Five Hidden Secrets of Social Media Failure

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2011 will be a year when many marketing professionals hit the social media re-set button.  After climbing aboard the “engagement train” for fear of being left behind, many marketers will come up empty when they try to explain what they actually achieved for the money. The honeymoon is over. Show me the money.

This theme of social media failure was recently addressed by PR Smart Guy Brian Solis. I usually agree with Brian but his recent post seems overly-simplistic.  Let’s explore this vital issue and fill in some of the points that Brian overlooked. Why are the majority of social media efforts failing?


Brian seems to equate a lack of planning with a failure to have goals.  I think these are distinct problems.

Rather than lack of planning, one common source of social media failure is OVER-PLANNING. I mean if there is one thing corporations really know, it’s planning!  Every major goal has a 2-5 year forecast attached to it, doesn’t it?  But that’s the fatal flaw.

  • Many companies don’t have a corporate culture ready to adjust marketing tactics month-to-month.  What was the last major platform shift in television advertising? Cable? The idea that the medium is shifting right under your feet is unfamiliar.  Not only are the channels evolving rapidly, the rules of engagement are changing too! You can’t plan for that.  Would your company devote half its social media budget to a category called “we don’t know yet?”
  • The other cultural aspect contributing to failure is that the real opportunities on the social scene may not present themselves in what we’ve planned to do (i.e. “We’ll take out an ad and hope people come to my sale”).  With new media, commercial opportunities appear in the moment (I just found a person who needs our product – let’s make a deal and get the business.”).  Are you organized for In The Moment Marketing? Authority for service, sales, sometimes even pricing, may need to be pushed down to the level of the organization dealing with the buzz every day.


Brian wisely states that “accountability, metrics, and outcomes serve as the foundation for social media success.”  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Goals drive EVERYTHING so the TYPE of metric you choose is more important than the tactics you put into place to achieve them.

The problem rests in the fact that many companies will only believe results that can be displayed on an Excel spreadsheet.  But if you’re only relying on quantitative results, you’re missing the real beauty of the social web.  Many of the business benefits of social media can only be captured through qualitative measures.  If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend:


“Social media strategy must gain attention from the very top of the organization and see its integration across relevant business teams,” says Brian.

Social media initiatives must get more than mere attention from the top.  They must be sponsored from the top. There is no such thing as a grassroots strategic initiative.

Many failures occur from trying to do too much too quickly. Rather than integrate “across business teams” Success is far more likely by planning achievable goals, publicizing quick wins, and then shaming laggards into adoption. Rolling something out across the company will smell like a “program of the month.”


Brian points to an eMarketer report that shows adoption is taking place primarily in the marketing departments. He says that to be successful, companies need look at every department that engages publicly — HR, legal, environmental, etc. — and apply these tools. I agree but will also take it a step further.

In addition to looking at these obvious external applications, the more potent business benefit might be using social networking platforms INTERNALLY.  The technology is mature and people love to use these tools. Think of the opportunities for collaboration, knowledge management and innovation if we could connect employees in a far-flung global enterprise! I think this is the next big thing in social media.  Applying internally may be less risky than leading with a public social media showcase.


One reason for failure overlooked by Brian is the drastic mis-match between social media resource availability and need. This is such a new area and the parameters are constantly shifting. The market is flush with social media know-nothingswho have little knowledge of business or marketing, let alone a track record of measurable success. If you’ve assigned social media marketing to the intern or the person with the most Facebook friends, this might be a root cause of failure too!

That’s my take on the subject.  What are your thoughts?  The comment section is now open for YOU!

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  • Great article, Mark!

    I especially agree with your point about how too many companies assign the duties of Social Media to their freshest, entry level marketing person. I guess the logic is that ‘they’re young, they must know about this stuff’, but that’s like giving your advertising art direction over to a kid just because they ‘know how to draw’.

    Casual, personal use of SM is one thing, but using it to connect with your industry and trying to grow your business with it is entirely different.

  • I think the myth of “experience of youth” is a real problem. I speak at universities often and the use of social media beyond Facebook is just about non-existent at that level. To make it worse, the higher education curriculum is largely ignoring this trend! So the fact is, 20-somethings (interns) may be much less prepared to manage your social media programs than experienced marketers. Thanks for your comment!

