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Following up the post about why so many mid-career marketers have missed out on becoming outstanding content strategists, Emma Alvarez Gibson, from our West Coast (or Best Coast) Brainzooming HQ, is here discussing the steps to become a content strategist and avoid marketing career extinction.

How to Become a Content Strategist and Avoid Becoming Extinct by Emma Alvarez Gibson

Once I was a creative writer.

Then I was marcomm. Then I was a copywriter. These days, I’m a content strategist.

Titles change; it’s a fact of Western business life. But in this space, that’s not all that’s changed. Take a good look at the job description for any number of content strategist positions. More often than not, we aren’t just creating content. We’re managing SEO and Google Analytics, editing images and graphics in PhotoShop and InDesign, sending and tracking emails via a CMS or two. Or seven.  

I’ll admit it was a transition I came to reluctantly, and with a fair degree of resentment. Look, I remember saying, If I’d wanted to be a marketing analyst, I’d have become a marketing analyst. Are they also looking for chemical engineers who can rollerskate and sing opera? It seemed ridiculous and not a little unreasonable. But it’s been a few years now: I think that model’s going to be calling the shots for awhile.

Earlier this week, one of my fellow writers who’s looking for full-time employment expressed dismay over these broadly-drawn requirements, ending with: When did this happen? If you’ve not had to look for a job in a number of years, it’s a fair question. There were no announcements made. These expectations crept in slowly, like fog. When the market crashed in 2008, I saw many organizations let people go and distribute the resulting wealth of tasks among the employees who were left standing. No one’s going to complain about having a heavier load when their neighbor doesn’t have a job. You make it work. We all made it work as best we could.

Nine years later, here we are with a stronger economy and the continued legacy of these career mash-ups. We made it work, and we have to continue to make it work. That means getting on board with the expectations of our chosen field. It means stretching. Learn that CMS. Take the InDesign class. Familiarize yourself with basic photo editing. Pick up a copy of Web Analytics For Dummies. Read a few blog posts on how easy SEO really is. Things have changed, and that means we have to change. To deny it, to refuse, to stay stuck in the outrage, is professional suicide.

At the start of my career I worked at a PR firm. One of the publicists there was roughly 107 years old, to my twenty-something eyes. He was pure 1960s camp, only he didn’t know it. He seemed intrigued by the fact that women were in his workplace and held positions of authority. He referred to us, the assistants, as “the girls” (despite the fact that some of the assistants were, in fact male).  Best of all? He refused to have a computer in his office. He’d never needed one before, and he wasn’t going to start now. And if he did need to look something up that wasn’t in a book, “one of the girls” could do that for him. He repeated this speech often, and everyone would smile and nod, and wait for him to leave the room so they could roll their eyes and get back to work. He was a ridiculous old dinosaur.

But I’m not.

What about you? – Emma Alvarez Gibson

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Mess Wright, who just recently opened Mess Labs in Dallas, has been an online friend for many years, and an in-person friend since August 2016.  

Invariably, Mess puts words to ideas that rattle around in my head in a half-formed state. Mess not only pulls ideas together; she puts herself out there by articulating them. Here’s the most recent example of this, with Mess weighing in on business mentoring and the importance of protecting your time and attention when you are trying to make things happen.

Trust me: Mess is a person that makes things happen! – Mike

Business Mentoring – Be Careful of Who Promises You Help by Mess Wright

Abe Nadimi and Mess Wright of Mess Labs

You can go ahead and file this one under, “Things You Aren’t Supposed to Say but Mess Says Anyway.” Oh, well, here goes:

It seems there is some sort of incubator, accelerator, or entrepreneurial center popping up everywhere lately.

I think this is supposed to (and can) be a good thing, but I have to tell you something.

I’ve been in this startup world for nearly a year, and I’ve found the majority of the “entrepreneurs” and “mentors” I’ve met are actually either hacks, delusional liars, con-artists, or people who are otherwise lost or unemployable.

It takes a minute to decipher the people who are actually “in business.” That minute is long and hard, but my advice is to take the time to really vet people you might let into your life.

