today’s economy one of the most effective ways of doing this is e-mail marketing. Companies like Constant Contact are an excellent example. They allow you to create electronic newsletters and follow-up campaigns where you can keep your customer base informed of exactly what is going on in the business and present new opportunities, ideas, case studies, promotions, and so forth. You don’t have to be selling here, it’s more about the contact time.

The beauty of e-mail marketing is the automation of it. The cost is very inexpensive, and done right, you can significantly extend your reach with the existing customers you have. With the addition of “tell a friend” scripts, your customers simply have to click a button, add the email address of their friend, and off you go to someone new.

This is a very simple overview of a very powerful tool. In 2011 you’ll be seeing a lot more posts from me on how to automate your marketing without looking automated and impersonal.

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Being Expert: Bringing Personal Value to Those Around You

November 24th, 2010

I’ve written recently about how our economy is fundamentally changing. Everything seems to be disrupted and in a state of chaos. Normally routine business and established practices no longer function as they used to. Entire industries are being transformed along with the people in them. This brings me to the subject of today’s post, being an expert in your space and how you bring value to those around you.

In the past, our value was defined by how much we knew combined with the experience we accumulated over time. If you are truly an expert, every hour of everyday brings new experience and personal growth.

Those that find themselves in trouble today are the ones who learned their primary skill set a long time ago and have resisted learning more. They simply took what they were trained in and used it over and over, in a static kind of way. They would become more proficient at their daily performance and execution, much in the same way a golfer gets better at their swing if they practice the same swing over and over a thousand times. This is call “grooving.” Once you’re in a groove it is very difficult to get out of it. Grooving works very well when the skill does not require change to remain valuable.

In the knowledge or professional arena, our value was defined by how much knowledge we had and how specialized that knowledge was. If it was difficult material that took a long time to master, all the better. This meant we could charge more for our understanding of this knowledge. Think doctors, lawyers, and CPA’s. You could also think of master craftsmen as well.

This is the way we used to position ourselves and bring value, have knowledge that is hard to find, access, duplicate, and master.

Things are different now. With the rate at which technology, markets, and economies are changing, simply having the knowledge or experience is no longer enough. To remain an “expert” you must remain relevant to those you serve. To maintain your position of authority and value requires another skill set few truly master. It begins with the ability to be observational and recognize which elements of change are at work.

Simply observing isn’t the answer. The true answer is the ability to draw upon your knowledge and experience to synthesize new opportunities and solutions. This is an amazing time to be alive. There is so much disruptive change and technology around us.

The current recession and underlying permanent unemployment are perfect examples. The economies that are recovering quickly are the ones with low cost labor that can do many of the things our own skilled blue collar labor used to do. Now even our white collar workers are being outsourced by low cost offshore labor.

With rapid, pervasive change everywhere, we all have the opportunity to re-invent and redefine our value and skills. Our individual expertise comes from the ability to respond to these disruptive changes with innovative solutions that bring value to our customers and clients. As uncomfortable as change is, this is an amazing time of opportunity for those that can recognized and innovate new solutions.

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What Your Customers Really Want

November 5th, 2010

If you’ve been in business for any period of time, you may think you know what your customers really want. We draw our conclusions from past experience of what our customers have purchased. We tend to look at the the most popular colors, styles, and sizes. On the surface this is a logical, but not necessarily accurate conclusion.

This type of purchase analysis is mostly based on simple observation. While there’s nothing wrong with this approach, we can go much deeper. Doing so helps us to gain a broader understanding of the true motivations of our customer base.

As an example. The guy that goes to the hardware store to buy a 1/4″ drill bit, doesn’t really want the drill bit. He really wants the 1/4″ hole that results from the use of the drill bit. Further, he really wants the result the 1/4″ hole will enable for him. And so it is when people buy printed t-shirts. They really don’t want the shirt with the message on it, they want what the results that come from wearing the shirt with the message.