  • Great article as always Mark,
    You just sliced Brian’s article open here.

    I don’t think I can add much to that. This is the time where I would just say “i agree with you”

  • Mark W Schaefer

    Thanks Aaron. Nice to hear from you!

  • Mark, thank you for the comment and for also sharing your thoughts in this post. It’s definitely important to expand the conversation.

    The flow of my article is based on the context of the Gartner data to which I was asked to respond. You’ll notice the nuances of your points addressed in the embedded links of my post. So, in some ways, your assertion of oversimplification is oversimplified. My post of isn’t written with the pretense of supreme resolution, merely written to communicate the point that success is immeasurable when it’s not defined. I also wanted to convey that social media are catalysts for the development of an overall adaptive organization. I could have written yet another definitive essay, but as you know, I’ve said all of this over and over.

    Here are the additional posts embedded to explore the deeper issues of the subject:



    Understanding Audiences in the Planning Process:



    Social CRM:

    Social Business:


    Metrics Tied to Actions:

    Selling to the C-Suite and Defining your career path as a social professional:

    Thanks and keep up the great work Mark!

  • Mark W Schaefer

    Thanks for taking the time to provide such a thorough repsonse. All the best, Mark

  • I’m a 20-something social media intern myself and I don’t think people should be so quick to write us off. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I believe that I’m far ahead of my classmates when it comes to social media so I grant that hiring a student just because “we grew up with it” is as bad as going onto a random student’s Facebook profile and saying, “you have Facebook. Come intern for me.” But I think that people who have a real passion for the industry can often drive the best results, student or non-student.

    Personally, I’ve been going into the office just once a week since October and we’ve seen remarkable increases (double-digits) across our Web analytics, Twitter and Facebook counts, and e-news subscriptions. All for a $0 investment (actually, they did buy me dinner once at Christmas). It should be noted, though, that these metrics aren’t ends in themselves; rather, they should be treated as reflections of a deeper engagement with the community (which itself is our end goal) and proof that engagement increases brand awareness–the business goal defined for our social media and the R in the ROI we’re seeking.

    The truth is, not all companies have the resources to do social media unless they offload it to some intern, so you can’t just tell companies “STOP INTERNING THAT TASK!” Below are some tips to find strategic, passionate, and effective interns:

    1. Revise your resume-and-cover letter intern application system. Stop asking students what they’ve done! Let’s face it, most students have very little experience. Much less real business experience, and even less social media experience. Even worse, no school that I know of (at least in Canada) has a course on social media. So you can’t even ask students to apply what they learn in the classroom to your company because it’s really not covered.

    A better approach would be to ask them to discuss in their cover letter what they would do to improve your website (or Facebook page, or Twitter account, or whatever). This way you can separate those who actually think about the issues (the passionate ones) and those who just consume social media. You’ll want to look for thematic thinkers. Don’t go for the ones who make cosmetic recommendations like putting a Like button on your homepage or having a Twitter feed somewhere in there. Look for the ones who come up with big-picture solutions. In my own case, I am interning at AMREF ( My answer to this question when they asked it was a two part-er: (a) focus on the user, and (b) close the gap between Canada and Africa. No mention of any social media tools. I was the only one they interviewed because they were so impressed with my answer, and I think they’d agree hiring me has worked out for the better. Try asking potential interns for their thoughts instead of their experience. You should be able to figure out the good candidates from the less-passionate ones based on the sophistication of their response.

    2. Spend some time sifting through blogs and take a headhunting approach. Reading cover letters and resumes can be very time-consuming. The reality is, many students are either tweeting and LinkedIn-ing their thoughts on marketing, or they’re blogging already. Lots will have quite a few readers, too. If you take a bit of time trying to find those people who are already using social media to market themselves instead of reading a bunch of resumes, you’ll be able to find those who can successfully use social media to market you, too. Myself, I author a blog called Advertising Insights ( and get between 250-500 hits a month on maybe 4 posts a month. Not a big commitment for me, but it’s enough that if you like what I have to say and the way I think, you might try shooting me an email. I’d take a gander that at least 10 percent of my classmates write similar blogs. Take some time reading them and you might find your potential all-star intern that way. At the very least, you might learn something you hadn’t thought of.

