The Kula Ring podcast is essential listening for manufacturing marketers who want to grow their digital presence and compete online.
Sponsored by Kula Partners—an agency committed to helping leading B2B manufacturers craft digital experiences that transform how they engage buyers, serve customers, and outpace their competition—The Kula Ring podcast features conversations about marketing, sales, and technology with top manufacturing executives from across North America.
The Kula Ring podcast is co-hosted by Kula Partners principals, Carman Pirie and Jeff W. White, both of whom are frequently sought after for their digitally-focused B2B expertise. They regularly share their insights with audiences including conferences like B2B Online and HubSpot’s INBOUND, the Gardner Manufacturing Marketer blog, and other podcasts focused on B2B marketing and technology.
Jon LaPorta, Vice President, Marketing, describes to Carman and Jeff how he has helped transform the marketing at Pfannenberg USA—the American arm of a German-owned manufacturer. Jon’s team works locally in order to appeal to the US market. Although they continue to align with headquarters on content and branding, this has allowed them to implement marketing automation, create their own website, and simplify their messaging.
How a German-Owned Manufacturer Markets Regionally Within the US Transcript:
Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White.
Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners, a digital marketing agency made for manufacturers. I’m your co-host, Jeff White. And joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, what’s going on?
Carman Pirie: Ah, well I’m recording a podcast with you, Jeff.
Jeff White: We are indeed.
Carman Pirie: And excited to be I think checking off a few boxes in today’s episode with any luck at all. I know that a good number of our listeners—and it was certainly a big dynamic in the manufacturing marketing space—is this dynamic of basically working within the US arm of a German-owned manufacturing entity.
Jeff White: Or otherwise international.
Carman Pirie: Otherwise international, but often…
Jeff White: Often European.
Carman Pirie: Often German is a big a part of it, and there are some ways of doing business and in some way, a restriction often placed on the marketers there that I think many of them find challenging. I think today’s guest is going to shed some light on navigating those waters. Excited about that. And also I think a really interesting story of digital transformation so far.
Jeff White: Yeah, I’m excited to dive into it. Joining us today is Jon LaPorta. Jon is the Vice President, Marketing at Pfannenberg USA. Jon, welcome to The Kula Ring.
Jon LaPorta: Hey, thanks for having me.
Carman Pirie: Jon, a real pleasure to be chatting with you and I wonder if we might start with just an overview of the company briefly and then tell us a bit about yourself as well.
Jon LaPorta: Yeah, sure. Pfannenberg is an international company. We’re known in the space of thermal management for electrical enclosures. We developed the original filter fan, which is designed to cool the electrical components inside of electrical cabinets. And the reason that is so critical, is modern-day automation and manufacturing is driven behind electronics. Electronics have their happy space in a certain temperature range and our products help manage that temperature in that atmosphere to keep the electronics happy inside of electrical enclosures. We also have a product line that’s becoming more popular here in the US that we brought over from Europe and that is our signaling line. And our signaling products for alarm warning and indication events, our product line that we’re beginning to see some traction here in the US, ties nicely with our thermal management products as they’re found in many of the same facilities. Pfannenberg’s a German-owned company. We have manufacturing facilities throughout the world and sales offices throughout the world. I am located here at our US manufacturing headquarters outside of Buffalo, New York.
Carman Pirie: Very cool. And how long have you been with the company, Jon?
Jon LaPorta: I’ve been with the company for over seven years now. I came from a world, I was with the agency world for a long time and my days as many people in the agency world probably can relate to were just-in-time, on-demand projects that were working your teams unpredictably—80 plus hours a week for stints at a time. But one of the cool things about the company I had worked with is we were definitely big on exploring technology and how to make our lives and our jobs easier using technology.
I do have a Creative Director background. I was also Director of Sales and Marketing for a time, and I was brought on board here to Pfannenberg, taking a little bit of a different approach at looking at the marketing side of things first from a creative mindset but then taking my experience with the sales and marketing aspects and putting all three of those together. That was one of the main reasons that I was brought on board was to maybe look at things a little differently and to provide some, a bit of autonomy here in the US while still working closely with my German colleagues.
Carman Pirie: That’s interesting that there was a drive to actually put the resources in place to enable that level of autonomy.
