Is There Life After Search Trade Shows?

As you probably know, I work for Didit, a SEM agency that's been around for a long time (we were founded in 1996). For the past decade, we, along many of our competitor agencies, have faithfully supported the various search trade shows with exhibition fees, sponsorship fees, travel fees, and the intangible costs of flying sales and marketing staffs hither and yon to meet and greet folks on the show floor. We did so because even though attending these shows was a pain, the pluses of being there always outweighed all the costs and hassles. To put it simply, we always got some ROI (and there's nothing dearer to a search marketer's heart than ROI) in the form of qualified leads, a fair share of which eventually translated to paying clients.

But things started to change about a year ago. The qualified leads that we had become accustomed to gathering at search shows started drying up. Even though the exhibit halls were jammed, the people rushing through them weren't prospects that we were remotely interested in talking to. Instead, it seemed that more and more we were talking to nothing but in-house search people, or people who spent so little on search that we couldn't help them.



What happened? Well, it seems that the show managers decided that they had to offer "something for everyone" to goose their traffic. The result was a smorgasbord of content offerings designed to appeal to everyone from the experienced PPC professional to guys who just discovered that they can buy keywords from Google.

You can't really blame the trade show guys for deciding to serve up diluted gruel to the masses: after all, their main obligation is to provide growth in the form of traffic, year after year, for their investors. But the result for exhibitors -- who pay the shows bills -- was devastating. Because as anyone who's attended these shows will tell you, today the majority of people who actually show up on the exhibit floor are either bottom-feeders seeking to acquire free memory sticks, pens, and other goofy giveaways -- or flat-out newbies seeking to pick up some "secret SEO tips" at a level-101 "search boot camp" session. Sophisticated C-Level influencers with budgetary authority? They huddle in the conference sessions and avoid the show floor at all costs, viewing it as a noisy, sales-crazed zoo. In fact, you'd have a better chance of meeting one on the subway than in the exhibit hall.

The thing that really bothers me is that just about everybody in the search industry is aware that the trade shows rarely produce any ROI for the folks that support them, but nobody wants to admit it. It's almost as if there was some grand conspiracy at work silencing any frank discussion. A couple of months ago, there actually was a candid discussion about shows that appeared on one of the industry's more popular online bulletin boards, and it turned out that the real reason that people kept going to the shows was to schmooze with their buddies. "It's all about networking," wrote one of these people. "That's where the real action is. And it's also where I hope to get my very next job (wink, wink)."

Wonderful. We as an industry are spending millions of dollars each year to subsidize a bunch of people who like to party late into the night, guzzle mojitos and trade business cards. Not only is this wasteful, but we're actually enabling the kind of rampant job-hopping that has made it so hard to keep qualified SEM professionals working at our own companies. Furthermore, the shows themselves, chocked with tips-and-trick sessions whose whole purpose is to prove that "SEM is something that anyone can do," is actually undermining the agency value proposition.

This isn't just crazy, folks; it's suicidal. Furthermore, you'd think that search marketing agencies, who preach all day to their clients about measurable, efficient media spending, would be the last ones to spend money on inefficient, unmeasurable junkets with negative ROI. You'd think that their clients would realize that all the expensive parties they sponsor and the huge fees they pay for booth space come out of the client's pocket. You might even think that in the world of the Internet, where information is truly at your fingertips and networking increasingly occurs across social media sites, there would be no need for the circus-like trade shows at all.

But then you'd be overestimating our intelligence and maturity as an industry. After all, why should the sane, frugal rules we preach to our clients apply to us? We're such special, rocket-science smart people, after all: don't we deserve to get together a couple of times a year and have a super-expensive party at our clients' expense?

Sorry, folks. I'm not buying it. Just like on Wall Street, this party is over, and while search trade shows might have been a luxury that this industry could afford in the flush times of yore, it's high time we give up this bad habit. If we want to be taken seriously, it's time to practice what we preach, avoid waste, sloth, drunkenness and gluttony, and find a more efficient way to find prospects. Maybe it's through e-mails, or cold-calling, or virtual trade shows, or maybe even some PPC ads, but there's got to be a better way to reach the people we're trying to reach.

I don't know what the answer is, but I do know that in this new age of frugal austerity, search trade shows have seen their day, and I for one will not be missing these wanton, wasteful bacchanals.