    3. Hit up LinkedIn’s Groups and Associations. All kinds of unemployed students who need some internship school credits are looking for jobs there. Pay attention to the community forums in different Association groups and see who’s active, who’s posting interesting links to marketing-related topics, and who seems to provide the most thoughtful responses to questions posted by other users. Don’t just go for the one who starts a discussion titled “recent grad looking for job.” Rather, check out that thread that headlines “what marketing blogs would you recommend a student read?” Chances are, one will be looking at what she can do for you; the other will be looking at what you can do for her.

    If you’d like to discuss this issue more, don’t hesitate to shoot me a message on LinkedIn. My profile can be found at

    Overall, though, great article about social media failure.

  • I’m currently writing my thesis and part of it is whether the company I work for (B2B) should engage in Social Media. Since I started, I read according to my Google Reader about 600 articles on marketing blogs. And as you know the extra information gained from another “why companies fail in Social Media” or “Dos and Don’ts in Social Media” article is very little after you read maybe 10-15 of them. What I wonder is where according to the Social Media Thought Leaders all this experience you appareantly need to have a chance in doing it right is supposed to come from? Since the whole thing is kind of new to everyone you have to do trial and error (backed by a sensible strategy of course), but then again it’s not okay to have little to no experience?
    I agree with you that you need someone who is motivated, informed and dedicated to the subject. I’m glad you made this comment.

    I wouldn’t say that cover-letters and CVs are obsolete though. For my future employer it’s useful to know what my background is, what my skills are etc. During my studies I gained several skills and did two internships, spent half a year abroad before I started and I would be disappointed if this wouldn’t give me kind of an edge towards competitors for a job. But I also agree it wouldn’t hurt to actually look up someone’s background when it comes to HR procurement. If I were you I’d definetly mention my blog when I apply, so your future employer can gain access to your views like you mentioned.

    I’m german and it’s funny to see how much more evolved this whole discussion is in North America. You are lucky because it seems like the use of Social Media is far more accepted. In Germany people are starting to realise that this could be important in the future, but no one really knows what to do with it, especially in B2B. I’ve been looking for best practices in B2B but have a hard time finding one that comes out of the machinery industry. If you know one please let me know.
    I stopped reading german marketing blogs because basically I read the exact same things I was able to read on their english counterparts 2 days to a week before.

    I apologize for any spelling and grammar errors as well as weired expressions – english is not my mother tounge, but I hope I got my point across.

    (edit: just replaced “US” with “North America”)

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for digging deeper, Mark. Love the INTERNAL approach…brilliant sort of ‘gateway drug’ for companies either sitting on the fence or in it, but not fully. It allows various levels to experience first hand the effectiveness (or not) of social media. And thanks as always, for the helpful references to other posts and resources!

  • Thank you so much for your kind comment Erica!

  • One thing that I learned: Never confuse effort with results. Being a former corporate hack, I cannot describe how much time went into hollow goals – stuff that never really got done. The problem lies in that quantitative data – execs like to see effort. I used to have a boss that only wanted me to explain WHAT I did that day, not IF I accomplished anything. Blech.

    The metrics of social media are nebulous, no doubt, but the results, even minimal, can give you tremendous insight and support to keep going.

  • Sean, I stand corrected! By your comment you’ve proved that I probably over-generalized with my statement about interns. I assure you, and I think you would agree, that you are the exception though and not the rule. Certainly interns can be an effective way to develop content, track metrics, and report on results. I share your frustration about the lack of educational opportunities at the university level. It’s a crime really. Best of luck with your career and thanks for being part of the community!

  • Maximilian, first, thanks so much for taking the time to compose such an excellent comment in English. Well done.

    The gap between social media needs and talent is an easy one in my estimation. Whether you are trying to engage with customers, potential employees or shareholders, the fundamental role is one of marketing. Is it easier to hire a marketing professional with little experience in social or a self-proclaimed social expert with little experience in marketing? I will take the marketer every time.

    Let’s face it, creating a facebook page is not rocket science, but applying marketing fundamentals to making this an effective way to reach customers who are tired of being marketed to is extremely difficult.