While this may seem obvious, the implications go much deeper. Let’s ask ourselves what are the benefits of a message on a shirt? It’s a form of media and the message is seen by many people when the shirt is worn. At least that’s what the customer hopes for. In reality, the message is mostly lost because the graphic design element is so weak that the image is nothing more than visual noise, resulting in it blending in with everything around it.

The lesson for us is to make sure the graphics, colors, and body style are sufficiently powerful enough to garner viewer attention. The graphics don’t have to be complex or multi-color, but they do have to be striking enough so as to stand out. But this simply isn’t enough.

The second element of the garment graphic is that it has to tell a story. The old Chinese saying “A picture is worth a thousand words” is absolutely right on. Yet, most apparel graphics don’t tell a story. Their message is shallow and often unclear. Remember the person wearing the shirt is presenting a message to the viewer. How is that message going to connect with the viewer? Is there an emotional bond? Is it working on a deeper level than the obvious advertising and basic facts it presents?

When you dig deeper into the end motivation of your customers, you put yourself into the position of selling more, selling more effectiveness, and selling results. The garment and the graphics are a means to an end. When you get clarity as to what that end is, you end up selling much more to the customer to satisfy their desired end result.

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Why The Economy Isn’t Working Like It Used To

November 1st, 2010

We’ve all been through a very rough ride over the last two years. Some are surviving, holding on by their fingernails, others have failed, and still others have show some degree of growth. How is this possible? Being a student of life and an active observer, several things have become apparent and i’d like to share my observations.

First, there has been a fundamental change in the way we do things. It’s been developing for a number of years, but most of us aren’t fully aware of the significance. This has to do with change. In the old economy, our goal was to find a better way, prove it, refine it, apply it, and then make a gazillion widgets using these new methods or tools over and over until we made the next innovative extension of the idea. We’ve been doing just this for thousands of years, and it’s worked well because we’ve built our economies on the principle that knowledge is potential economic power. If guarded, and applied carefully, we can use this knowledge for our economic advantage.

Our patent system, professional trades, and even our higher education system are based on the controlled delivery of scarce knowledge. When knowledge was hard to find, and difficult to master, it was very easy to design an economy where knowledge could be exploited in this manner. We established an education system where the pure knowledge was hypothesized, fabricated, and proven. Later, often years later, this raw knowledge was commercialized and protected by the patent system so that technology originators could recover the development costs and profit in a protected environment for a certain number of years.

Today, all of that has changed. Along with the geometric growth of computer processor speed follows the same geometric growth of knowledge. Couple this blinding expansion of information with instant accessibility via search engines and we upset the economic model we’ve been using for thousands of years.

Things are moving too fast to achieve any real long term profit. In the printing industries it used to be that a company would buy a huge printing press (which we affectionately call “big iron.”) Their market would only be marginally established. Over a period of time, their huge investment in this big iron would pay off because of the opportunity it presented not only to the company, but to the marketplace. Simply having the capability was enough to attract new business. Often business would develop organically, independent of the actual marketing effort. Pricing was based on quality, service, and price. You could have any two of the three. Now, we need all three AND we’ve added smaller runs and faster turn times besides.

Today, that scenario is gone. Digital technologies are in continuous change. Products are obsolete as soon as they hit the market. Worse, the next generation digital is twice as fast at half the cost. It’s therefore an economic disadvantage to be the first one in. The only exception to this is if you have a fully developed marketing plan, with customers, and a backlog of orders in place. In this case you have a chance of success, but it is only fleeting at best.

The key to success in today’s information driven, expanding digital economy is to have a market that is expanding as fast as the technology. This has become an exceedingly illusive and difficult thing to find. In fact, it’s almost impossible to attain given the general state of the global economy today.

What will allow for success under these conditions requires a shift in our thinking. It’s clear we’ll need to do things differently. There are two things needed to enable this kind of growth. The first is to greatly develop and hone your skill of using Search to find and reach new customers. This is typically done through the use of keyword searches. Our ability to position our goods and services so that a big enough pool of potential customers can find you and buy your offerings will be essential.