Jeff White: From the get-go.
Carman Pirie: Yeah, versus even working counter to it frankly would be more common.
Jeff White: Yeah, and your something, your skillset, and experience, certainly something of a unicorn. It’s like finding designers who can code. It makes it hard to extend your team with yourself.
Jon LaPorta: Right, right. I can code a little bit too. I don’t want to admit that but I can code a little bit too.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Look that’s a, I only have one really bad example about trying that I can code. I’m not even going to pull it out now because Jeff would make fun of me forever.
Jeff White: Do you remember Ning, Jon?
Jon LaPorta: Ning? I’m trying to, I don’t remember that.
Jeff White: It was a social network builder created by Mark Andreessen, the guy who founded Netscape and it allowed you to quickly spin up little compartmentalized social networks. In the early days of social media, Carman built one of those sites, he was very proud of it.
Carman Pirie: Yes. I stand by it.
Jon LaPorta: Kind of like kind of like a MySpace site right?
Carman Pirie: Exactly.
Jeff White: But for a very small group of people to use.
Carman Pirie: Jon, I wonder, let’s take our listeners through this in detail. How did you sequence out the transformation that’s played out? Kind of give us more detail of what it is and then just how did it sequence out? And where are you now?
Jon LaPorta: Yeah, so here the US, we’re growing rapidly. We still are. And one of the challenges I think that was recognized by our parent headquarters in Germany was that the markets aren’t the same. The European German market, even from a visual branding standpoint is much different than what the US market looks for at times. We’re more flashy, a little more commercial looking. One of the things I was brought on to do was kind of take a look at all of the marcomm materials basically when I started, and how do we rebrand some of this? Staying within the corporate guidelines, but having some flexibility to make it more appealing to the US market. That was kind of the first transformation. And that came along with taking the website that we had and working with our sales team, trying to understand from our customers how we could build a better experience on the website.
And I think where people sometimes got hung up a lot is there was always this conversation of B2B and I said, “Okay, well that’s great. That’s fair. But there are still people buying—so why can’t we think of it more as a B2C transaction still, even though it’s B2B?” And then we also had, as part of our salesmen, we have reps and for me another big portion of what I felt our success would be built upon is how do we educate our rep team to be as knowledgeable as our inside application engineers are, so that they’re the face of Pfannenberg to our customers many times. How can we also take some of that similar messaging that we’re using for our customers, but then take that and expand it even further for our rep team? Because in a sense, they’re almost like customers. They have to know the products and they have to be able to find things just as efficiently as well.
Carman Pirie: What did that tactically look like? I guess, how did you bend to the task of educating the rep team with that kind of new market-focused language?
Jon LaPorta: Well, the first thing I had to do, which was a little bit of a challenge for me was, I came from a world where I worked with multiple Pfannenbergs in a year, we’ll say. Different manufacturing companies on different small products or projects. I had to learn much about a company pretty quickly. One of the things when I came onboard here that was really helpful was, I worked very closely with our application engineers and tried to be a sponge and soak things up as much as I could. And when they fed me very technical, detailed information, I would make them stop and say, “Okay, I’m just the marketing dummy. You have to bring this down. We have to talk in the street language here. Re-explain this to me in a way that I can understand it.”
And using that approach, I took that same approach and I pushed that to the reps. I said, “You know what? Maybe we’re assuming that our customers and our reps really are focused on a highly technical conversation, but in a sense, maybe we have to simplify it.” Again, this was something that I focused on with our communications with our messaging, how do we put more of what we do, which is very technical, and try to have a street voice as well as a technical voice for those engineers that may need a technical voice?
Carman Pirie: I think a lot of marketers worry that they, in doing so, they’re dumbing it down and doing a disservice or in some way not going to connect with the highly technical buyer. But that clearly just hasn’t been your experience.
Jon LaPorta: I don’t know. We have the team to talk to the really technical folks and our applications engineers, they know the technical language so they can speak to them in the same way. But many times, I don’t know if it’s always those guys making all the decisions. They’re part of the customer journey. But I don’t think there may be the sole stakeholder. Again, explaining it to a buyer, explaining it to another product manager, things like that, with other companies, sometimes I think maybe it just helps to have a simplified conversation. I always look at it as legal documents. When we all have to read and sign legal documents. I don’t know about you guys, but for me, every time I read them, I’m getting better at understanding it, but come on, can’t we just say what we really want to say and be done with it?