13 comments about "Is There Life After Search Trade Shows?".
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  1. Martin Edic from WTSsocial, January 12, 2009 at 10:47 a.m.

    I think part of this can be attributed to the recession. During the last two downturns I observed this same phenomena- diluted value, many job seekers and the eventual closure of show producers who take this route. The best advice is to remember to go where the customers are rather than your peers and focus on conferences rather than trade shows where you get more content and less glitz. Move into the strategic conferences and away from the parties.

  2. Loren Roberts from Hearken Creative, January 12, 2009 at 11:07 a.m.

    Look, it's not just SEO. The democratization of everything -- advertising (through self-built SEO campaigns), graphic design (through desktop publishing), even user-built video commercials -- is a "perfect storm" marriage of technology and American "do-it-yourself" mentality. The diminishing value of tradeshows is a symptom of a greater disease: the denigration and lack of clout of well-trained professionals, who can actually get things done.

    The solution? Leave the shows, re-tool the product, refocus the pitch, and find the (possibly new) combination of client/product that serves your company's bottom line the best. And hold on tight...we're in for a wild ride as we figure it all out. (I know I'm over-simplifying: I can think of 4 or 5 other issues relating to tradeshows off the top of my head...)

  3. Sandi Forman from BIO Analytics Corp., January 12, 2009 at 11:24 a.m.

    Sounds like you may need some suggestions about leveraging the opportunities at the tradeshow. If the folks you want to get to are in the sessions, shouldn't you be there--presenting, speaking on a panel, introducing, etc.? Perhaps you could contact the folks you really want to speak with in advance and set up scheduled meetings. Find a way to attract the real buyers to your booth--stop giving away the goofy giveaways and give away a free trial, a select service or something the buyers really want. Maybe the reason the show floor is such a zoo is because the exhibitors have made it that way and the real buyers just don't want to waste their time. Believe me, busy serious business folks don't waste a week schmoozing--a day locally, maybe.

    There will always be a need for conferences because real learning and discovery can take place there, and given that, there will always be some kind of exhibits because the sellers want to be where the buyers are and the show producers want to exploit that to make money. So, if you are a good, creative agency, figure out how to get to all those folks bottled up in the sessions. Or stay home and let others figure out how to morph tradeshows back into events with value for the exhibitors. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing how it will all shake out.

  4. Joe Fredericks, January 12, 2009 at 11:40 a.m.

    Great post, Steve. Spot on. I think "the buddies networking" is a major driver for these shows and, in some ways, it may provide positive ROI to maintain these connections. But, lately, trade shows are of little value to the exhibitor - or the attendee for that matter. There needs to be a next level of shows which is more exlusionary and allows for free and relaxed conversation between vendor and potential client. - Too bad for the guys looking for free pens.

  5. Barry Bates from adBlocks, January 12, 2009 at 11:50 a.m.

    Terrific post. You have organized many of my complaints with trade shows -- and it's not unique to SEM only! I have saved it as a reminder the next time I contemplate exhibiting in hopes of ROI!

  6. Hugh Simpson from WOW! Presentation, January 12, 2009 at 12:05 p.m.

    As a person involved in the Internet Marketing world you might look to this GREENER pasture. The "newbies" seem to have money to burn as they buy these outrageously overpriced launches for their businesses expecting SUPER results.

    Hugh Simpson

  7. Danny Sullivan from, January 12, 2009 at 12:44 p.m.

    Steve, I've lost track of the number of posts that Did-It has attacking trade shows over the past two years. At this point, I'm wondering if the issue isn't with the trade shows but rather Did-It and your business model.

    Personally, I don't want you at my shows because you find attending them "a pain." If you're a sponsor or exhibitor, you should be getting good value out of your participation. If that's not the case, then our sales people at SMX would want to work with you to improve that experience. And if you still weren't getting the leads you're looking for, then we wouldn't want you to participate. It's not in our interest to have you unhappy.

    In terms of programming, it doesn't sound like you've actually spoken to anyone who has programmed a show to backup the statements you've had about "goosing" the offerings. You're also not mentioning shows. I can tell you for SMX, we have two shows that absolutely have a something-for-everyone format: SMX West and SMX East. That's a continuation of the "one-stop-shopping" approach I also programmed for years when I was doing SES. In short, nothing new there. No change on my end in the past year.

