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Plus Report - By Thomas Baekdal - October 2020

What tactics should independent journalists know before starting something new?

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In my previous Plus report, I talked about the strategies and the trends around independent journalists starting their own thing, like a newsletter, a podcast, or something else.

Today, in this 36-page article, we are going to zoom in and instead talk about the tactics. What things are known to work in building a new publication? What are the tricks of the trade?

Please note: This article is focusing specifically on independent journalists, either being individuals or very small teams of journalists starting something new. But, obviously, most of these things also apply to any other publisher.

And what we are going to talk about are the five elements that you need to make it work.

But I'm not going to talk about these in order, instead let's approach this from the perspective of trying to solve this as a problem. How can we get people to pay us, what obstacles do we need to overcome to get that done?

So, we will start with the most important thing that you must do from the very beginning ... which is this:

Ask people to pay the very first time they meet you

One of the biggest differences between the old internet and the new internet we are heading into is that paid and free are two completely different markets.

Over the past 25 years, the business model everyone was chasing was that of scale. First you would build something, which you would then offer for free, and then you would aggressively focus on scaling that up until eventually you would have enough traffic for it to be monetized via advertising ... and only then would you add some other forms of premium service to capture a bit of additional revenue.

One perfect example of this is BuzzFeed (the main site). It is entirely focused on the 'scale model', where every single day they produce high-volume, very cheap, low-intent, articles for random people who are bored.

Like how they create a new Disney Princess quiz every few days.

This is the old model. This is the model everyone was chasing back when people thought that traffic was king and everything on the internet would be free forever. But today, this model no longer works.

Things have changed. For one thing, Facebook has changed. So the gigantic level of Facebook traffic that helped BuzzFeed grow doesn't exist anymore. Today, you have to pay Facebook to get your posts seen.

So if you are an independent journalist and you try to use the BuzzFeed model to grow your Substack newsletter ... you would fail.

I talked about this in my last article, if you want to make $60,000 per year, you only need 550 people paying you $9 per month. But if you tried to do the same with advertising, you need 70 million views on youTube.

So BuzzFeed needs 70 million views for something you can do with only 550 people.

Just think about that.

So, you need to have a paid-for mindset as the default. But how do we do this?

Step one: Create a page that looks like this


So, that's it. We are done. We have now asked people to pay, so everything should be fine, right?

Well, obviously not. This would never work by itself, but I want you to put yourself into this mindset. Your job as an independent journalist is to figure out how to get this to work.

Don't think about pageviews or scale or whatever. Think about the box above.

So what is the problem here? Well, pretty much everything. The box above contains nothing that your audience needs to make a decision to pay. You don't tell them what you are selling, nor even who you are, there is no way people can relate this to their own needs, and you cannot even see what this is all about until you pay.

So the next step in all of this is to help people understand these things, and this is where you need to be really clear.

I want to give you an example from outside the media world. Take a product page like you find on Nike's webshop.

This page is actually designed exactly how I just described. The focus of this page is to get people to pay, but Nike knows that just asking you to pay is not enough, so they give you this page where every other element is then targeted towards this goal.

First of all, it's from Nike, which is in the top 10 of the most well-known and recognized brands in the world. So right here they are starting out with a huge advantage.

You already know who they are, and you have an understanding about their focus, their quality, and the brand itself might mean something to you. Maybe you like having their logo on your shoes as a status symbol that you can show to others.

But here is the thing, none of this has any meaning without a product. For instance, imagine that Nike put up a page that just said this:

Would you subscribe to this? No, of course not. Even though you know who Nike is, and even though you like them, you wouldn't just pay them money without knowing what you get.

And so, on Nike's product page, they show you exactly this. They show you an extremely specific product (in this case a shoe specifically designed for runners), they give you the options, the price, and everything else you need to understand what it is that you are buying.

But it's also about your needs.

As a customer, you turn to this page because you are looking for shoes for running. And, as such, Nike is not just showing random shoes, they are trying to solve a very specific need that you have.

And finally, they tell you that they have "extended our return period to 60 days, including a 60-day wear test (for members)" so that if you choose to buy them, you can try them out, make sure they have the right fit, or, if not, you can just send them back.