Carman Pirie: If you feel like you have to, almost like you’re playing lawyer for those 10 minutes that you’re reviewing that doc or whatever.
Jon LaPorta: Right, right. It’s really much more complicated than it needs to be. And I think to me that’s one of the assumptions is that maybe we think we’re communicating effectively with each other, but maybe we just have to step back and figure out if we are communicating effectively with each other? And again, this is the approach that I use here at Pfannenberg with our sales department, with our marketing team, is let’s maybe take a focus on the human transaction a little bit and understand how we can relate more to each other.
Carman Pirie: I love the idea of just frankly leveraging those early conversations you have as a marketer, as you’re just getting integrated into the organization and you’re meeting with the product engineers, et cetera, or application engineers, and you’re having to, like you say, are kind of using that whole, tell it to me like I’m a two-year-old. I’m just the marketer here. It’s great to maybe hit record on that conversation and then use that and reflect on it later when you’re actually building out material, be it marketing material or a sales enablement material or what have you.
Jon LaPorta: Yeah, there are times, I can’t tell you how many times, even the CSO of our company, he’s here from the US, his name is Blaine Witt. He was one of my early mentors and he’s still with the company. But he had a way of putting things in an approach or when we had discussions that I could understand the relationships. I could understand the relationships and I could understand the product needs without the technical jargon, maybe making it muddy. And that really helped me along the journey here to again, improve our marcomm and improve our messaging. And where we’re taking that is ultimately to improve the experience our customers have with Pfannenberg.
Carman Pirie: You talked about having basically control over the US web presence and then, and I know that you’ve taken that and really it moves beyond the web to a more extensive martech stack. I guess take us through that a bit. I feel like in some ways a lot of marketers would just be envious if they were in the position that you’re in to have control over the web property in the US because that’s not always the case. I think in some ways your story is one of the virtues of that.
Jon LaPorta: Sure, sure. Well, what I love about our company is that from a team aspect, there are challenges for sure. Anybody who works internationally understands the cultural differences sometimes with communication, with the marcomm, with how things are done. And I won’t say that my time here has not been without that. However, we’re having conversations, and for me even more recently with my colleague in Europe who’s overseeing the marketing on the EMEA side, he comes from a similar background that I have. I think we’re starting to see a shift, not only in Germany but maybe in Europe where people are understanding that things in our world is getting smaller and maybe some of the assumptions we had that this won’t work here is incorrect and trying things to see if it does work and getting that feedback is really some of the differentials.
Right now, as you pointed out, yes, our pfannenberg.com and our pfannenbergusa.com websites are a bit different. But I am working with my colleague there and we’re working on looking at ways to take a look at our content. How can we align on content and simplify? And then what can we use from each other from a branding standpoint to share? And this open communication I think a lot of companies still struggle with, but I feel pretty good that we’re heading down the right path and in the end, the ultimate goal is it should give our customers globally a better experience because we’re trying to implement things that they’re telling us.
Carman Pirie: And you’ve been a pretty early adopter of marketing automation and my guess is that they’re going to at least be learning a bit of that from you.
Jon LaPorta: Yeah, I can actually, I can jump into that a bit if you’d like. We just recently have rolled out marketing automation overseas from just the US and a little history on that is when I came on board here, we were a Salesforce company, still are, but our internal sales team, not our reps, but our internal sales team, our area sales managers, our customer service teams, our commercial teams, we use Salesforce for our communications and CRM and tracking of all of our customer interactions. It was very much an inside system. The problem was when we’d get leads from our old website, they would come into Salesforce and the area sales managers were responsible for manually following up on every single one of those leads. And then copying the rep and then, and if they’re traveling, if they’re on the road, somebody could send in a request for a quote. It might take three or four days before they get answered because the process was not designed for this quick response.
And to HubSpot’s credit, let’s see, I think we’ve had HubSpot here four, maybe going on five years. I would say we were one of the early B2B adopters and what really kind of put me over the edge initially for HubSpot was the whole marketing automation. And they had a toolset up so I could work seamlessly with Salesforce. I could push information out to our rep team as well as give reps access to segmented information. But more importantly, I could automate the entire process of communication to the customer and still give a human touch and still let all the parties and stakeholders know what was being communicated, but not have to sit there and write an email.
