Greg Piechota, Researcher-In-Residence at the International News Media Association, joins Robbie to discuss the increasing importance of subscriptions and reader revenue in a world of declining ad sales. They talk about the value of studying one industry to gain insight for another, new models for advertisers, and the importance of customer-centricity in any subscription business.

2:20 — How Greg’s career took him from Poland to Massachusetts to Oxford

3:40 — The importance of looking across industries to develop insights

6:13 — How data causes companies from different industries to start competing with each other

9:41 — Greg’s advice for companies dealing with competitors who come from different spaces but target the same customer

10:37 — Advertisers that take on new business models in retail, media, and e-commerce

17:38 — The importance of customer centricity, especially in a subscription business

24:20 — Greg’s advice for companies that want to move to a subscription model but are worried about the cannibalization risk and leaving money on the table during while they are in between models

28:05 — Subscriptions as a way to stabilize a business model

30:20 — Greg’s advice for entrepreneurs and executives, in any industry, who are trying to build robust subscription businesses

31:00 — Robbie’s Speed Round


Robbie Baxter [00:00:00] For context, this interview was recorded in June of 2020 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Narrator [00:00:11] We all want a business like Netflix or Amazon Prime. Businesses where once a customer engages with them, it becomes automatic and part of their lifestyle from then on. But how do you build that Forever Transaction? Robbie Kellman Baxter has been studying subscription and membership models for nearly 20 years. And in this podcast, she uncovers the secrets and strategies of the Membership Economy. Join us for Subscription Stories: True Tales from the Trenches.

Robbie Baxter [00:00:39] Welcome to the show. This is Robbie Kellman Baxter. Today we’re talking about subscriptions with Greg Piechota, researcher in residence for the International News Media Association. We’ll talk about best practices in digital transformation and how subscription maturity and approach varies by region.

Greg Piechota [00:01:01] Data is everything. If there’s one person you should hire first, it’s your head of analytics. You need to understand your customers before you try selling to them.

Robbie Baxter [00:01:11] We’re also going to talk about prioritization of goals when you’re trying to do multiple things. Going from print to digital. Going from third party distribution to direct. And going from ad supported to reader based revenue all at the same time. Since we’re recording in June of 2020, we’re also going to talk about how to manage a news business in times of great change.

Robbie Baxter [00:01:44] Welcome to the show, Greg.

Robbie Baxter [00:01:47] First of all, where are you taking this call and where are we reaching you right now?

Greg Piechota [00:01:52] I’m based in Oxford, England. So we are in a lockdown. The shops are still not open. The kids have just started to go back to school. The first class, the sixth graders have started to come back to school. But basically, we are still suffering from the pandemic.

Robbie Baxter [00:02:10] Still in the heart of the pandemic. And how did you come to live in Oxford? For many listeners, that seems like an idyllic and kind of magical place.

Greg Piechota [00:02:20] So I’m originally Polish. So I grew up in Poland and I’ve been a journalist and an editor and a news executive in Poland for more than 20 years. And a few years back, together with my wife, we decided to change our lives. And she left her job as a head of research for Citibank in Poland. And I left my job as a news editor of the biggest newspaper in Poland. And we went to the United States to study. Actually, I got a fellowship at Harvard University and then we spent a year there in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We actually stayed longer because I got a job at Harvard Business School to study how technology companies enter other markets and disrupt them and take all the customers from incumbents. And after the stint at Harvard University, I got a job at Oxford. So we moved to England. And here is where we are now.

Robbie Baxter [00:03:14] Interesting. That’s quite a journey. And what was it that got you back onto the research side? I know that one of your last jobs at the news organization was in innovation. Was that the springboard that had you kind of seeking out these fellowships and looking for this more intellectual research? Pure research based kind of work?