In the old economy we did this by broadcasting who we were and how great we are. We would blast our messages out to the world in massive numbers, hoping enough potential customers would find us to sustain our business. That too has changed. Today, our customers are searching for solutions. To succeed, we must be seen as a relevant solution.

To accomplish this.

The second, and far more difficult challenge is to overcome what I call “legacy baggage.” These are the holdover thoughts, ideas, and practices of the old economy. This is tremendously difficult to achieve because our employees have been taught to learn once, use over and over. It is exactly what the old economy was built on. It no longer works. Today, employees must be retrained to be open minded and actively embrace change. It almost never happens that way. The reason is simple.

Most blue collar workers, and many white collar workers have abandoned continuous learning. School and learning threaten them. They don’t want to risk being exposed as less than competent. They don’t want t make a mistake or appear to be weak or dumb. In the process, there is a built-in resistance to anything new. The culture and environment of change is critical to your success. Yet, management rarely knows what they want to do, or how they’re actually going to accomplish it. They’re used to mandating by directive. That approach no longer works.

The resistance to change, or rather the resistance to the acceptance of new knowledge, is at the core of our ability to survive. This is why new start-ups and even offshore competition often get the new business. They don’t have the entrenched resistance to change. The one-two punch of “not invented here” and “we’ve never done it this way before” are the killers of innovation. The legacy baggage of the old economy are pulling us under. Look at your own organization and ask yourself honestly, it this isn’t the case for you. Recognizing the situation is the first step toward finding a solution.

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Going Beyond Ink on Cotton

October 28th, 2010

In my last post, I talked about the t shirt as a commodity and how it is much more than that, it is really the media of personal expression. This is a pretty high concept and would have difficulty standing on it’s own. Long gone are the days of having shirts printed for a promotion or advertising and having them readily embraced by the market. If you’re a well known brand, or have an exceptionally hot topic, it may be possible to have a successful promotion with little effort, but this is usually not the case now.

Indeed, for decorated apparel to really work it needs a couple of things to happen. The first is to have graphics that are so striking that they will stop the average person on the street. The graphics don’t need to be complicated, but they do need to impress. The need for great graphic design is critical. Simple clip art is rarely enough anymore.

The image needs to be printed crisply and cleanly. Registration and image quality have to be right on. Mediocre execution of the imprint is a sure recipe for not getting noticed. This is what separates the really great decorators from the sea of average printers out there.

Secondly, you need a story behind the image. Remember that the person wearing your shirt is wearing it for a reason. They identify with the message that’s on the shirt. What is that message? To use t shirts as media you need to be communicating the story and CONNECTING the story with the person wearing the shirt. This means they have to have some connection to the experience behind the graphic.

This is really easy to accomplish with an event like a festival, walk-a-thon, 10K run, etc. Pick a theme for the event and create the graphics to accompany it. The better the graphics, the better the connection to the event and the experience of the event.

If you’re doing images for advertising, it’s a bit more complicated. It’s not about a blatant commercial image, it’s more about the professionalism of the company and what they stand for. This is your chance to dialog with the business and see if they have a compelling vision of who they are and what they bring to the marketplace through their goods and services. You can learn a lot about a company and your own business through this process.

This is only the beginning. Creating compelling graphics that stop the viewer on the street and start a conversation is an art in itself. Anything you do now will be a starting point on a journey to become expert in this craft. But the starting point will be more than your competition is doing and it will also begin to differentiate you from the commodity mass of printers out there.

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T Shirts as a Commodity

July 6th, 2010

It never ceases to amaze me what the general public thinks of printed t shirts. Actually, it’s quite instructional and there’s a lot to be learned from their reactions. There are some very stereotypical perceptions that don’t seem to change over time.