I’ve taken a lot of hits (mostly inside my co-working space) for pointing out the people who are time and money sucks. I’ve been told it’s rude or impolite. I’ve been told “community” means “supporting” people, even people who are clearly trying to take whilst offering nothing.

I say all this because I think a lot of people romanticize self-employment or entrepreneurship. My advice for them is if you take that jump, be very selective about who gets time with you. You don’t have to say Yes to every invitation, every introduction or entertain every opinion. It’s way okay to be exclusive in some ways – don’t let anyone tell you it’s not.

Just because someone is older, more experienced, more educated, or did the thing you want to do, that does not make them mentor material. Gravitate to people who lift you up, listen to you, and help you grow. Don’t worry if those people aren’t marketing themselves as leaders or guides. The ones who do aren’t always the support you are seeking and needing anyway.

Everyone who is in a position to refer mentors to mentees needs to also vet people better. Let’s hold anyone we call “mentor” to a higher standard and drop the assumption that “accomplished” or “perceived as accomplished” translates to “can mentor.” It’s a horrible assumption, if you think about it. And a bad mentor figure can do amazing harm to a mentee.

Finally, if you feel you want to mentor someone ask yourself if you have the time, you have the inclination, and if you truly hold the mentee’s best interests as a priority.

If you’re doing business mentoring to feed your own ego, stop. Just stop! – Mess Wright

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Here is Emma Alvarez Gibson’s report from a conference she recently attended. With a lot of suggestions and a little bit of arm-twisting, Emma implemented the ideas captured in our Introvert’s Guide: 23 Ideas to Meet New People at a Conference. She’s being very kind to share how she fared implementing the ideas to meet new people even though she was going solo at the conference!

Ways to Meet New People – Confessions of a Conference Newbie by Emma Alvarez Gibson

Make yourself socialize, he said. You need to meet new people, he said.

It’ll be fun, he said.

I doubted that last part. Very much. But I was going to a conference, alone, and it was clear I needed to do these things, because if there’s one thing I know, it’s that Mike Brown knows how to conference. (To be fair, I knew that long before he inadvertently wrote an entire post while gamely encouraging his slightly terrified, sometimes-misanthropic friend. That’s me, by the way.)

So I went with a select few of the items in that post, and remain surprised by the results. To wit:

Pack the clothing or jewelry you own that most often generates comments from others. Wear those as conversation starters.

This was the easiest step. I packed a big red statement necklace and a bigger silver statement necklace. And it worked. Both pieces garnered a ton of compliments, giving me many an opportunity to talk to people I might not otherwise have met.

Find out the conference hashtag(s) ahead of time, and begin monitoring them. Reach out to other attendees and speakers using the hashtag.

I was dreading this part. It felt forced and phony. But it worked. Within a few minutes my tweet (something about how I was packing for the conference) got favorited and had a couple of responses. This was when I started to think that maybe these steps would work for me.

Prepare a few open-ended, easy-to-answer multiple part questions to ask. Prepare to use them. Try, “Is this your first time at the conference?”

Well, it seemed a bit obvious. But–and I hope you’re sitting down–it worked. It got the shy people out of their shells, and it gave the outgoing people a willing participant. Bonus: I was relieved that no one seemed to think it was too obvious a question to ask.

Wear your nametag.

I’ll admit it: I loathe nametags. I feel like a jerk wearing a lanyard around my neck and a card that trumpets my name at everyone from behind a sheet of plastic. But of course it’s the only sensible thing to do at a conference. And Mike surely had a reason for spelling this one out. Can you guess what happened? Yeah. It worked. People repeatedly approached me, addressing me by name. (It’s almost like there’s a pattern, or something, here.)

Take advantage of social media to reach out and increase your visibility. Live tweet the sessions you attend.

This was fun as well as easy. The speakers and their presentations were engaging, informative, and often very funny. I live-tweeted speaker quotes and photos from their presentations, and used the conference hashtag. Several times this resulted in fun banter from attendees I’d previously connected with, as well as from those I hadn’t yet met.