Greg Piechota [00:03:38] I think, you know, I was very much interested in digital disruption. Being an editor of a newspaper basically meant that I was dealing personally with digital disruption and transformation for most of my professional life. So I wanted to understand what newspapers or news sites are doing right and what they are doing differently than maybe organizations in other places. And actually, the university opened my eyes that, you know, there are many industries who are digitally transformed or digitally disrupted. And actually you can learn a lot by studying a different industry. So, for example, many news sites are facing a struggle how to compete with Facebook. That is, you know, the most popular newspaper in the world in practice. And by the way, one of the biggest advertising based media houses out there. But the competition between publishers and Facebook that is like both friendly collaboration and sort of enemy kind of battle is very similar to the experience, for example, of retailers who compete with Amazon. So they they you know, on one hand, if they go to Amazon and they start selling through Amazon, they could increase their sales. On the other hand, they somewhat lose direct relationship with customers. So actually, you can learn starting across the industry. This is what I found fascinating. I also found the academics work pretty similar to journalism. You know, maybe you need to be more careful about the data that you study. And, you know, the process of academic work is slightly more robust because it’s slower. Basically, it’s more robust. You know, modern newsrooms. But still, it’s very it’s actually very similar. And I found it fascinating to be able to learn how other industries are doing it and how we can actually translate this learnings into what new sites and news businesses can do to fund journalism.

Robbie Baxter [00:05:37] So we’re kind of two peas in a pod because my focus in subscriptions has always been very broad in terms of working with industries across a wide range of areas, as well as people in different functional areas and organizations at different stages in maturity. And it’s always so interesting, I think, to look for patterns in one place and see how they can be applied or whether they can be applied in another. So it’s interesting to hear you talk about your work and kind of the similarities between retail and news.

Greg Piechota [00:06:13] If you think about veterans in industries, sometimes you know what happens is that over years you just attend your industry conferences. So you are exposed to, of course, new ideas and new ways of doing things, but basically coming from the same industry. And sometimes, you know, it’s like you feel like one of these horses that basically cannot look around because it has blinders on both sides, because you you know, you face your troubles, and you just focus on solutions to your to to your direct troubles. You don’t look around that much. And actually, when you do, you realize that similar problems are shared and similar business models are shared by many industries and subscription obviously is one of them. And that actually this digital transformation is making businesses more similar to each other. Because, for example, so many businesses are based on data. So in a way, if you are a retailer like CVS and you are either not an Amazon basically collecting data about what people are buying and how, you know, what what kind of products should be promoted. You know, you learn a lot, for example, about people’s overall health. And this can be a basis for a new business model. So data becomes like something that is shared across industries and it makes, you know, companies from different industries suddenly compete with each other. You know, if you’ve got in the retail, for example, you’ve got companies like ASOS in England that basically is a retailer that sells clothes. But they found that the way to to sell clothes today is more about inspiring people. What kind of what what what you know, to help them discover the needs. So they do it through content. So basically, ASOS has become a sort of a lifestyle magazine publisher. They do it in order. You can buy everything that they show to you. But basically, they tried to inspire their customers. So how is it different from, like, Vogue magazine and other lifestyle magazines that basically were showcasing people’s clothes and just trying them and just trying to sell advertising for retailers like ASOS in the past. Actually, we see digital transformation is fascinating because we see very different industries, companies from many different industries suddenly competing for the same currencies like, you know, attention, like direct relationship with somebody, you know. Do you have the credit card number of somebody and so on. So this is what makes it very, very interesting. And I think that, you know, I’m glad that as a journalist or as a researcher, I can actually help news publishers to find ways to try to grow their business despite all the all the challenges.

Robbie Baxter [00:09:02] So what’s your advice, let’s say, for you gave the example of ASOS and Vogue. So when a company like ASOS with deep resources and a direct relationship with the customer suddenly says, we want to start creating inspirational fashion content, very much like Vogue. What is Vogue to do? What would be the guidance there for organizations that are seeing a competitor come from a totally different space. But as you said, competing for the same resources, the attention of the customer, the credit card, the permission to present new offers.