This is the key to selling, and it is something every brand knows.

But more importantly, this is also true for journalism. You need to solve exactly the same problems, you need to be just as good at defining your journalistic product, you need to identify and align it with exactly what people need, you need to build up your reputation, and you show people what you do, and get them to engage with it. And you need all of this at the same time.

More than that, these elements work in unison. As I illustrated above with Nike, it's not enough to just have a great brand. You still need to be clear about your product and all the other things.

Here is the problem, though. Most of us don't have this. For instance, back when I started this site, almost nobody within the media industry knew about me. I had a fair amount of traffic coming to the site, but none of it was media executives.

So like everyone else, I could not use my reputation to build this site. Instead, I needed to go beyond 100% on the other factors. The product had to offer something people needed and to be better than what was already out there.

Mind you, I didn't actually do a good job at this. I made a lot of mistakes when I started. So I had to learn and adjust a lot of things over the years.

But this is the challenge we all have.

Whatever factor you are short on needs to be outweighed by all the others.

So this is where it starts. You need to have a paid-for focus by default, and then focus on showing people why this is worth paying for.

But, of course, there is a lot more to do.

What is your stop-rate?

The next tactic that you need to master is what we in the media industry call your stop-rate.

This word comes from the metered paywalls where, if you visit a newspaper, you are allowed to see a certain number of articles for free before you are asked to pay. In others words, how far can you go before you are stopped?

Today, however, we are going to use this phrase in the more general sense to mean both when you are stopped, but also all the other times where you are asked or encouraged to pay.

There are many different ways we can calculate a stop-rate (and different reports do it in different ways). One way to think about it is to ask, what is the percentage of your audience that you stopped (asked to pay)?

So, imagine you have 10,000 people coming to your site, how many of those actually ever saw a message asking them to pay? If it was only 300 people, you have a 'stop-rate' of 3%.

The mistake that most publishers make is that their numbers for this are just too low. Last year, Lenfest Institute published a great report about this, and they found, across 500 news publishers, that this number is usually really low.

As they wrote:

Among the more than 500 news organizations analyzed, the fiftieth percentile of publishers stops only 1.8 percent of their readership with a paywall or meter. Publishers with "sustainable" digital businesses report stop rates between the 80th and 90th percentiles of all publishers studied (at or above 4.2% of all readers). The publishers that reported more than 6% of unique visitors reaching their stop threshold had "thriving" digital subscription businesses - robust teams, and well-developed audience engagement strategies.

Or to put it simply, they found that the higher the stop-rate, the better each newspaper performed.

So, your stop-rate is critical to your success.

The question then is, what should your stop-rate be?

Well, if the most successful newspapers are in the 6% to 8% range, your stop rate should be ... 100%.

I'm not kidding. Your strategy should be to have a 100% stop-rate, unless you have a seriously good reason not to, and even then, every single thing you do should include one or more paths that leads to people getting asked to pay.

Every single time!

Let me give you an example. If you go to the Guardian, you can read all their articles for free, but they still stop you all the time.

Look at this. There are 'stops' on this page. There is the call for support at the top of the screen, and a more targeted stop that covers the entire bottom of the screen.

It's the same when you look at their live-stream. As you read through it, you are 'stopped' by messages like this:

So even though the Guardian's model is not defined around a hard paywall or even a metered model, their success is still defined by how effectively they can keep reminding people to pay.

As independent journalists this is just as important for you. Big newspapers like the Guardian can afford to have a substantial part of their audience who just never pays. But as independent journalists, you are never going to have that level of scale, nor will your market allow a big overflow of free users.

So you need to focus even more on getting a high number of people to pay.

Again, meaning that you should have a 100% stop-rate, unless you have a really good excuse not to.

What excuse could that be?

Well, think about it like this. One big difference between buying a pair of shoes from Nike and paying for information from a journalist is that the shoes are a single purchase based on a specific at-the-moment need, whereas a subscription/membership is an ongoing relationship.

This means that, as journalists, we need to focus on building up this moment. In other words, for us, a conversion doesn't end when people buy a subscription, it ends when they no longer come back.