    To truly be effective beyond sticking something out there, you need insights into consumer behaviors, wants and needs; an ability to interpret data with insight; an talent for looking at all of the marketing options based on industry structure and then integrating social appropriately. That kind of skill does not necessarily come along with somebody who simply has 5,000 followers on Twitter.

    As far as insights into social media failures, I have a background in organizational development, as well as sales & marketing, and think that most observers (including Brian) overlook the very real political obstacles to success in any new initiative. I think that’s one fo the differences I bring tro the blogging world. It’s one thing to suggest ideas in theory. It’s another matter suggesting ideas that will actually work in an organization!

    Thank you very much for your thought-provoking and well-articulated comment!

  • Hi Mark,

    You’ve certainly provided a deeper dive into Brian’s original article. Having reviewed both articles, a factor that needs to be taken into account is the size (and therefore agility) of the corporation to apply the recommendations specified.

    Fundamentally the goals and metrics that cascade down an organisation will shift depending on that organisations size.

    This is the first time I’ve been on your site and it’s mightily impressive.

  • Once a corporate hack, always a corporate hack, right? It gets in your blood! But it is very useful, as you demonstrate, to put those lessons to use against the challenges we face today. Thanks Paul!

  • Welcome and thank you. I hope you’ll be a regular contributor!

    You provide an essential point. Size absolutely make a big difference! Good addition to the discussion. Thank you!

  • Anonymous

    Mark, Enjoyed the post. Interesting point on Beyond Marketing. Here’s one of 3 goals I presented to our executive board a few days ago. “Design & deploy interactive intranet for idea sharing, project collaboration, dissemination of company information, and staff development & training”

    I would be interested in discussing a consulting/coaching relationship.

  • Hey Mark,

    I agree with your analysis of Brian’s recent article. People forget (or never realize) that ALL advice is a toy airplane..let me explain 🙂

    You can build a toy airplane using Boing 747 as your model, but if someone gave you a toy airplane and asked you to build a Boing 747 you would be missing few key features (oh like the engine for example) that would make your airplane fly.

    So all advice, from life and fitness gurus to social media gurus (and all points in between) is just that…a toy airplane. Having that knowledge going into it helps you separate BS from whats actually valuable…

    Anyways..hate to get on the soap box….had to say my piece 🙂


  • Thanks Jim. My email and phone number is all over the website : )

    The good news is, much of the technology exists. The real challenge is adoption. Look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for commenting today.

  • I’m not so sure Sean is the exception versus the rule – I think that comes more down to the educator as opposed to the student.

    We currently have three amazing interns at Bonsai Interactive and they know a lot more than some of the “strategists” I see clogging up the web with their ideas, or doing harm to businesses with their crap “marketing plans and executions”.

    We also had a great intern before that; we spoke at their college and the students were outstanding; I know of other colleges that have some of the smartest kids around and ones that would kick the “experts” into a cocked hat.

    Yes, expertise comes from in the field; but to get there you need smarts, and from what I’ve seen in the last 6-12 months, the kids are the ones that are outsmarting the adults.

    Nice post and discussion, sir. 🙂

  • Great analogy Dino. Thanks for taking the time to contribute today!

  • Well for that matter one of the brightest social media practitioners I’ve met is a high school student (she has already commercialized a blog!)

    Having said that, I recently was a guest lecturer at a prominent University. I addressed 200 students ranging from sophomores to seniors over four different PR, advertising and marketing classes. I asked them all the same questions. Do you blog? Total = 3 out of 200 Are you on Twitter = 4 Are you on LinkedIn = 10

    Put aside the need to be immersed in these technologies to perform an entry level marketing job today, you need to be immersed in these technologies to FIND a job today : )

    There is a big whole in college level education today when it comes to training students on social media as a weapon in the marketer’s quiver. At another university a prof defended this position by saying the case for including social media in the marketing curriculum is inconclusive. Preposterous.

    So if you’ve found good interns, you’re doing an exceptional job Danny. Which is not a surprise!

    An honor to have you stop by!

  • Thanks for the compliment, Mark. I think the answer of whether I’m the exception or the rule lies somewhere in the middle of the two options. Out of my class of sixty people, only a handful have a similar skillset and passion as me. But out of that handful, I don’t think I’m particularly outstanding.