    As for the "gruel" that you feel as an exhibitor you're paying for, big correction. The bulk of our conference revenue for us comes from paid attendees -- people who have paid to attend sessions. Those are the people who pay most of the bills. We don't delver "gruel" in those. If we did, people wouldn't come back. Nor would be be able to offer a money-back guarantee and stay in business. You and Did-It have made such statements before. I disagree with them. To me, they suggest you simply haven't actually gone into sessions for yourselves before writing about them.

    As for a "conspiracy" of silence, apparently you never get out online. There's been discussion for years that conferences are only for the networking. Pubcon was founded on that premise -- that the "real" activity happens in the hallways. I mean, this is a years-old debate.

    The reality is that if you are an experienced search marketer, then yes, some conferences might not offer high enough level content for you (which is why we offer SMX Advanced to take it up a notch and also why for our other shows, we offer pure networking-only passes). But lots of other marketers do get real value out of it.

  8. Matthew Mcgowan from, January 12, 2009 at 1:27 p.m.

    Surprise! It blows me away that a company of Did-It's stature allows it’s employee’s, year after year, to write such nonsense about trade-shows then year after year continue to apply for free press passes... maybe you guys should attend a time-management and effectiveness workshop! Oh wait, I forgot… these articles are ghost written – maybe you guys should be teaching these classes. Even more so it bothers’s me that MediaPost would allow such garbage to be published – though I have grown to expect this and have no control over their actions.

    As for Search Trade Shows... (full disclosure - I am the Publisher for Search Engine Strategies - the industry's most widely attended global conference and expo series with up to 6,000 attendees in attendance at any one event, in addition to the and publications).

    1. Delegates/Attendees - the majority of the people you meet at SES have paid to be there (up to $1,995 for a full conference pass) – do they find value in this purchase? According to the survey’s many of them fill out and the fact that they come back year after year – yes they do.
    2. Sponsors and Exhibitors – 100s of companies, from the Search Engines themselves to the agencies and technology/tools providers participate year on year – why? Because they garner more then enough qualified leads at an SES event to cover their costs and then some. Not to mention it’s a great time to get in front of their customers all at once.
    3. Speakers – they all spend hours on their presentations and cover their own expenses in order to get in front of our audience… why? Because the people they are looking to meet are in attendance.

    Steve – your article bore’s me… maybe that’s why I spend more time on,, and other valuable industry publications that would likely never allow a contributing editor, you, to waste so many people’s time with complete unsubstantiated gibberish – Matt

  9. Bret Bonnet from Quality Logo Products, Inc., January 12, 2009 at 6:03 p.m.

    I agree with many of Steve's points. Regardless of the industry, theme, or event - trade shows are becoming increasingly more difficult to monetize. This forces everyone to work harder, but more importantly; work smarter.

    I also don't think that trade shows are for everyone. Being that I'm in the business of selling promotional products - consulting companies on how to best use trade show giveaways to drive booth traffic, I've participated in/attended more trade shows, spanning across hundreds of industries, than I can even begin to think to count.

    Regardless of the show type, size, or location you attend, there will always be some percentage of bottom feeders - people looking for freebies and no charge SEO advice. The trick is to filter out the low quality floor traffic from the high; and convert it.

    That' right, it's time to SEO your trade show campaign! :)

    With general admission running as much as $1,000.00 per person at some of these shows, the barrier to entry is relatively high. Right there show organizers are doing you a huge favor - if a potential client can't come up with the $1,000.00 for a weekend of quality SEO advice and interaction, chances are they can't afford your services anyway and these aren't the kind of people you want as clients.

    Not sure how to stop people from taking your free swag? Easy. Don't advertise it. Tuck it away below your table or behind the booth. Only share items when/if you've had a candid conversation with a potential candidate. Worried about not having something for everyone? Put some dirt cheap pencils emblazoned with your logo for all to have/share. Doing so will save you a ton of money and you'll able to identify the people who are interested in your services from those interested only in your freebies.

    Second, who says that you even have to buy a booth or sponsor an event in order participate in a show? Sign up to become a speaker. I'd think you'd be more likely to spark client interest and gain respect by actually speaking to your target audience, establishing yourself as an authoritative source (think link bait!) instead of trying to attract them with flashy booth babes or toys.