Greg Piechota [00:09:41] I think, you know what happens is that basically the business model of publishing is challenged in that way. And I’m thinking that one of the first questions I would ask myself is, who is your God? Who’s your primary customer? And I bet that in case of the Vogue, the primary customer who pays for Vogue to be, to exist, is actually not advertising. And this is what makes it very challenging for them to actually respond to disruption by ASOS. Because ASOS no longer needs them. In a way, no longer needs the vogue. In a way to reach individual consumers and show them amazing new things you can have in your wardrobe. So this is what makes it challenging. And I think when we look at the business model of publishing, this is actually what is happening. So traditionally, many news consumers and many magazine consumers were basically subsidized by advertisers. Advertisers were primary customers of those media companies. And consumers were, of course, important because they, you know, they paid with their attention. But, you know, most magazines were almost free. Most newspapers were almost free because they were mostly funded by arts. What is happening right now is that advertisers have many more options to advertise, to show their products. Some of the advertisers become media companies themselves. You know, the biggest sport newsroom in Europe is not run by any news organization. It is actually run by Red Bull from Austria. That is just an energy drink producer. So, you know, some some advertisers have become basically media. So the media need to, like, redefine their role within the set of customers that they used to serve. Maybe readers, can no longer be subsidized. That’s why many publishers, you know, make such a strong push to build a digital subscription, businesses to make readers actually pay for the value they get. There is another set of customers who are newsmakers who traditionally were you know, newspapers were writing about what they do for free. But today you see the trend of native advertising or branded content where actually some newsmakers basically start paying for it to create content that will cover whatever they would do. You’ve got another set of customers like people who, I don’t know, buying cars or selling apartments. And this business is gone for newspapers. But in a way, it’s I think it’s reinventing itself into e-commerce. You see now so-called content to commerce kind of models. BuzzFeed is one of those publishers who follows this business model of Dennis publishing in the United Kingdom, is a former magazine publisher that made 40 percent of revenue last year from selling cars directly to consumers.

Robbie Baxter [00:12:43] How does that work? Can you explain the model?

Greg Piechota [00:12:46] So they used to publish many hobbyist magazines and among them very strong models, magazines about cars, about motors and motorcycles, about lorry’s, whatever. Then when the Internet came, of course, and these magazines were partly funded by readers who are buying the single copies, not the advertisers. When the Internet came, the company wanted to build the classifieds business, but they were not first to the market. There were second. Basically, this market of classified advertising, car sales is basically a sort of a winner takes all market. So, you know, number one is taking 80 percent of the value and everybody else is fighting for the remaining 20. It wasn’t good. So they thought, OK. So we need to make our ads better than on the market. And they thought, you know, we need to engage readers very well. We need to tell them a lot about products so we can basically lead them to the decision. And then we can sell not just eyeballs, not just attention of our readers, but basically an intent of a user to buy a car. So they started selling leads, but when they started selling leads, they realized one thing. If I can make somebody want to purchase a car through me, why should I be selling leads? I should be selling the car because the margin I can make on a car is much bigger than I can make on a lead. And then they realized.

Robbie Baxter [00:14:16] Because they’re doing the hard work. They’re doing the heavy lifting of finding the relationship and finding the lead. It’s easy to close the deal once when somebody decides they want the car.

Greg Piechota [00:14:23] Exactly. But then they realized even more that basically car dealers are not making money on selling cars, actually. Cars are very discounted. You know, they have a very low margin. You make money with finance. You know how to find them. The sales. You make money with guarantees, with issuances. So now this company, you know, is first. They have all those media that got the attention of car seekers. Then they can inform them about all different cars that they can choose from. And then they can take their intent into basically leading to their website where they sell the car to the individual consumer and they can sell the car. They can help them find them so they can help them insure it. And this is where most of the profit actually comes from, not from the sales of the car, but from the from those financial services. And it’s amazing. A magazine publisher who actually is a car dealer. You know, this is not perhaps what the founders wanted, but this is where they ended up by innovating with the business model.

Robbie Baxter [00:15:23] And it’s really interesting because, you know, if I can break down what you’ve what you’ve said or summarize it, you talk about a couple things. The first thing that you brought up, which I think is really important for people to understand, is that whatever business you’re in, you have to know you said who your God is, who is your real, your forever customer? Who is it that you’re in business to serve? And in the case of publishing, which is what we’re talking about today, you really have to decide, are you in the business of supporting the advertisers or the end readers? And what is the expectation that they have of you? And then you gave this excellent example of this car enthusiast magazine who I would guess would say, you know, we’re in the business of helping car lovers, and you said motorcycles and trucks and everything else, get the most enjoyment and value out of their passion. Right. And maybe when they started the way that they did that was through articles and pictures. And over time, it’s been helping them understand which cars to buy. And then it was making that car purchase a reality for them. And it reminds me, actually, you know, you talked about analogous businesses and how important that is. One of my clients is Haggerty Insurance, and they’re the largest insurer of classic cars in the world. So, you know, if you have a whatever, a sixty six Mustang or a barracuda or one of these cool old cars or even a much older car, they provide you with insurance. They do, you know, pallet, you know, flatbed pickup, roadside service, if you have a problem, they know all the the, the mechanics who fix old cars and they’ve actually gone the other way. So they did car insurance and then they built a membership model around the ownership because they said once you own the car, there’s all these other things you want to do. You want to meet other car people. You want to drive your car on cool roads. You want to repair your car. You want to, you know, rebuild the engine. And so they built a membership, kind of the opposite. They built the community and the content after they did the the insurance.