So one good excuse for not stopping people at the first visit would be to build up this momentum. If you have a visitor who has no idea who you are, it's way more important to focus on getting them to truly understand what you have to offer and why your articles are amazing than just stop them and ask for payment. But, you have to do it in the right way.

So let me tell you a secret: Freemium doesn't work. But upselling and momentum do.

Let me explain what I mean by this.

Over the past 20 years, the model most people talked about is the freemium model. Here you basically have two different sections on your website. You have one section for all your free content, which is designed to attract as many people as possible, and then you have another section for your premium content. And your idea then is to use all the free traffic to hopefully convert some of them to premium subscribers.

It sounds so simple... but it fundamentally doesn't work.

This is something many newspapers have learned the hard way over the past 10 years. They thought they could just create some premium content and then everything would be fine, but what they discovered instead was that the free content was read by people who never had any intention to pay. In other words, the freemium content didn't drive people towards paying. It just made people use the free content even more.

It was because of this that we now turn to a metered model. With a metered model, every article is paid, but you allow people to read a few of them for free, to build up momentum and show people your worth, before you ask them to pay.

So, freemium doesn't work. But momentum does.

However, remember what I said before about the stop rate and how newspapers performed. There is a very clear correlation between how high the stop rate is and how many people they convert.

For instance, when publishers started creating metered paywalls, many of them made the mistake of making them too relaxed. For instance, many newspapers started giving people 25 free articles per month before they were even asked to pay.

The result of this was a total failure because it turns out that most people don't read that many articles on the same device per month, so most never saw the paywall. This is also due to the problems we have with mobile (particularly iOS), where Apple is forcing cookies to be deleted between apps and over time causing us to lose track of how many articles people have actually seen.

So 25 free articles didn't work at all. Then newspapers tried to do 15, which still didn't work. Then they tried 10 ... didn't work. Then they reduced it to five, at which point it started to work.

With five free articles per month, about 6% of a newspaper audience will be asked to pay. That's still terribly low, but at least it is working now.

But what we see today is that many publishers have reduced this even more. Today many sites have a one article meter. Meaning, you get to see the first article you click on for free, but if you read the second one, you are asked to pay.

Think about what this means. It means you need to be seriously good at proving your worth with every single article. And you think about how you tell your stories so that people want to see the next article. You can't just do random articles for random people. You need to design this momentum into the very core of your editorial strategy.

However, some of the successful publishers today have what we call a dynamic model. With these models, they look at how people are behaving and adjust all these things to optimize when and how to ask people to pay.

Let me give you an example.

Imagine that you have a person who came across a link to one of your articles on Twitter, they clicked on it, and then after seeing the start of it, they left without ever reading the full thing.

Okay, so ask yourself this. Have you managed to build up any momentum for that person?

The answer is no. A person who never read the article has zero momentum, and you haven't managed to convince them of anything. They don't even know you yet.

So stopping them after that single view is the wrong thing to do.

Then also imagine that this person comes back two days later, to the same article. Now what do you do?

Well, since they came back, you have obviously caught their attention, but if you now block them, you are going to lose all of this. Instead, you need to focus on giving them the best experience they can possibly get. This is a high-potential customer.

And so the larger publishers are starting to incorporate these dynamics into their metered paywalls.

Now, as individual publishers, you can never build the sophisticated system that the big publishers can, but you still need to think about these things. When people come to you, how do you build up momentum and make sure that people have an awesome experience? If people share an article, what experience do the people it is shared with have?

Are you getting in the way at the wrong time, or are you forgetting to illustrate to them that what you do is something they really need to pay for?

And this leads us to...

Upselling is key

So, just like building momentum, upselling is an extremely important skill to master.

You probably didn't even notice it, but I actually started this article with an upsell (and I will finish it with one too). At the start of this article, I told you that this is the second article in my series about helping independent journalists start a new thing, and I provided you with a link to the first article I published a few weeks ago. That article is also a Plus article, and so if you are not a full subscriber, clicking on that link will bring you to a page where you are asked to pay if you want to read it.

You will notice that I do this with pretty much every single article I write. I don't just write my articles as a standalone thing. Every article is somehow linked to other articles, specifically done in this way to increase the value you get.

I do exactly the same with my newsletter. Every newsletter is designed to be valuable in itself, but they also always include links or information linking you to go deeper with a Plus article (which, again, is only available to read if you pay).