Sign up for networking events and excursions. Make yourself go. Boost your confidence that you can enjoy these events on your own, while you look for opportunities to share experiences with others!

Here’s the thing: I dislike large groups. I dislike field trips with large groups. I particularly dislike field trips with large groups in which everyone seems to know someone and I’m on my own, and we have to eat dinner together. But off I went. It started disastrously. I had less time than I’d realized to get to the meeting point where we would climb aboard a handful of buses which would take us to the riverboat where we would spend three hours. My choices: hustle, and arrive sweaty and discombobulated, and possibly get there just in time to see the buses pull away and watch everyone point and laugh, or throw in the towel, find dinner on my own, and admit defeat. Conveniently, as I was deciding, two people from the conference hurried past, making jokes about being left behind. I asked if they were on their way to the dinner cruise, and that was that. They told me that if we missed the bus, I could hang out with them. Well, we didn’t miss the bus. And I felt so buoyed by the friendly exchange beforehand that it was much easier for me to talk to people for the rest of the evening.

Look for small groups at networking events, ideally with people you’ve seen at sessions during the day. Find a way to join them through proximity, listening, smiling, and shared interests (i.e., you all are at this event, were in some of the same sessions, and have drinks). Being around the crowd can be the right opening to start meeting other people on the edge of the crowd.

I was sitting on the boat by myself, near the end of the third hour, when I heard a group of people tipsily discussing the medicinal uses of the gin and tonic in days of old. One of them was earnestly trying to remember what element was important to those applications. “Why not?” I thought. I got up and approached them. “It was the quinine,” I said, and we had a rousing discussion practically all the way back to shore.

What I learned: a little bit of effort goes a very long way toward making the most out of a conference, especially when you’re on your own. Simple, straightforward tactics netted me great results, so much so that a few times I forgot to be self-conscious. (If that doesn’t sound shocking, I’m not telling it right.) In any case: thanks, Mike! – Emma Alvarez Gibson

 

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Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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The folks at Armada Corporate Intelligence profiled a Bloomberg Businessweek story on Fanatics, the sports apparel manufacturer and marketer, in its Inside the Executive Suite. Fanatics introduced disruptive innovation to its marketplace with an agile strategy. It employs technology, focused creative teams, new manufacturing processes, and communications to remove time and waste when creating post-sporting event apparel featuring the winners and exciting story lines. For NCAA basketball tournament games, Fanatics can put a newly approved shirt on its website within 15 minutes. It also uses its agile strategy to market apparel for niche opportunities where it might sell as few as ten t-shirts.

Along with the recap, Inside the Executive Suite offered sixteen strategic thinking questions inspired by the Fanatics case study that you can use to explore agile strategy options within your own organization. We thought the list was intriguing, so we secured the go ahead to share the strategic thinking questions with you here.

16 Strategic Thinking Questions to Explore Agile Strategy and Disruptive Innovation

via Shutterstock

Developing an Agile Strategy

  • Where can your organization realize the greatest leverage from improved agility – cost savings, an improved customer experience, sales opportunities, greater financial efficiency?
  • Beyond making investments and process changes to increase agility, are there other opportunities to cost-effectively manage demand?
  • How can you develop a super-agile process that disrupts other industry players’ competitive advantages?

Identifying Process Changes for Agile Strategy

  • Where can you aggressively remove steps (especially low-value ones) from today’s process to boost agility?
  • How can you completely redesign today’s process from scratch to create a super-agile approach?
  • What roles do you need on your agile execution team to move from idea to market with previously unheard of speed?
  • What characteristics and behaviors are important for agile execution team members to display?
  • What resources (even if they are redundant or eventually discarded) are critical to enable rapid execution?

The Interplay Between Flexibility and Agility

  • How can you improve your organization’s ability to pre-plan and anticipate the uncertain?
  • In what ways can more / better / faster data access increase forecasting accuracy, and your ability to delay decisions without compromising agility?
  • What are the various types of reviews, approvals, and decisions you will need during crunch time? How can agile decision making happen in an easier and more timely way when speed is most important?
  • What does the time window around peak need look like?
  • Is there additional flexibility you can create / exploit in lead times, the length of the selling opportunity, and / or the long tail of demand?