Jeff White: And you mentioned that you’re actually using zip code lookup and automatically routing leads based on geography, is that right?
Jon LaPorta: Correct. Yeah. I put together a US post office. I’ve got one from the site, put together a post office lookup table for the 40,000 plus zip codes we have in the US and when someone comes to our website and fills out a form, they’re required, we ask him for their zip code and country code. And based on the parameters in there, it can look up a database and pull all the information of who the area sales manager is and then who is their local rep. And it sends them an email introducing everybody to them so that they have an immediate conversation, immediate communication. And then it also notifies the rep instantaneously of the request and on certain levels that will let the area sales manager know, “Hey, a quote request just came in, or here’s an urgent inquiry, please keep an eye on this.” And then we do our best to track it in Salesforce and build opportunities from our reps all the way into our sales team.
Jeff White: Are you finding, are you utilizing the closed-loop analytics as well from HubSpot and Salesforce to see the percentage of those leads that are actually closing once they’re forwarded to an outside rep?
Jon LaPorta: Yeah, it’s a little bit of a challenge. We have certain rules in place as to what gets an opportunity and what doesn’t. It’s usually the bigger transactions that I can track more frequently versus maybe what we’ll call the day-to-day stuff that comes in. But I can see that. I can see every bit of interaction that the customer has from the initial request all the way through to going to the inside sales team, which I also recently was put in charge of. I now also manage our entire inside sales team. Marketing has taken over the role of external communication as well as internal communication and messaging and getting closer to the customer through the inside sales team. I’m overseeing this kind of dual department situation here, which I’ve been reading more and more companies are starting to shift to.
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Carman Pirie: Yeah. It’s been interesting, we’ve certainly seen that a fair bit—the inside sales function being built out within the marketing umbrella versus the…
Jon LaPorta: Sales umbrella. Typically sales.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. I think the drivers of that decision are interesting to think about. I found some of it just has to do with an organizational recognition that maybe the sales leadership wasn’t ready to move down that path so let’s give it to marketing instead.
Jon LaPorta: No, I think it’s bigger than that. I think at least from my viewpoint is we recognize that inside sales had the ear of the customer and marketing’s job is to communicate to the customer, so why not better take what we’re hearing from the customers and then understand how we can communicate that back out to the customer?
Carman Pirie: We’ve certainly seen a lot of evidence to support that and people in instances where it is integrated, those inside sales conversations, driving the content creation agenda, for instance, on the marketing team, on the website, et cetera. Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of that.
Jon LaPorta: Even some interesting things I was telling Jeff the other day, one of the things that we did on our website, which sounds crazy was, everybody has a contact us. You have a contact us button on your web. You have a contact section on your website. We all have them. And the way it worked is we’d have people contact us and they would send an email to us. It would go to our inside team or it would go to applications. It wasn’t very manageable. Then one day I had an idea, I said, “Well, based on this simplistic approach,” I said, “how about I just throw a link up there that says, ask us a question.” And it can be anything. It can be, is it going to rain today? It doesn’t really matter to me. Ask us a question.
We put that up on our website and we created it, connected it to a form and almost immediately started seeing a 10 fold increase per day of communications coming through that. It was crazy how fast we started getting questions in. And I think what was interesting is we made it simple. Customers didn’t have to drive or drill down. We still have forms like that on our website. If you have an RMA, if you have a service question, service issue, you need a quote, we still have multiple forms across our website, but in the end one of our most successful forms is, ask us a question.
Carman Pirie: That was going to be my question because first off, one could easily just stop there and say, “Okay.”
Jeff White: That’s the lead.
Carman Pirie: Pro-tip, everybody just change their contact us to ask us a question and make it rain.
Jeff White: But I think what’s interesting here is that if you compare the contact us form that’s still there on the site against the ask us a question for them, they’re the same page. And yet your ask us a question form generates so much more traffic.