    Danny, just out of curiosity, are those interns coming from Sheridan College?

  • Alex Horton

    Brilliant article. I found your point on the necessity for a dynamic corporate culture vital.

    Measuring ROI on a brand enhancement campaign through Twitter or Facebook, especially for a small company can prove a waste of resources. Simply creating the best quality and most frequent new and interesting social media content is a superb way to spend your time and resources. I got some statistics from a report by Econsultancy that are very interesting.

    – According to just under three-quarters of agencies surveyed (74%), clients use direct traffic to measure social media activity.

    This is clearly a narrow minded view of measuring the effectiveness, or ROI, on a social media campaign!

    Here are some other interesting statistics on corporate participation in social media strategy

    – A third of companies (32%) do not spend anything on social media marketing and a further 36% spend under $5,000 a year.

    – This year, for the first time, we asked how organisations are using Facebook. More than twothirds
    of companies (67%) are using Facebook as a marketing channel.

    – Forrester Research predicts that B2B firms will spend $54m on social media marketing in
    2014, up from just $11 million in 2009.

    I really enjoyed your point on internal function of social media. This could give fantastic knowledge sharing opportunities for global companies, great point!

    All statistics taken from Econsultancy’s “Social Media Statistics Report”:

  • Thanks for sharing this. I get a chuckle out of the whole measurement discussion among the social media pundits. The purists first insisted that you had no reason to measure — it would be like measuring email. Then SM began to mainstream and the first question from a company was: “How do we measure this and make money from it?” Now they are all on the measurement bandwagon, insisting that every project be tied to ROI, which of course is ridiculous in the other extreme!

    Good companies use a balanced scorecard approach including non-financial indicators for other programs, why not social? Traffic is easy to measure, but not always the best measure.

    Thanks for sharing this Alex!

  • Mark:

    Or, like people, some companies are just stuck in Category 4:


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  • Well, thank you for this refreshing read.

    I specialize in helping hotels build strong online reputations and see the great mis match you describe between social media resource availability and need in my industry.

    As an example, associates are often put in charge of a hotel’s online voice having little connection to the marketing group [and no training]. And all because Joe the bartender had a great Facebook page. Also common is no sponsorship at the top, which is indeed a roadblock and can lead to failure.

    With regards to a market flush with what you call social media know nothings, I see elements of that too (I think of them as social media cowboys). While supremely savvy about every nuance of social media techno development (a full time job alone), they often possess minimal practical experience as a hotel marketeer or operator, and thus lack the complete set of skills and background needed to advise hoteliers on what to DO.

    Hotel guests determine brand value based on actions, not words. And brand monitoring and data collection are worthless if not invested in response systems and the people at the hotel that can take action on learnings.

    Using social media to energize as much internally as externally is indeed overlooked.

    For me, the passion I share about social media is the value it delivers in connecting hotels in real time with guests’ needs. When you’ve inspired a property management team and shown them how to use the knowledge & insights from social media channels to advance customer service levels to deliver a 21st century guest experience, that is where is all comes together beautifully – even artfully.

    Ann Manion, Hotel Advantage

  • LOL. Thank John!

  • Wow — thanks for the blog post : ) These are great illustrations of EXACTLY what I was trying to articulate but you did a much better job! Thanks Ann!

  • Wow. There’s so much great ground for really productive conversation here. Where do I begin?!?

    Regarding planning in Social Media, I’ve taken to using the analogy of a coloring book. It’s a REALLY good idea to have some lines around your Social Media presence. For example, if you are out here on behalf of a company, you should know what’s acceptable and what is not. Those are the lines. However, once you have those lines set up, you can color however you want. You can color a dog purple or a fish … purple. And you can erase and re-color. I think people too often equate “plan” with something like a print advertising plan (which by the way are not as immune to change over the course of a year as they used to be). All facets of marketing, I think, need to become more able to adapt and shift. We’re in a shifty kind of world, after all.