Strong Relationships Enable Agility

  • Who are the outside people and entities vital to ensuring your agile processes perform as expected?
  • What foreknowledge, training, and support will outside parties require to perform their duties at peak levels?
  • What do agile relationship-building skills necessary for supporting your process look like?

Across these questions, you’ll get a start thinking through how an agile strategy can push disruptive innovation in your industry.  – via “Inside the Executive Suite” 

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The folks over at “Inside the Executive Suite” from Armada Corporate Intelligence addressed an important aspect of customer experience strategy this week: turning your organization’s claims of customer focus into real actions.

The following ideas (condensed from the original Armada article) highlight four ways to bring your aspirational customer experience strategy to life.

Customer Experience Strategy: 4 Ideas for Creating Customer Focus

In a Bloomberg Businessweek interview with GE CEO, Jeff Immelt, he comments, not surprisingly, multiple times on GE embracing a customer focus. He mentions that even GE narrowing its business portfolio ties to its customer focus: managing unrelated businesses is challenging and demonstrates more of a brand-first than customer-first perspective.

Immelt also discussed the GE transformation toward becoming a digital and software player. Immelt ties the strategic shift, without using the phrase, to the Internet of Things: GE jet engines have hundreds of sensors streaming performance information. Rather than standing by, GE wanted to play a vital role in modeling the data, turning it into actionable knowledge for customers.

Decisions that Benefit Customers

The idea of customer focus is easy to say, but challenging to implement.

To make the concept more actionable, however, let’s posit this idea: one meaningful way to demonstrate customer focus is through helping customers improve their own situations – whether or not it helps a company’s own prospects.

This implies looking at business decisions from a customer’s viewpoint, not the company’s view. While that is natural for some organizations, it runs completely counter to business practices in many others. To stimulate your thinking about what this approach could look like in your organization, here are questions and potential responses for boosting your organization’s customer focus.

1. Making Customers Better Buyers

Think about the price comparison tool Progressive Insurance ads feature. To keep potential customers from third-party sites, Progressive offers competitive price comparisons, even though it does not always win. This is scary for companies. It seems unnatural to boost a competitor’s visibility, but consider how it could improve both customers’ situations and your brand.

Questions to Explore

  • How can we facilitate easier and more accurate buying comparisons for customers?
  • In what ways can we help customers buy ONLY what they need ONLY when they need it?

Your Customer Experience Strategy Response

If you suspect your brand will not fare well in competitor comparisons, explore product and / or service enhancements to improve your position. You can also identify other features and benefits to incorporate into the comparisons to show the true benefit of your brand relative to the competitive set.

2. Creating Smarter Customers

In Immelt’s example with GE, jet engine sensors provide the opportunity to boost customer knowledge in myriad ways. They offer current diagnostics, forward-looking indicators, and long-term trend data. Can the Internet of Things or other information flows provide the same types of insight benefits for your customers?

Questions to Explore

  • Where can we inform customers with performance and exception data they do not currently have access to with our products?
  • How can our products provide visibility to customers where they cannot easily get it right now?
  • In what ways can we deliver predictive information to customers?

Your Customer Experience Strategy Response

These questions challenge you to deliver better information to customers. This can improve their effectiveness, productivity, and growth potential. For your organization, it opens possibilities for new services to interpret the slew of data, further increasing the customer benefits you deliver.

3. Making Customers More Productive

Organizations seem increasingly open to radically different ways of accomplishing basic and advanced business functions. Look beyond your company’s own boundaries to imagine new ways you can enable customers to improve their productivity levels.

Questions to Explore

  • How can we take on new functions for customers to allow them to extend their reach and impact?
  • Where are steps we can remove from our processes that don’t provide value to customers?

Your Customer Experience Strategy Response

Simplification can be a very attractive market position. Simplify life for your customers, whether doing more for them or making them do less when they work with your organization.

4. Providing Greater Value

Many organizations bundle products and services to sustain higher price points. Too often, that’s accomplished through including features that are inexpensive to provide yet offer little additional impact for customers. This is an opportunity to rethink your approach.