Carman Pirie: And so my question, if I can get to it, I think will let us know if there is a there. Did you see a decrease in utilization of the other forms that were maybe a little bit more directive of the type of question that you might be asking because you just maybe made a one-stop-shop for all questions? Or has there been a just a general, a huge lift in contact as a result?
Jon LaPorta: It’s an interesting question. I would say that yes, some of the other forms dropped off. The quote form isn’t used nearly as much as it was because people would just as soon go to the ‘ask us a question’ form and just say, “Hey, I need a quote on this or I need information on this.” Or it’s an application question. Some of the traffic of the other forms may have gone down. But I also think people weren’t afraid to actually just ask us a question. They didn’t feel that they had to, there wasn’t a lot of pressure behind it. I think that also made engagement higher.
Carman Pirie: We may have lost some on those other pieces, but the whole is still greater? Am I getting the right picture?
Jon LaPorta: Yeah, for sure. And then even taking it a step further, to circle back a little bit, technology is something that I’m obsessed with. Maybe to a fault. I love technology, people in this day and age get worried about what’s listening to what? In the end for me personally, my personal feeling is, I’m not that exciting so if Alexa wants to listen to us at home, great. But in terms of technology and making my life easier and others, I think you got to embrace it. You got to understand how can it benefit you.
And maybe we’re behind the times, obviously in the B2B world, but a year and a half ago we added chat to our website. Live chat that goes to our applications team. You still don’t see a ton of sites, I would say in the B2B world that take advantage of that. But again, we’re trying to make it easier for our customers to connect with us. And the interesting thing, and I don’t know why it has happened, but in the last three months our chat and engagements have gone up triple. And I don’t know why. That’s something I’ve got to research.
Jeff White: It’ll be interesting to see that. Yeah, it would be interesting to see where the, if there’s an increase in a new type of traffic or a new source that it may be driving that.
Jon LaPorta: The one thing we did was we switched from one vendor to a HubSpot chat platform. We have HubSpot chat built into our website. Part of our whole platform, so everything gets recorded. We were with an external company now we’re with this one. Don’t know if it’s related.
Jeff White: Interesting. Are you using any of the AI functionality to route those chats? Or is it going straight to a rep?
Jon LaPorta: Right now it is, but we actually, for the last four years, all those ‘ask us a question’ results, all the different service requests, everything that we’ve been getting from our customers, we’ve captured into a database and we’re now in the process of sorting through the types of questions that are being asked. We’re trying to understand the commonalities behind those to build not only a knowledge base but also to integrate the AI function into chat and drive customers on more of a self-help path but also allow them at any point to jump out of there and talk to somebody for real.
Carman Pirie: Very cool. And you’re piloting some of this with the European counterparts you mentioned.
Jon LaPorta: Yes. Within the last six months, we’ve, I don’t know how familiar you are but Europe is very, very strict with their, they have the GDPR. With the information that you can collect, how you can contact customers. It’s very, very strict and has to be followed very carefully. The good thing is with a partner like HubSpot, their backend systems support that. And we were able to work with our German colleagues to understand their needs from a legal standpoint as well as the other European countries that have different laws. And we’ve now brought HubSpot over to our team in Europe starting with Germany and a couple of other countries.
Carman Pirie: And are you essentially looking to replicate what’s been done in the US? Or are there any kind of nuances to what you’re doing there?
Jon LaPorta: Yeah, I think now we’re taking more of a crawling approach with them a bit where the goal is to capture data, to understand what people are asking and to get people responded to more quickly. Where here in the US, we’re sprinting all the time. And eventually where it gets really interesting and really cool is you can start seeing behaviors on your website. Like what customers are viewing this product but not this product?
And again, I don’t think it’s anything to be afraid of for customers, but really what it helps us do is it helps us target our messaging to you more on topics of interest that you’re looking for and not waste your time with things that you may have no interest. In the past, you’d go to a company, maybe you get on their mailing list and you’re getting an email about widget A, but all you care about is widget D and you keep getting this noise from all these other products that you really don’t care about and it really frustrates you. What if you could just get targeted based on things that were of interest to you?
Carman Pirie: I think that that’s always been the promise of course. But frankly, marketers just can’t help themselves.
Jeff White: Yeah. Really, they’ll want to read all of this.