The first is that anybody can print t shirts and it just isn’t that hard. I think this comes from exposure to “silkscreen” in a high school or college art class. It can be a very basic process and, in fact, many people do print t shirts in this kind of environment. However, there’s a big step from the art class to the commercial space.

Second is the perception that t shirts are ink on cotton or ink on underwear. They’re cheap and you can get them cheap just about anywhere you look. This is an obvious observation and it’s supported by the fact that many starving t shirt printers will indeed discount their orders to very, very low prices.

Third, t shirts are a commodity. A commodity is a product or service that’s easily interchangeable with the competition and there’s no difference. Commodities are sold based on price. The only differentiator is the price. The winner is the vendor with the lowest price and availability of the commodity.

All of these perceptions are true on the surface, but they breakdown on close examination. Too many companies who produced printed apparel think of themselves as “t shirt printers.” If you’re one of them, you’re relegating yourself to the world of commoditization and sentencing yourself to a world of price based competition.

My point is, printed t shirts are anything BUT a commodity. When your customers come to you and ask “What’s your lowest price on. . . ” you set yourself up to become a victim of the commodity game. Rather, your position should be to find out more about what the customer actually wants. Their motivation is to get the best possible deal, NOT the lowest price.

Think about this for a minute. Study after study have shown when consumers are faced with buying decisions, they will most frequently pick the middle alternative, and not the highest or the lowest offering. Even if they come to you asking for the lowest price, they’re really seeking the lowest price for what their needs really are.

Here’s the catch. The average consumer rarely knows what they really want. The path out of the commoditization game is education. Knowing what questions to ask the customer to help them clarify their real needs starts the ball rolling in your direction. When you combine this with a wide range of options, the customer now has a vastly increased range of possible solutions. You move away from the single color imprint on a white t shirt and enter into an entirely different competitive landscape.

When you sit down and really think about what you deliver, it isn’t ink on cotton or ink on underwear. You’re delivering wearable media where the message connects your client to their community or customers. That connection is achieved through the graphics and the message. The ink on cotton aspect is only the vehicle to delivery that message. How you choose to deliver it, the printing options and the garment options are what allow you to move beyond the commodity aspect of the common perception.

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On Being an Entrepreneur

June 13th, 2010

Over the years I’ve done several entrepreneurship programs for universities and colleges. I find it very interesting the academic perspective on entrepreneurship. Often they are missing key elements. It’s one thing to read case studies and talk about serial entrepreneurs, but it is quite another to actually go out and do it. Here are my top ten things I’ve noticed and experienced being a serial entrepreneur for almost 50 years (my first gig was selling donuts door-to-door in my neighborhood when I was 7.)

1) Entrepreneurs are more concerned with how the business works than working in the business. They understand the processes and find employees to carry them out.

2) There’s a big difference between being a business owner and being self empolyeed. Those who have worked for others and start a business based on what they love to do often get trapped in a well paying “job” they’ve created for themselves. Over the years I’ve even found myself trapped this way. The test of a business vs self employement is if you went away for a week or a month, would your business be bigger and still healthy when you came back. The second test is whether you have a driving need to get a paycheck every other week. The security of a paycheck isn’t what drives entrepreneurs.

3) Entrepreneurs aren’t concerned with what other people think about their plans. They may get 70% of the planning done according to textbook lessons, but the remaining 30% is sheer gut reaction that this is going to work.

4) They are ACTION oriented versus being overly concerned with defining every possible contingency. It’s very common for those with corporate, academic, or government experience to become trapped in paralysis by analysis. They lose the opportunity because they took too long to launch and someone else beat them to it.

5) Entrepeneurs aren’t afraid to fail. In fact, failing fast is one of the main objectives. They get most of it right and then fix what isn’t working as quickly as possible. They recognize that you can’t wait around to get everything right. Get it mostly right and pull the trigger. They know what the KPI (Key Performance Indicators) are for their business and what’s necessary for them to be successful. They have defined success in advance and what the indicators are for success.