    If speaking is not your forte, grab some business cards and walk the showroom floors by your lonesome. The competitive intelligence an active participant can gain by walking the show floors at major shows such as these can be priceless.

    I can go on and on about this all day, but in the end, there's always value in participating and attending trade shows, it's just up to you to unlock it.

  10. Bill Kovach, January 12, 2009 at 6:53 p.m.

    Hello Steve -

    Thank you so much for your post - I trust that you do not mind that I take issue with it.

    It certainly drove some solid and not so solid responses. Particularly credit should go to Gary Lynch, Matt, Sandi and others for suggesting positive steps.

    I wish that I had a dollar for every time a prospective client took your position. I would be sitting on the beach in Fiji with a mojito in my hand.

    As both a professional speaker and business mentor for companies that choose trade shows, I have to tell you that the Trade Show arena is NOT dead. Nor is it something conjured up by some folks to take your money and serve up warm beer. In spite of everything mentioned as reasons not to attend, Trade Show marketing, done properly, will always represent one of the greatest sales/marketing opportunities known to business.

    It is the only marketing arena than encompasses ALL the disciplines that the word "Marketing" conjures up.

    From pre-event email and snail mail, lead acquisition systems, print, site presentation skills and fulfillment tracking for ROI, nothing, and I mean nothing can beat successful Trade Show marketing!

    The sole function of Marketing is to make Sales superfluous. [Peter Drucker]

    You referred to Trade Shows as a major pain and that your results started to shift about a year ago and have diminished since.

    The idea just might be that perhaps perception of Trade Shows as a pain and going to the wrong events are the real issues. These two situations are easy to adjust with a perception shift.

    It’s normal for some client companies to be disappointed with performance. Maybe with some basic discovery and process shift, we could get you to change your opinion.

    Out of curiosity, do you continuously perform some type of investigation and revise your strategy to keep pace with what may be a marketplace in revolution? Are you simply going to shows just for the industry presence?

    Some additional comments you made really come as a surprise. Yours is a search-defined industry. Some events simply may no longer be profitable for you. If that is the issue, stop going to them and shift your focus to searching for venues that are more productive. With as many shows there are in the States every year, it would be impossible for you to not find more fertile fields.

    Remember, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result.

    You also mention that a particular show really didn’t fit your profile anymore. Things change, Steve.

    The profiles of a show are always in a state of flux depending on any number of factors. Nonetheless, changes are never orchestrated without the approval of the show Association. . . that means, you Steve, and the participating companies that are members of the Association. The thought of an anonymous “THEM”, serving up “diluted gruel” to unsuspecting exhibitors and then padding attendance with bottom feeders and swag seekers is a bit of a departure, isn’t it?

    Granted, some events are of a lower priority but the overall process for selection and attending remains constant.

    Agreed that certain functions at a Trade Show are solely for networking. This isn’t unnecessary evil though, even if it’s distasteful for you. Obviously, someone felt it necessary even if you didn’t. If avoiding some of these situations is your focus, you can bet there is probably a good movie on your pay-per-view, or some work to do.

    If it’s a party, how about a house on the beach with a well stocked bar. It’s probably going to be far less expensive and a lot easier than spending three days on hard concrete.

    If successful results are more in order then you might want to do some searching of expectations for attending a particular show and moving on those expectations.

    One of the prime purposes for Trade Show marketing is to build new, sustainable revenue through qualified lead generation. Review your commitment to an event with the proper expectations. Then structure a strategy for success.

    In the past few years, there has been a dramatic shift in show profile - the "good 'ol boy" network of the past has been replaced with a more perceptive exhibitor. . .one that carefully strategizes with Sales to develop winning tactics on the show floor.

    We love this new environment. It lets us reach out and make an even greater impact on how clients approach shows, how they create and plan strategy and tactics and how they execute.

    The environment, particularly in a down market, forces companies to develop a process. This includes replacing the old dictate that a new employee on a fast track is the Trade Show Guru for the next six months.

    Rather, it forces companies to take a greater introspective look at maximizing their programs.

    More and more participating companies realize that in our high-tech, global economy, a corporate mentor is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity.