Jon LaPorta: Right. It’s one of the 50 emails I got today. I think we can all look and say all of the emails we get on a daily basis, how many are really just delete and move?
Jeff White: Yeah. How many offer true value? To that end, you also mentioned that you’re beginning to go down the road of a customer experience journey. Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing there and how you’re enabling that.
Jon LaPorta: Yeah, so we talked about, Pfannenberg as a company and globally we’ve all recognized that we as a company, we need to get closer to our customers. And I don’t think, and I’m not giving away anything there in my opinion. That’s kind of common sense. We all know that we have to get closer to our customers and we have to listen more and, but it’s hard when you have different communication channels, you have different sales channels. You have anywhere from your customer who could be working with a distributor or rep direct. There’s a lot of different voices that can engage with that customer. But in the end, we still have to listen to the customer. For me, I’m currently working on a project that’s going to ideally get us closer to the customer, figure out our customer journeys, understand what customers are really looking for from us, and make some decisions on how we respond to that. And even getting out in the field and doing customer workshops and going to visit customers and have a conversation and sit down and talk to them.
Carman Pirie: That’s pretty interesting. I couldn’t help but almost just take a bit of a leap from what you just said and just imagine that you said that it’s difficult when you have so many different voices that impact the customer, in some ways so many different sets of ears out there that could potentially be hearing different things.
Jon LaPorta: Right. It’s a telephone game, that you talk, that we used to play in school. You send a message and then it kind of changes as it gets to the end person.
Carman Pirie: And I do think that’s a real challenge for marketers that are trying to, if you will, in the traditional sense, control a kind of a brand voice or a tone. There’s a lot more connectivity with customers than there used to be and a lot, and they’re interacting with a lot of different aspects of your firm, different people, et cetera. And I think that’s just a real core area of struggle.
Jon LaPorta: Yeah, I think, would you guys agree, but I think the Amazon effect is real. Even at the B2B level where customers expect almost instantaneous messaging, communication and response.
Jeff White: Oh and it goes well beyond that. Even just some of the episodes of this podcast that we’ve recorded around the B2C-ization as a result of companies like Amazon of the B2B world, certainly it is a real thing for sure.
Jon LaPorta: You have to step up your game with your customer interactions and listening to your customers. And I think there’s still a lot of companies out there that feel that they know what their customers want and it’s a tell. “Hey, you need this, we know you need this.” But how many companies look back and say, “What do you need?” And just maybe ask that question, what do you need? And think about it. You’re not going to build something for everybody. You’re not going to design something for everybody. In the end, you’re going to focus on what makes sense for your customers and your goals, but it also can help by just asking that question back to the ask as a question. Ask them a question.
Carman Pirie: I’ll be curious to maybe do a follow-up episode with you sometime Jon, once this is a little bit more established and understand how you’re formalizing that customer listening. I think it’s an area, there’s just a lot of organizations that are struggling to understand how best to do it. How do I kind of harvest the knowledge that exists in all of my organization’s touchpoints with customers and actually use it to channel a better understanding? Once you’ve cracked that nut, we’ll come back for episode two.
Jon LaPorta: It’s a multiyear project. We’re beta testing it here in the US and then from there, based on its success and feedback we get, we’re going to work on rolling that out to the rest of the world. It’s a learning process for me. That’s what I like about it. It’s definitely a learning process and sometimes I think I have it figured out and I know that the customer journey is going to be this way, or this is what the customer’s looking for, and I get thrown a sideways curve and I’m like, oh, okay. I didn’t even think about that. Yeah, I think it’s we’re still in the crawling phase of this project, but we’re starting to get upright here a little bit.
Jeff White: I love those learning moments where it completely changes your perception of what you thought.
Carman Pirie: I think it’s constructive too because at least it’s a good indication that you’re at least being open.
Jon LaPorta: Yeah, I was going to say, you have to be open to it.
Carman Pirie: Jon, thank you so much for sharing your experience with us today. I feel like the chat’s just getting started and here we are at the end, but thanks so much. I really appreciate the benefit of your experience today.
Jon LaPorta: Thanks. Well, I enjoyed doing it and if there’s more discussion in the future, I’d love to help you guys out.
Jeff White: Wonderful. Us too. Well, thanks again.
Jon LaPorta: Thank you.
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