Questions to Explore

  • What are ways to unbundle what we offer so it better fits with customer needs, usage, and buying preferences?
  • Are there more attractive bundles from a customer viewpoint?
  • How can we cut the market price of what we offer by ½ to dramatically boost customer value?

Your Customer Experience Strategy Response

These questions cause you to decouple market price from the cost to produce what you offer. Building your price around the customer and the marketplace forces you to re-engineer what you do to achieve the lowest possible cost. That’s a competitively strong way to increase margins vs. simply tacking on an increase to current prices.

A Starting Point for Your Customer Experience Strategy

Not all these areas apply to all companies. If your organization is truly customer-focused, however, tackling these questions will do more to move your brand in that direction than simply telling people you focus on customers. – via “Inside the Executive Suite” 

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In the new Brainzooming strategy eBook 321 GO!, we share common situations standing in the way of successfully implementing your most important strategies. You will learn effective, proven ways to move your implementation plan forward with greater speed and success. You’ll learn ways to help your team:

  • Move forward even amid uncertainty
  • Take on leadership and responsibility for decisions
  • Efficiently move from information gathering to action
  • Focusing on important activities leading to results

Today is the day to download your copy of 321 GO!

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This week’s “Inside the Executive Suite” article from Armada Corporate Intelligence looked at how you focus a distracted organization on an implementation strategy to align and focus activities. Not an easy task. Here is a recommendation to make it happen through taking on three different strategic roles. 

3 Roles to Focus a Distracted Organization on Implementation Strategy

A C-level executive with a non-profit is at wits’ end. Amid a recent major leadership transition, the incoming CEO drove a broad, collaborative, strategic input initiative. A large leadership group shaped a strategic plan with several strategies and accompanying tactics. Full plan implementation could take twenty-four to thirty-six months. After the initiative to shape and guide future activities delivered a plan, the organization has seemingly returned to doing what it had already been doing. When this executive reaches out for progress updates or tries to focus leadership meetings around the plan, she regularly hears, “We’re too busy to focus on the strategic plan.”

Yet, she reports, the organization IS working on and progressing on plan tactics. This led her to ask: How does a senior executive lacking direct line responsibility champion an implementation strategy in a distracted organization?

That’s a fantastic, real world question.

An Implementation Strategy that Creates Focus

The executive has a challenge ahead. She’s willing to pursue making an implementation strategy because of her personal stake in helping lead the organization through the strategic planning initiative. She also knows the impact a comprehensive strategy can have in shaping an organization and improving results. You may not be in exactly this situation. It’s likely, though, given your responsibilities, that you have had to push for a major strategic initiative in a distracted organization focused on daily pressures. Answering her request for help with developing an approach to get the organization focused on implementing strategy, we shared a three-fold role.

1. Become the Strategic Implementation Reporter

Role one involves being a reporter. This means gathering information on what the organization is actually doing (whether in the plan or not) and the impact of these activities. For tracking progress, the executive said organization leaders would be more open to conversations versus completing progress update templates. As a reporter, she is going to reach out to leaders to discuss their current priorities. She’ll ask about their top four or five focus areas, early results they’re seeing, and what’s next in each area.

She can then recap the conversations within the context of the strategic plan. She’ll match their top activities to strategies and tactics already spelled out in the plan. Where they report activities not in the plan, she’ll look for natural places they might fit. If they don’t ultimately have a home in the plan, she will list them separately. The result? She will recast all the activities people see as outside the plan into the plan’s structure to show how focused the organization is or is not.

2. Effectively Monitor Strategic Metrics

Beyond simply listing tactics within a plan format (which she did for a previous quarterly meeting), she’ll next document progress and returns associated with the activities.
From our discussion, it is clear that the organization is awash in metrics. The challenge is that the metrics are not aligned and reported in light of the strategic plan. To tackle this second role (as the Monitor for the plan), we suggested going beyond top-line and bottom-line numbers. She can also include early performance indicators and qualitative information on progress. We recommend focusing on three areas for each strategy:

  • Activities
  • Impacts
  • Returns

“Activities” (which she’ll document in the reporting role) highlight what the organization is doing. That’s where plan implementation starts. Next, “Impacts” provide early indicators of where the plan is progressing and struggling. These generally develop before the third item on the dashboard, “Returns.” Returns are the revenue growth, cost reduction, profitability improvement, and other core measures that signal an organization’s performance.