    These are the folks that are exploring fresh ideas to re-design and revise their commitment for better ROI.

    Like your company's experience level Steve, we bring over 35 years of active industry experience to the table. As “Industry Insiders”, we KNOW Trade Shows and have helped many companies realize the value in this incredible marketing tool.

    We also believe that it is easy to duplicate success. Showing clients how to constantly monitor success and build new strategies and tactics is a passion.

    There will always be companies that staff their exhibits with people that are too busy styling and profiling to be receptive to potential clients, that have no structure, or reason to be at a show. Quite a few of these companies go away with bad thoughts about trade shows, never to return.

    If you are not getting fulfillment of your expectations or purpose for attending shows, then either your expectations or your strategies are off the mark. It is as simple as that.

    Answer this – Are you working for your Trade Show program or is it working for you. If your answer is that you are working for it, then you are doing something wrong.

    It sounds like a you might need to look at Trade Shows with new eyes.

    You might consider a mentor so that your view of the industry and the results you get improve.

    You learn much quicker under the guidance of expert teachers. You waste a lot of time going down blind alleys if you have no on to lead you.

    Let us know how to support your vision of success.


  11. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, January 12, 2009 at 7:36 p.m.

    Hmmm..nothing like a hot, juicy thread. Steve, you've struck a chord, which is exactly what you intended to do. And the results are polarized, which means the truth is somewhere in the middle. So, sorry Matt, this isn't unsubstantiated garbage, but something you should probably be listening too. Yes, Steve's opinion isn't everyone's, but it sounds like it hits enough chords to be considered in planning for the future. The Search industry is in flux, so it's natural that shows will have to recalibrate and refind their purpose and audience. I have to admit I'm one of those caught somewhere in the middle, having been a part of SMX and SES for years now. I certainly take issue with a number of Steve's points..I for one work hard to make sure I don't serve "gruel" at these shows. And the tone of the column is overtly inflammatory, which, as Danny pointed out, seems to be a business model for DidIt recently. But I wouldn't be so quick to discount all the points. You might not like the tone, but there's enough resonance out there to justify taking the message into consideration.

  12. Danny Sullivan from, January 12, 2009 at 9:44 p.m.

    I agree, Gord -- there are serious concerns that Steve raises that should be taken into account. I am taking them seriously. It's one reason I called him and talked a bit after commenting here.

    My big disagreement is with Steve's piece is that he's translating his frustrations as a conference vendor to that of a session attendee. He can speak with authority as a frustrated vendor -- clearly he is one, whatever the reasons. But as an attendee? As Steve told me on the phone, he didn't attend any sessions at our SMX East show. I don't get the impression he's attended any sessions at any conferences recently -- SMX, SES, Search Insider Summit, Pubcon -- you name it.

    Despite this, sessions are declared by him to be "diluted gruel." If he had been an attendee of any session -- perhaps even a single one -- that would carry more weight with me. Instead, it undermines some of what he's written.

    Steve's an vet in the space, of course. He might not feel even the sessions we consider to be advanced at a high enough for him. Fair enough -- I understand that and have covered the ways we've tried to address the issue for vets in terms of our own series. But bottom line, we do educate plenty of people -- and educate them well. They wouldn't come back, if we didn't. I wouldn't hear from people who tell me when they've come back that they've improved their businesses based on stuff they've learned.

    I feel part of Steve's frustration with conferences comes from his, "the shows themselves, chocked with tips-and-trick sessions whose whole purpose is to prove that 'SEM is something that anyone can do,' is actually undermining the agency value proposition," statement.

    Again, if he's not been in sessions at all, it's hard to take this line seriously. It's even harder when I look at our SMX East show, see that I had an entire track designed for agencies and those who work with them and think, "That's undermining agencies?" Nor do we have some set agenda that says for any particular session, the goal is to demonstrate that "SEM is easy -- anyone can do it." We simply look at different aspects of SEM and try to examine issues, tips and tactics for those particular sessions. How do you do better on YouTube search? How does the use of AJAX impact your web site in terms of search engines? How are searchers interacting with search results pages these days? Where's the "SEM is easy -- ditch your agency" agenda there?