Greg Piechota [00:17:38] What is really amazing is that you when you connect those two cases, you see that it’s about this being basically customer centric. You need to choose who is your God because you need to focus. If you don’t focus, you don’t get a breakthrough. So when you focus and you start to really try to understand what’s the job that these people have, what really they want to achieve and what’s the job they are hiring products to do, like buy a car or a magazine. Then you can really build up on it because then you can imagine. OK, so what is actually what is actually the service that people want to have. And, you know, let me give you another example of a magazine publisher that went through a similar discovery to basically end up being somewhere else. So this is a company called Essential in United Kingdom. They used to be known as EMAP. You know, they started as a newspaper publisher like a hundred years ago, and then they switch into magazines. They were very active in the magazines for different industries, like Retail Week magazine for nurses, a magazine for motorists and so on. And at a certain point, they sold most of the magazines. They just decided to focus on the business of FMCG retail. They still have a magazine retail week, but it’s no longer a magazine publisher because they started to ask questions. OK, so what these guys who are running FMCG businesses and retail businesses really want really need. They want to sell more. They want to understand their customers. They want to understand how the market works. So they want to have intelligence and they want to act on this intelligence. So the company started to use the relationship they had to basically build new services, dashboards about what’s selling currently on major online retailers. What kind of clothes? What’s the color, you know, what’s the popular size, whatever. So you get, like, intelligence about what’s going in the shops. It’s not actually journalism in a way. It’s more like data service. But the process was asking the right questions. What my customer really needs. Did they really want them to read articles about shops or they wanted to sell more clothes in their shops.

Robbie Baxter [00:20:09] Right. Well, it’s such an interesting point because a lot of businesses, especially we’re talking in the world of publishing, a lot of these businesses have been around, as you said, for tens, if not hundreds of years. And they not only do they have this mission of helping a particular group of professionals or a particular community, but also they build up a way of delivering that value. So, for example, they have journalists and suddenly, you know, in the model you’re talking about, instead of journalists, maybe they need market researchers or they need technologists. Right. You know, we you and I went on a tour a few years ago at the Financial Times, and they had more technology people than journalists on their team. That’s a very different kind of business. And I think for some organizations, they have kind of a crisis of identity. You know, if we don’t need the same people and the same skills, are we still. Is it more important to keep the same employees and the same jobs? Or is it more important to keep the same mission and promise to the people we serve to our customers?

Greg Piechota [00:21:17] I would say that you really go to the fundamentals. What’s the purpose of the company? And, you know, Peter Drucker was always writing that the purpose of the company is to create a customer, create a customer, meaning basically solving the problem of the customer. Otherwise, there is no customers. So there’s no money. There is no business. And I think this is especially important when you tried to build the Forever Transaction. Because whatever deficiencies you you might have, you know, they will come out over time. If you think about, you know, the newspaper business is about serving the needs of a news consumer. In her lifetime, basically, you know, this is the this is the objective. You want to make somebody subscribe to the paper until she dies. And even longer because we want to have a family package. So, this is what’s the business is about. So we need to think about the core value that we deliver to those people. And the core value is not what you write as we say, it’s that they read. So they get the value. They define the value. They are their life choices. They are problems like some people want to, you know, to be better informed. Some people interact with news sites because they want to get entertained. Some other people want to basically be able to speak to other people, interact with others, feel they belong to a group. Some others, you know, they don’t want to learn about anything. They are just stuck in a in a subway during the rush hours. And they don’t want to look at those faces around all in masks. And they just, you know, turn on the mobile phone and they start reading news. So these are different customers and these are different needs they have towards media. And we need to think about how are we serving those needs in such a way that they want to stay forever. Yeah. So we really need to deliver the value we can’t cheat it.