6) They know that success isn’t an overnight, flash-in-the-pan. Sure it’s possible to hit one out of the park occasionally, but most businesses require steady improvement. They know what the milestones are and the time associated to get there is.

7) There are no 8-5 hours. Entrepreneurs are focused and all in. There is an adrenaline rush with working 16 - 18 hr days during start-up and growth. It becomes much more manageable when the initial rollout has taken place. This is alot like a Product Launch, but on a much grander scale. This is what drives the serial entrepreneur, the excitement and rush of the rollout. Hard work and long hours define the entrepreneur.

8) They recognize that the success of the venture depends on having people smarter than themselves running the key elements of the team. They concentrate on orchestration and coaching while they keep an eye on meeting the key objectives.

9) They recognize there are going to be set-backs and disappointments along the way, but it doesn’t matter. It’s part of the process. They also know what will be the deal killers and avoid those at all costs.

10) Most of all, they are persistent and tenacious. Perseverance and tenacity combined with gut instinct will win out almost every time. Even well funded, more experienced competitors will lose out when dealing with pit bull determination.

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On Managing Internal Change

May 28th, 2010

I was having coffee with a couple of friends this morning and one of them said, “you know, you introduced me to a term a couple of years ago and I find myself using it all the time.” That term was “legacy baggage.” It was specifically meant to describe all the internal issues and excuses used by employees and people within an organization to resist change. Here are several examples”

    Not Invented Here
    We’ve Never Done it That Way Before
    We Tried That Once
    It Will Never Work
    That May Work in Other Places, But Not Here
    Our Business is Different

This is only the beginning of the the hundreds of excuses and obstacles thrown up to keep from implementing change. Our post today is about the root resistance to change.

In my experience with dozens of companies around the world, resistance to chance has it’s root in the learning culture of the individual or company. The old school industrial model taught the use of skills that would be used over and over again for decades. It did not recognize nor reward the continued improvement or continuing education of the employee. For professional practices, this is not the case. May certifications or license professions require ongoing education to keep the license current. The trades generally do not.

Most factory workers have a limited education. The dominant attitude is that they’ve done their time in school and they’re finished with that part of their lives. This is such a huge mistake and in direct conflict with what drives our world of commerce today.

We live in a world of constant change. If you aren’t positioning yourself or your company to face this head on, you are doomed. We cannot resist technological evolution. Resistance is futile. I cannot find a single example of an industry that has resisted change that is experiencing any kind of growth.

As a manager or owner, look at yourself first. How resistant to change are you? Do you read? Do you enjoy learning? If the answer is no, it will be very difficult to expect change within your control. You lead by example, and if you aren’t being progressive and forward looking, neither will your empolyees

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Earth Day, Waterbase Ink, Organic Shirts, Eco Friendly Business

April 20th, 2010

Today is Earth Day and every year we get inquiries about eco-friendly inks and t-shirts. There has been more and more interest in waterbase inks and organic cotton shirts, so let’s talk about them.

Waterbase inks have been around for a very long time. They are the original inks used to decorate apparel. Plastisols were invented in 1959 and became very popular in the ’70s. I started printing with waterbase inks originally in 1970, way back in the day, because I had no way to dry the plastisols. I needed an air dry ink with good washability. Waterbase provided that.

The early inks we used were not actually pure waterbase. They were actually water-in-oil. They were an emulsion of water and solvent and could be cleaned from the screen with mineral spirits. These inks had better wash characteristics than pure waterbase inks which needed to be heat set as well.

A lot has changed with waterbase inks. The original formulas were very difficult to work with. They dried in the screen quickly and were very aggressive on the stencils. Since our production runs were short, this was not too much of a problem. Ironically, some of the very first designs I printed with waterbase were halftone images that were highly prone to drying in. Modern waterbase inks don’t have nearly the problems the older ones did.