Mind you, there are many different ways you can do this. A friend of mine, Avinash Kaushik, has an interesting subscription model that I like.

His model looks like this:

The only real difference here is frequency and the access level. In other words, his model is to say, you can try out what I have to offer by getting 10 emails per year, but then if you find that valuable, you can pay for 50 emails per year (kind of like once per month, for free ... or once per week, if you pay).

I like this for two reasons.

First of all, I like it because the free version (the standard version) is identical to the premium version. The only difference is how often you get it. This means that people who try out the free version don't have to learn what the premium version is about. They already know that because they are getting it right now (again, just fewer times).

This is important, because if your free content is too different from your premium content, people have a really hard time understanding what they will actually get.

Secondly, I like this because it's designed around value. He is saying: "If you find this valuable, pay me, and I will give you 5x that value in return".

In fact, on his site, he offers this guarantee:

If in 12 months TMAI does not deliver 10x value to you, you can ask for a refund.

So this is one way of upselling, but there are many others.

So the key lessons here are:

And this is true regardless if you are a journalist talking about politics or you have just created a newsletter about the joy of urban gardening.

Successful publishers focus on audience engagement

The next thing we need to talk about is engagement. Across the board, we see that engagement is a key factor in how successful a publisher is. And more so, we can generally see a direct correlation between how much a publisher is investing in audience engagement and how well they are doing.

As an independent journalist, this is also true for you ... in fact, even more so.

But one thing we need to understand is that there are three types of engagement (well, there are more than that, but in this case, these are the three most important ones).

They are:

Each one works for different things, but they have also changed a lot over the years. For instance, back in 2010 when I launched this site, social amplification was the single most important form of engagement I had. It was so important that I built social sharing into the very structure of how my paygate (a sharable paywall) works.

However, since then, social sharing has become almost meaningless, and today, almost none of my new conversion happens as a direct result of that.

Instead, word-of-mouth and emails have become the main drivers of growth.

So, again, think about this in relation to the articles you write.

If you are just writing a low-intent article "what Disney princess do you look like?", the 'sharing' for such an article will also be low-intent and meaningless.

But if you create something that is valuable, or even better, something that helps people do something (solution journalism), your sharing will change because of it. Now, most of your sharing will be more like word-of-mouth recommendations. It will be done by people who share it because they want others to use it.

This is really important.

So how would you measure it? What metrics would you use?

Well, you could do it the basic way and simply measure amplification in terms of inbound referrals from social channels. That's how most publishers do it, but it doesn't tell us anything.

BTW: An even better way is to engineer your site so that you can tell when an article is shared, regardless of the source. But I won't go into that here.

A much better method is to look at your conversion rate as a result of sharing. So what we are looking for is sharing where the outcome is a high-level of conversions.

In other words, I don't care how many shares you got. I care about how many of them worked.

And once you start to think about this, you realize that this effect is driven entirely by your editorial and journalistic focus. It's how you write your articles (or videos/podcasts) that determines the way people share it.

If you just post random things, you will get social sharing, which doesn't mean much. But if you write articles that people can use, you get word-of-mouth and conversion.

Think about this when you try to optimize your amplification rate.

The second is habits. As I mentioned before, as publishers, we need to focus on building momentum, which is just another way to say that we need to help people create habits around our content, which then in turn creates loyalty.

Newsletters and podcasts are great for this, because they are formats that you can design for specific moments. For instance, you could do a morning newsletter that helps people prepare for the day (if your focus is about that, otherwise do something else). Similarly a podcast is great for when you are doing other things, like commuting to work (back when we still did that), or as something to listen to while you exercise.

But remember what I said before about upselling. We did this to help drive conversion and to accelerate growth. But once people have subscribed, you still need to use all those techniques, instead now the goal is to create a habit.

So, every single article you make should include elements that upsell to another article or help people feel interested in what will come next.

Always keep things moving.

Finally, we have 'use'.

Use is something many traditional publishers have been neglecting, and they did this because they were focusing on a mass-market audience where it's nearly impossible to narrow the focus to just one use.

But as individual journalists, you are not in the mass-market, you are creating something specific for your niche audience. This means you need to be brilliant in giving people something they can use.