Robbie Baxter [00:23:07] So one of the challenges that we’ve seen in the News World, and I’m interested in your take on this, you know, we’ve talked about the kind of transformation around the customer. One of the big challenges, though, structurally, is this move from ad revenue to subscription revenue and a change effectively in who the master is or who the primary customer is. When I have talked to news organizations, you know, I’ve often said, you know, it’s really hard to do a good job if your customer is the advertiser and your customer is the reader. It’s hard to find where those goals align. And I’m interested in your point of view with all of these organizations that are saying, well, we need the reader, we see that reader revenue. We see that subscriptions are the future for our industry. We know we have to get there, but we’re dependent on the ad revenue right now and we don’t want to cannibalize that revenue. And yet, do we balance our investments? What is your advice to organizations that understand they need to move to subscription but are concerned about the cannibalization risk and leaving money on the table in the interim as they move from one model to the next?

Greg Piechota [00:24:20] I think this is a very good question. Many, many publishers struggled with balancing the business models and, you know, balancing where we should invest, how quickly we can get there, can we afford to lose some businesses? And I think that increasingly it’s becoming clear that actually advertising and subscription business models are very much connected. It seems that because of the what publishers have learned by building their subscription businesses, they are now reinventing what and how advertising works. And they build like the fundament for the future growth of advertising. Why is that? Because basically today’s advertisers, they do not want to buy just ad impressions. They want to buy ad impressions to the right people at the right time. So they require targeting. They require sophistication from the media. And they get it from Google today and from Facebook and from Amazon. And this is why these companies dominated digital advertising all over the world except China, where, you know, three other Chinese guys basically dominated the advertising. So publishers now realize that because they when they focus on subscriptions, the focus is basically on making people read more. And the focus is on making them to register on the sides and log them in. Otherwise, you know, if you’re not logged in, you cannot get, for example, the premium content that you paid for. Because people are logged in, basically, they leave much more data like footprints in a way about what they were doing on the Web site. So publishers collect data about their reading habits. Publishers have data about their, I don’t know, their transactions in the past. Publishers ask them questions in surveys so they get information about other things, their plans, their Internet, their lives and so on. All this data is today used mostly to sell subscriptions, like to predict who is going to buy, who is going to churn. But actually the same data, the same technologies can be used to build advertising business based on first party data publishers. And we are now seeing that the biggest publishers like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the NewsCorp and the others. They are focused on translating these skills that they learned, building a subscription business and taking the data that they collect about their subscribers to actually be able to reinvent advertising, you know, for the future. So I think actually that in a way, as of today, it’s very difficult to think that you will be successful in advertising in the long term if you don’t build a successful subscription business. I’m sorry to say it, but this is how we are seeing it now.

Robbie Baxter [00:27:18] It’s so important. This is such an important, important point for anybody who is building a subscription business right now about the kind of interconnectedness. And, you know, I think what Greg is talking about in terms of there needing to be a new way of advertising, that is much more based on the customer’s goals and their need states. So another really important kernel here is to think about the role that subscription plays in your broader business model and be willing to refocus your entire model around your kind of current market conditions.

Greg Piechota [00:28:05] I would very much encourage people to think about subscriptions as something that can stabilize the business model. So because it’s a forever revenue, because it’s long term and you aim at having these relationships with customers long term, basically it helps you to, you know, after some time, you can predict, you know, the revenue in the future. This is very important. You can predict based on your churn rates, based on your pricing, you can predict the lifetime value of each customer. So I know how much money I will make next year. This is what makes subscription very good to build a fundament of the business, to be able to understand, you know, how to cover the most important costs in the business. Because, for example, publishers. This is what is stable. Actually, readership revenue is stable. The difference with advertising, advertising is cyclical, you know, it’s going great when it’s great. But when the economy is down, advertising is down the first. Yes. Like right now. So this is why I think it’s interesting to think about subscriptions as you know, about the benefits of a subscription business model and predictability of revenue and stability of revenue is one of them. So I think it is even more important than just a profit driver for some producers. It helps you to do many things like for Facebook, you know, because they know the lifetime value, they can better plan their marketing spend. The acquisitions. So why they are able to invest so much money in your movies? Because they spend not today’s money in a way, not today’s revenue. They spend future revenue. They know how much revenue they’re going to make next year. And they are spending it today to outgrow everybody. This is what is the beauty of this business model.