    Talking further with Steve, and looking again at his post as well as those previously from others at Did-It, you have to make sure you're clear on definitions and viewpoints. Steve is using SEM to mean paid search or PPC, as I read it. I don't. I rely on these definitions:

    SEO: gaining traffic from search engines via free listings.

    PPC/Paid Search: gaining traffic from search engines via paid listings.

    SEM/Search Marketing: Umbrella term meaning the combination of both SEO+PPC.

    Did-It is well on the record for believing that SEO is not rocket science, that anyone can do it, so look out pure or heavy SEO firms -- that demand is going to move to in house marketers.

    That's why it's confusing when you read in this piece that Steve is saying that SEM is NOT something anyone can do. He means that paid search is hard. That paid search, as he told me on the phone, is rocket science.

    So Did-It -- which abandoned SEO services long ago to my understanding -- wants to tell us that SEO is something anyone can do, despite not actually doing it. And paid search, which is their core business, is something that only an agency can do (Did-It inherently being one of those agencies).

    I think the reality is that more and more people want to do both things in house. The number of in house search marketers are growing, if only from the demand I see from people asking us to program sessions specifically for in house search marketers. They aren't going away, but neither are they necessarily a threat to good agencies.

    I think plenty of companies that run search marketing (SEO and PPC) in house also turn to agencies for additional support. The answer isn't to tell them that they are wrong and not provide the support they're looking for. And that's not the answer whether you're programming a conference or a vendor on a trade floor considered that more and more people seem to be doing stuff in house.

    Back to what Steve wrote, "it seemed that more and more we were talking to nothing but in-house search people."

    I think that's a sign that the search landscape overall is changing, not that the trade shows themselves have caused this to happen. And I think it's a sign to an agency like Did-It that they'd better figure out a way to help those in house companies -- because they are potential customers that could be served, with the right business models and services.

    If vendors have issues, at SMX, we want to improve their experience as much as we want to work hard for our paid attendees. Both contribute to our bottom line. And we'll take seriously suggestions and criticisms, along with things we've proactively introduced to help vendors in the space, such as the SMX Theater we've run for the past year on the floor, allowing vendors to do more formal "out of booth" presentations to attendees. There's plenty of room for creativity that lets vendors get out in front of qualified customers yet doesn't compromise the editorial standards we also maintain for our sessions.

    Our sales people will work hard to help vendors get more out of their booths and sponsorships, because if they've not had a good experience, they're not going to come back. But there's also a limit to what we can do. At some point, some companies may have to address their underlying business models and offerings. That's a core aspect to how successful a company will be at a trade show or elsewhere.

  13. Bill Kovach, January 13, 2009 at 2:32 p.m.

    Hello Gordy, Steve, Aaron and all -

    There are a lot of valid points that you are raising - particularly about what the core issues really are.

    I can certainly feel Steve's pain, but dropping out of trade show marketing is not an answer. That's really a last resort.

    If your shows are deminishing or the marketplace is moving beyond your focus, move with it or find more fertile fields.

    Certainly, some show associations are not what you might want, but again, as members of the association, it's up to you to provide the direction. If they are dictating to you, it's because they feel they can.

    A number of years ago, an office products event association of long standing decided to open the show up to Pacific Rim companies. Their justification was based on low attendance.

    What it served to do, was bring in all the suppliers to the existing exhibitors and attendance fell off to the point that the show closed permanently.

    Lesson here is that if you are a member of the event association, do not let them rule you. They wouldn't be in existence if you weren't there, so tell them what is needed, tell them why and how you see a correction to the current issue.

    THEN, if they continue to ignore you,move to another show.

    Those events that don't lose touch with their clients [exhibitors] continue to grow.

    Danny makes a good point as well -

    What I've heard so far is that your industry is in the process of changing and that one or two of you are very concerned about how it is going to affect your structure.

    Whenever that happens, change the structure to accommodate the marketplace seems to be a good rule.

    The first rule of holes is pretty simple - if you find yourself in a deep hole, the first thing you do is stop digging.

    All industries change - that is inevitable. Keeping up with the change or better still, keeping ahead of the changes drive your success.

    Then again, the only person that I know that really embraces change is a baby with a dirty diaper - Sure, it's not easy maintaining growth, changing markets, broad range marketing and competition.

    But when you consider the alternative. . .

    My 2 cents


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