Beyond number-based metrics, look for anecdotes, stories, and images that provide greater depth to the numbers. Combining numbers with a descriptive approach to metrics offers a more robust picture of strategic implementation.

This approach addresses another challenge with plan implementation tracking: focusing only on dashboards with return-oriented metrics. Such a stripped-down approach is visually pleasing, and attractive to busy executives who don’t have time for details. The problem is that this approach disconnects business returns from the critical activities necessary to generate and improve them.

3. Connect the Organization to the Strategy

The third role is that of Connector. This means analyzing the progress recap and introducing the work to the organization, both individually and in groups. While the executive we talked with wants to share the progress update at the organization’s leadership meeting, we recommend going back to individuals BEFORE introducing it to the team. Here’s what this approach might look like in its entirety:

  • Go first to those leaders that appear as if they aren’t doing much in the plan. Discuss and clarify with them to see if you’ve missed anything. Ask if there are other activities to include. The point is to provide an opportunity to improve their focus and save face before a group meeting.
  • Then, go to the leaders that are doing a lot to further the implementation strategy. Discuss with them suggestions or learnings behind the strong performance. See if they are fine with you celebrating their successes in a group setting.
  • After the individual conversations, introduce the recap at a leadership team meeting with no surprises. Those who haven’t been implementing the plan have an opportunity to get with the program. Leaders who ARE carrying out the plan know ahead of time that you intend to feature them.

This connected view of organizational activities typically opens leaders’ eyes to realize there is greater alignment and focus than apparent amid daily activities.

Adopting this Three-Role Approach to Implementation Strategy

You may look at these three roles and scoff because it appears that we’re recommending this busy executive take work for others. While that’s one view, we would say that if making strategic implementation successful is important enough to you, it’s worth the extra work and the alignment efforts we’re recommending.

What’s Your Implementation Strategy for Uncertain Times?

Things aren’t getting saner and more calm. Are you ready to pursue an implementation strategy that works in uncharted waters?

The Brainzooming eBook 4 Strategies for Implementing in Uncertain Times will help you examine your strategy foundation, insights, profitability drivers, and decision making processes when few things ahead are clear. We share suggestions on:

  • Using your organization’s core purpose to shape decisions when things are changing
  • Reaching out to employees with valuable insights into what to watch out for and what to expect
  • Sharpening your command of cost and profit levers in your organization
  • Implementing processes to focus and sharpen decision making

4 Strategies for Implementing in Uncertain Times is a FREE, quick read that will pay dividends for you today and in the uncertain times ahead.
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I don’t know that we have ever run a reader letter here, but the story in this email and the writer’s comments deserve a wider audience.

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The letter is from Barbara Lane at Telesystem in Northwood, OH. She wrote in response to Emma Alvarez Gibson’s post-election reflection. What Barbara relates is another helpful part of the reflection and need to move forward that is the air right now:

Mike and team,

First, I want to say thanks for your blog and plethora of articles on strategic planning.  I have used many of your techniques both at work and as I facilitate visioning and strategic planning at my church.

With regards to the email today, I am currently in the middle of leading a Bible study based on the book, “Fear of the Other” by Will Willimon.   In it, he puts forth many of the same ideas contained in Emma Gibson’s reminder. But one that particularly spoke to me was an exchange between Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.  Douglass was bemoaning the plight of black slaves and the country’s reluctance for – no, outright anger and indignation against – the proposition of freedom for them.  Truth, who was fully aware of Douglass’ Christian beliefs asked him, “Frederick, is God dead?”

I think this is very pertinent to what many people are feeling today, and we have to realize that there is a greater power out there who works all things according to his purpose.

BTW – if you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it.

I greatly appreciate you and your efforts,

Barb

Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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