What is important to understand, though, is that 'use' can mean many different things. It doesn't have to be an action that you want people to do, but it must always be relevant to you as a person.

Let me give you an example. Think about the difference between cooking and eating. Cooking is an action where you have to get up and do the work yourself, whereas eating can be delivered to you from a nearby restaurant.

But in both cases, you are 'using' the food in a highly personally relevant and enjoyable way.

As publishers, we need to think of 'use' in the same way. There are many ways to define this, but it has to be relevant for people to interact with.

Obviously some focus areas are easier than others. But even if you covered topics that are hard to define a specific use case for, always try to think about the solution that your audience wants.

I'm reminded of a great example, though unfortunately I cannot remember who it was (if anyone knows, please remind me). But in the US, we see so many problems with the US healthcare system, where people are over-billed in outrageous ways.

So, one journalist started an ongoing investigation where she asked people to send her a copy of their medical bills. This in itself creates a good basis for her articles, but whenever she noticed a specific case of over-billing, she would hold that hospital to account. The result was that, in many cases, the bills were adjusted.

Think about that from an audience perspective. Would you support that type of journalism? Would you subscribe to her newsletter? Or donate to her on Patreon?

This is a perfect case of journalism that you can use. Even if your own bills aren't affected by this, this style of journalism benefits society in a way that helps us all (well, everyone in the US).

Marketing, marketing and more marketing

Another thing independent journalists need to master is marketing. Growth does not happen on its own, and so if you need to grow faster, marketing is a key way of doing that.

Again, think back to how we used to do it in print. If you wanted to launch a new print magazine, you would need to tell people about it. You would have to make deals with newsstands to feature your magazine, you would advertise on billboards and in bus stops, you might even place an ad on TV.

Today, it's the same thing. The need for marketing has not changed just because we publish online. In fact, it might be even more important now because there is so much that we can choose.

Here is the problem, though.

Marketing only works if you can target it correctly, reach people at the right moment, and do so over a sustained period of time. Marketing does not work if you just put up an ad somewhere once.

But, as independent publishers, this is often not obtainable. Our focus might be too specific for it to make sense to advertise, the social channels are too crappy in terms of reaching 'similar audiences', and running ads for weeks or even months at a time might simply not be financially viable.

The problem also is that, as journalists, we are often not product focused. This means that our focus doesn't fit into the neat categories that most social platforms or Google provides.

This, for instance, is the problem I have. I have pretty much given up trying to target an audience for this site. The reason being that the categories and keywords simply don't match what I need. And if you choose to target 'similar audiences' to my own, because the social channels are product focused, they will find people similar to me who are interested in Star Wars instead of people interested in media trends.

So what do we do?

Well, think about other ways you can market yourself.

For instance, collaboration between different journalists could be a really strong way to do this. In fact, YouTubers do this all the time, and it's one of their main growth strategies. Use the popularity of each one of your channels to grow together.

Another thing you could do is to get your audience to market you. We already talked about word-of-mouth, but could you do something more to get people to actively help you grow?

For instance, what if when people subscribed, you then included a 'free gift of 6 months' that they could then give to another person? Meaning, when people subscribe, they could give a friend 6 months for free? This way, you create an environment where every new subscriber feels encouraged to bring in one more.

That's just one idea.

Keep in mind, discounts are usually the worst thing you can do. But just like what we talked about above with 'stop-rates', you should only give a discount when you are sure you can get people engaged. If you don't do that, you are going to lose money instead.

Another example is what we see on Twitch. Here they have a concept of 'gift subs'. This is a subscription model where people can give a subscription to another person, or just to the community as a whole.

This is even more interesting. Here you actually have a full conversion. Someone else has paid the full subscription price. And, of course, the big publishers are doing this too.

Here is the New York Times.

But experiment with this and other ways you can get people to market your publication for you.

The user experience

Finally, we also need to talk about the user experience, because while all the other tactics above are about how you do the work, it is vital that the experience people get when they come to you is as good as it can be. Anything that gets in the way of that can destroy everything else that you have tried to do.

I have seen this with many publishers. When people finally decide to subscribe, the process is so cumbersome that people give up.