    As far as metrics go, I am seeing more and more that the “metrics” I care about are simply not the focus of most people in Social Media, probably because for a lot of people there is an A-B relationship between tweeting/blogging and making money. I am here for the long-term relationship building. And I’ll tell you something, the better I feel about how I’m performing and helping people, the lower my Klout score goes. Well, phooey.

    I disagree a bit on point number 3. While it can be cumbersome to roll out a Social Media plan across the corporate body, I think it can be extremely beneficial if done correctly. Customer service should understand what PR and marketing folks are selling. PR and marketing folks should understand what their customer service department is dealing with. Etc. I’m all about integration, internally & externally.

    And regarding your last two points, I really have nothing else to say except, perhaps, “MMmhmmm!!”

    Great post, as per usual.

  • What??? You disagree??? That is wholly unacceptable. Be off with you now.

    No, I’m glad somebody had a dissenting view. Thanks for that!

    I think the disagreement may have something to do with scale. As Tom (invisible ink comment below) says, the size of the organization certainly has an impact on strategy and I think that’s where we might disagree. I come from a mega-company environment and kind of have that in mind as a mental framework. Rolling out almost anything across the board in that environment can be nightmarish. : )

    I love the way you think Marjorie and thanks for the dissent.

  • Mark, thank you for your reply and for the pat on the back 😉
    I didn’t think there are actually people trying to sell their Social Media expertise without or only little marketing experience. Is it even possible to propperly engage in Social Media without applying at least the marketing fundamentals? Probably not.
    Your remark about political obstacles from within the company is true. If I look at the company I work for at the moment, there are so many other topics that have to be addressed that you would have a hard time to inspire your colleagues to provide the ressources necessary a Social Media initiative would consume.
    We’re coming right out of a recession during which many companies decided to reduce staff – which is now missing.

  • Yes, here in the U.S. there seems to be a social media “expert” on every corner these days.The point you make here highlights why it is a problem. You say that your comapny has som many other things to address it would be difficult to assign resources for social media. Well, those might be very legitiamt issues to address. Perhaps they are issues with quality, distribution, product development or other legitimate business issues. Without experience in business and marketing, th social media “expert” I observe would only focus on social media because they don’t know anything else. In the long-run this may be a disservice to the business.

    I recently had lunch with one of these types who proclaimed to me that every business marketing program should start with social media. When I hear ridiculous statements like that, it’s hard not get frustrated!

    Thanks for your contributions Maximilian!

  • Oh shoot, I did it again 🙂

    I see your point. I guess I feel like maybe at least there could be briefings that the head of each department would attend, but never having worked for a super big company, I could still sound like I’m off my rocker.

    And hey, I agreed with just about everything else 🙂

  • I have a lot of experience in change management and found that the short list for success includes: 1) executive sponsorship (this should be the person who controls ALL the resources necessary to get the job done) 2) Make-able, meaningful short-term goals backed up by a measurement system managers will believe and support; 3) Celebrate and publicize quick wins and the people who made them happen; 4) Make scaling to other divisions as painless and non-political as possible

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  • Linkapalooza in here, such good stuff. Agreeing with Marjorie on integration; Sean and Danny on not dismissing the intern JUST b/c they’re the intern, great ideas can come from anyone, anywhere; and Brian’s point that successful mileage will vary per what’s been defined as success. On planning, I agree with you that flexibility and adaptability are important. You need responsiveness, but you also do not want to fall into the trap of always reacting, never leading.

    On metrics and studying the results, it’s hard to qualify or quantify X factors yet brands need to look for those “what if” variables not just at failures, but successes too. There was a ton of work, money, effort, time, research spent on the long-running @OldSpice campaign and yet, I always think about the uncontrollable: plain old luck. Luck that something “big” didn’t happen to throw them off the news cycle the day they blitzkrieged YouTube. FWIW.

  • Linkapalooza. LOL! Everything is better with palooza at the end of it.

    Boy that luck thing is a tough one but I agree. I often would love to be a fly on the wall at some of the brands as they evaluate results and scratch their heads!

    Thanks so very much for your comment!

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  • I mean Brian should include the planning for failure in a social media project. Churchill’s phrase is no more actual, specially for social media. Failure is essential to try experiments, to launch startups, to create enterprise culture, to understand lands. Groupon started his adventure with a failure called ThePoint.

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