The primary question is whether waterbase inks are ecologically more friendly than plastisols. Here the question is not so clear. Just because the inks can be dissolved or mixed with water doesn’t mean they are inherently safer or more eco-friendly. They are still resin based. They still have inorganic and organic pigments. There contain water miscible solvents that may not be so drain safe. The bottomline is, don’t be fooled into thinking that waterbase means you can do anything with the waste. These inks still need to be treated as industrial compounds, and handled accordingly.

Now, for organic cotton. This is a big area of interest. It’s no secret that cotton is one of the most pesticide and chemically dependent products. I have heard that it takes as much as 1/3 of a pound of pesticides and fertilizers to produce a pound of cotton. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it’s a figure you see in a lot of places. Regardless, the trend is toward less chemically and water intensive processing of the cotton. There are many, many brands on the market that claim to be organic.

According to the fourth annual Organic Exchange Farm and Fiber Report 2009, organic cotton production grew an impressive 20 percent over 2007/08 to 175,113 metric tons (802,599 bales) grown on 625,000 acres (253,000 hectares). Organic cotton now represents 0.76 percent of global cotton production.

Organic cotton was grown in 22 countries worldwide with the Top Ten producer countries being led by India, and including (in order of rank) Turkey, Syria, Tanzania, China, United States, Uganda, Peru, Egypt and Burkina Faso. Approximately 220,000 farmers grew the fiber.

Here’s the rub. LESS THAN 1% of all cotton produced is organic! There are far more t-shirts produced claiming to be organic cotton than there is cotton being produced. Unless you have a clear knowledge about who is certifying a garment as organic, chances are it isn’t. You also need to know how much of the fiber in the garment is actually organic. It’s common to blend inorganic with organic and then claim the garment is organic.

Like most marketing driven campaigns, it pays to ask questions and dig deeper. There is usually more to the story than meets the eye. In the case of both waterbase ink and organic cotton t-shirts, this is clearly so.

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Launching Your Clothing Line

April 20th, 2010

Lately we’ve been doing a lot of shirts for boutique clothing lines. These are usually designers who’ve come up with a few clever t-shirt designs and want to market them. The questions are almost all the same and I’m surprised no one has really set out to provide meaningful answers. So this month I thought I would share some observations and answers to a couple of the more common questions.

The most basic one is: Where should I market my shirts?

I don’t mean to be obvious here, but the root of the answer is, to outlets that are thinking like you. Where do you shop? Where would you go to buy the designs you’ve just done? Start locally and work your way up. This is important for two really good reasons.

The first is that almost all the businesses or individuals that come in wanting to get shirts printed lack seed capital. This is the money you need to actually print the shirts to fill orders. Start with a sample run first. Get something physical in your hands. Buyers want to see, touch, and feel the merchandise. Your first objective is to get some market reaction. If you can’t afford to get shirts screen printed, have the samples done digitally (direct to garment.) This is a good idea anyway so you can see what DTG looks like compared to screen print.

If you find there’s a positive reception to your work, expand within your region. This would be a 50 mile radius of where you’re located, or the nearest larger city. I’m always careful about recommending rapid expansion. With too little capital, I’ve seen too many promising companies literally burn up trying to fund their growth. Take it a step at a time. Make sure you get paid right away for your product. Running out of cash is the single biggest reason new companies don’t make it.

2. Should I exhibit in tradeshows to get bigger exposure?

Beware of large tradeshows. I’ve seen this happen over and over. Young, inexperienced, innovative companies bring fresh ideas to the market. They have no way to capitalize on potential success if it really hits. Calculate in advance how much business you can handle. It’s one thing to get orders for 1,000 shirts. What would happen if you got orders for 10,000? How much business can you afford to book? If you can’t answer that, you need accounting help to get the answer.

The most common situation I see at tradeshows is getting ripped off by much bigger companies that already have deep distribution and lots of financing. Make no mistake, you are being watched. If there’s lots of buzz about your graphics and you’re actually writing orders, you run the risk of a very quick knockoff of your concepts.

While they may not copy your work exactly, the imitations will capture the look and flavor of your offerings.

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