So, a key thing that you must do is to reduce anything that can get in the way of people converting. Absolutely everything!

Think about how most subscription sites work. Most of them have a very long checkout path.

They start by asking you to create an account, then you have to pick your subscription plan, then you have to supply your address and contact information, and then they ask you to agree to sign up for their newsletter or others, and only after all this do you actually get the payment page.

And in multiple studies, we have seen how devastating this is on your conversion rate. For instance, in the Lenfest study I mentioned above, they found this as well.

As they wrote:

Data from 10 major metropolitan newspapers showed that, on average, publishers saw a 90% drop-off of users once they enter the subscription process along the purchase and conversion funnel. On average, only 29% of desktop users who saw the first step of the purchase funnel (presentation of offers and pricing choices) made it to the second step (providing their email address). Only 14.8% reached the step of the process at which they were asked to enter payment information, and only 9.9% reached the confirmation page indicating that they had completed their purchase.
Across the publishers studied, the differences in success rate were critical: more than 90 percent of users dropped out between the first step of the purchase process and the last. This drop-off was even higher on mobile devices; the desktop conversion rate was 5 times higher than the rate for mobile.

Just think about this. Because of how complicated your checkout process is, you might lose 90% of the people who showed an interest in subscription.

It's utterly insane.

So how do we fix this?

Well, first of all, get rid of any step that you do not need. For instance, don't ask people whether they want your newsletter during this. You can ask them about this any other time, but don't ask them while they are in the process of paying.

But another thing you can do is to change the order of things.

What if you moved the conversion to the front of the funnel, rather than letting it be the last step?

What I mean is this:

The traditional model looks like this. You have a bunch of steps you ask people to go through before they actually get to pay.

So if we know that for every one of these steps you lose a substantial percentage of your conversions, why not rearrange it so that the pay step happens before all the others.

Like this?

What I have done here is that the first step is people entering their credit card info (or Apple Pay), which we still need to ask about. And then they pay.

Now, they are converted. They have already committed themselves. And only after this, do we start to ask for other information, like setting up the actual account, asking whether they also want the newsletter, and whatever else you might ask them.

And because people have already decided at this point, these subsequent steps are not seen as a distraction or as a burden. Instead, they are seen as getting what they paid for.

It's such a simple tweak, but it makes a huge difference.

This, for instance, is how this site works. When you subscribed to this site, you paid before I started asking you anything else.

And think about this in relation to everything you do. For instance, don't hide your prices so that people have to spend time trying to look for them. That's stupid. Instead, show the price upfront so that they don't have to click at all before deciding.

Also, don't collect any information that you do not need. There is nothing worse than a site asking for your phone number. Why does it want my number? I don't want a site to ever call me, and giving my phone number reminds me of robocallers, which we all hate.

Don't ask for my age or anything. Even though having data is nice, it's not worth the huge loss you will see in your conversion funnel.

But also think about privacy. Look at how most publishers are asking you to give consent to be tracked and have their data sent to 3rd party ad tech companies and data brokers.

That's an insane thing to do. We all hate this, and sometimes when we see these GDPR dialogs, we just leave the site altogether.

So, get rid of them.

But wait, you say, we need to be able to collect a ton of data for our '3rd party partners'. No you don't. It is not worth it to lose a potential subscriber just because you want to send data to Facebook.

It's not worth it!

So get rid of that Facebook code and all the other crappy 3rd party elements. If you are based on subscriptions, you don't need them.

This is what I did here on this site. I looked at all these GDPR dialogs that publishers were putting on their sites, and I said: "No! I'm not going to annoy my audience at the most crucial time. That's stupid."

BTW: I wrote about how I did this here, and more about privacy here.

The point being, focus on the experience. As an independent journalist, your relationship with your audience is more important than anything else. So get rid of all the crap that other publishers put on their sites, and focus solely on creating the best experience ever.

Next up: Analytics

I hope these tactics can help you refine and optimize your new publication. Remember, this is the second article in this series. In the first article, I talked about the overall strategies, business models, and the trends.

I also have a third article planned, which is going to be about analytics. Because, as an independent journalist, the way you measure a small publication is somewhat different from the way big publishers do it.

So stay tuned for that.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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