Robbie Baxter [00:29:51] Yeah, the predictability of the cash flow is so important. I want to I want to just finish by asking you what advice you have for entrepreneurs and executives, maybe not in the News World, not in the publishing world, but who are trying to build robust subscription businesses. As someone who’s been both an operator and a scholar in this field, what would be your advice for them?

Greg Piechota [00:30:20] If there is one big thing that publishers have learned over the past more than 10 years of building subscription business models is that data is everything. If there’s one person you should hire first it’s your head of analytics. You need to understand your customers before you try selling to them, because you need to define the product that is right. You need to define the delivery. You need to define the pricing. And then you need to track the performance to be able to improve on it. So data, I think data. This is the one thing that I would say.

Robbie Baxter [00:30:58] Great. And speed round. I have a couple of quick questions for you, and I just want you to answer the first thing that comes to your head, and we’ll go really quick. What was the first subscription you ever remember subscribing to?

Greg Piechota [00:31:10] Oh, gosh. It must have been probably a cable. Cable subscription, yes.

Robbie Baxter [00:31:18] And what is your favorite subscription today?

Greg Piechota [00:31:21] My favorite subscription today. I think Zipcar. I don’t have a car. I live in a medieval town. So there is no place to park. And I’m using Zipcar. So there are cars parked around, you know, in some places. And I can just use my mobile phone to book it immediately, open it and ride somewhere. I just think it’s amazing how you can use subscriptions to get a car.

Robbie Baxter [00:31:44] That’s wonderful. What would you say is your superpower?

Greg Piechota [00:31:48] My superpower, I think, is making very complex things sound simple so people can better make decisions about them. This is I think is my power as an editor and hopefully as an academic.

Robbie Baxter [00:32:02] And what do your colleagues hate about working with you and what do they love about working with you?

Greg Piechota [00:32:09] I guess, you know, if I were to talk about my former employees, I was running a newsroom of 500 people. So they hated unrelentless. I’m a I’m a workaholic. I’m always on. And if I needed to learn something and improve was that I was always on. I was always asking and demanding. So this is my, so imagine basically as sort of a monster. So this is who I was as a manager and perhaps I can improve now. Working, but working very differently.

Robbie Baxter [00:32:43] And what do people love about working with you?

Greg Piechota [00:32:45] I think because I’m focused on long term relationships. I, I think I help people improve and to discover, you know, their super powers. So I had you know, I had very low, not that many people wanted to leave work with me. And I’m very proud of it.

Robbie Baxter [00:33:07] That’s it. That’s high praise. This was wonderful. I certainly got some some great nuggets, some takeaways. And I’m sure that the listeners did, too. This was Greg Piechota. Thank you so much for joining us on Subscription Stories.

Greg Piechota [00:33:23] Thank you very much. The pleasure was mine.

Robbie Baxter [00:33:30] Thanks for listening, everyone. This has been Subscription Stories. Today, I was talking to Greg Piechota, Researcher in Residence at the International News Media Association, to hear more success stories of entrepreneurs creating their Forever Transaction in this new and exciting Membership Economy, subscribe to my podcast wherever you download your podcasts. Also, if you like what you’re hearing, please give us a rating and review. They mean so much. Thanks for listening and for your support.

Robbie Baxter [00:34:05] To learn more about the International News Media Association, go to I’m Robbie Kellman Baxter.

Greg’s Bio:

Grzegorz “Greg” Piechota studies technology-enabled disruption patterns across industries, with a focus on business model innovation in news media. Greg is a former media executive with 20+ years of industry experience. He began his career at Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza in 1996 as a reporter in one of the smallest local offices, and then rising to a news editor and a vice-president of Agora Foundation. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University from 2015-2016 and continued as a Research Associate at Harvard Business School for three more years. Following his time at Harvard, he moved to Oxford where he conducted research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. He now serves as a Researcher-In-Residence at the International News Media Association (INMA), and a board member at various media, software, and e-commerce companies.


“There are many industries who are digitally transformed or digitally disrupted. And actually you can learn a lot by studying a different industry.”


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