How Bloggers Need to Work with Brands – and it isn’t via Twitter Fights


Last month, I had the honour of speaking to a number of DMOs (Destination Marketing Organizations) about how to work with bloggers. I was asked to attend the conference as the organisers (Think! Social Media) had seen me speak in the past and knew that I had a proactive and positive view of the way bloggers can work with brands – and that I had also put my money where my mouth is by supporting bloggers financially in order to support blogger/brand relationships and activity.

ryan levittSo, imagine my surprise when two slides of my 20-plus slide presentation were jumped on and transformed into a campaign of attack.

It has been a little over a week since it all kicked off, and I have purposely waited until now to respond, as I did not want to turn this guest post into a whiny and defensive column all about me. Because where does that get any of us? And how does that help propel blogger/brand working relationships into the future?

Instead, I’m going to go positive and use the tried and tested link bait method of a top five list to spark a bit more conversation on a platform that allows for more than 140 characters of text. So without further ado, I reveal Ryan Levitt’s Top Five List on How to Work with Brands.

1.  99% of blogs are awful – so stand out from the crowd

I begin with one of the contentious slides that was tweeted about – my belief that 99% of blogs are really sh*t.

I must apologize as I was understating.

It’s really 99.9% of blogs.

In 2013, it was reported that there are over 152 Million blogs around the world (source). I don’t know about you, but I would struggle to find over 10,000 amazing blogs that I would actively want to read let alone the 1.5 Million that make up 1% of what is out there.

Think about it – for every contract, piece of content writing, press trip, and paid possibility, there are potentially thousands of people out there who think they can do the same thing as you. So you need to stand out. You can’t make mistakes. You can’t be lazy and expect the brand or DMO to do all your legwork. You can’t submit copy late. And you certainly can’t bad mouth a brand just because you didn’t get your own way.

You don’t like what they have to say? Educate them – and not just with your Google Analytics or flashy numbers. We know how easy it is to game the system. You may report that you have 500,000 unique viewers a month (but hide the fact that your views are off a single post that happened to go viral). We will find out. We are looking for quality PLUS quantity. Anyone can boast big numbers, but very few people can craft great copy, inspirational photography, and valuable “here only” tips and advice on a consistent basis.

2.  Learn from the newspapers

I know, I know! Traditional media is dying you say. Yes, the numbers aren’t great. But there is something to be said for how they operate. When a PR wants a newspaper on a press trip, they must promise that no other competing publication will be on that trip. Why? Because the newspaper wants an exclusive. They understand the value of being first – and only – to market. Why do you think journalists talk about “the big scoop”? Why do online publications put exclusive features and gossip at the top of a site? Because they generate clicks, readers, and add value.

Newspapers are smart (sometimes). They know that if a consumer reads about the same trip in other publications all at the same time, they get bored. Why read the New York Times if it’s simply printing the same stuff that USA Today is putting on its pages? It’s not fresh or original.

Think I’m the only person who feels this way? Ask Gary Arndt. His April Fools post this year was a masterful piss take on the whole experience. Read it here.

At HouseTrip, we are no longer supporting group press trips where bloggers stay in the same property at the same time. We will continue to offer opportunities for people to travel together in groups when we are sponsoring a large event (such as TBEX Athens, hint, hint), but we will always put bloggers in individual apartments during those periods. Why? Because we want each blogger to have a personal experience that is different from everyone else. We don’t want lots of posts about bloggers talking about other bloggers or identical experiences. And we certainly don’t want everyone talking all at once because it turns into social noise rather than social conversation.

3.  Stop talking to each other

I often feel like social media is a lot like a high school lunch table packed with cool kids. You really want to be at the table, but you don’t know how to get an invitation. Often times, bloggers are a lot like that too. A bunch of cool kids talking about all the fun they are having, while the regular consumer watches unable to find a way into the conversation. We need to be more embracing of what the consumer wants – and they will always want accessibility and engagement.

How many times have you read a blog and seen a lot of bloggers doing love-ins. “I love your blog,” “No I love yours more”. It’s aggravating. I know new bloggers are often finding ways to form relationships and get “in” with the in crowd. I also know that more established bloggers are looking for engagement. If you are compelled to write a comment on another blogger’s work, make sure you are contributing to the conversation. For example, if the blogger is in Thailand and you know a great place to go for sunrise yoga around the corner from a location they mentioned in the post, add that to the list. It’s a better contribution. But the endless love-fests aren’t productive.

4.  Know when you are right for SEO or right for brand building activity

Another contentious slide this one. My presentation prominently said that SEO was the reason why brands should work with bloggers. And that brand engagement is a secondary reason. I stand by this quote because it mirrors the fact that there are a limited number of influential blogs out there to work with. (And frankly you wouldn’t have endless SEO training sessions at blogger events if you didn’t realize the importance of it either).

When you are first starting out, SEO will always be your biggest selling point. At a rough estimate, it will take two years of posting before I, as a brand, believe you have the kind of influence level I need to work with you. Until then, your value to me will be in SEO links. That’s simply the name of the game.

Want to get ahead faster? Then do something that magazine advertisers have done for years. When a magazine launches, their sales team will give away pages to brands that they hope to entice – and so that other brands will see the kind of partners they are working with. If you are a new blogger and you don’t have the track record a brand needs to warrant working with you, then give away a little in the short term and show your value through click throughs, ads, and more. Then, use this case study to get me interested in working with you on bigger projects, or use your success and go to my competitor (who you can charge to work with).

5.  Stop with the begging bowl – at first

I get about five emails a day that say about the same thing. I’m (INSERT NAME) blogger. I’m going to (INSERT DESTINATION). I want free stuff from you. In return you will get a blog post.

Some of the emails include case studies and media kits. Some don’t. In all cases, these pitches go straight to my SEO Director and I rarely take a second look. Why? Because nowhere in those pitches does the blogger say how they can work with my brand, what they like about it, and what they think would benefit both of us if we did an activity together.

I was having lunch with a colleague recently and he told me that he pretty much deletes every single email like the one above that passes into his inbox. But we both agreed that if a blogger did their research and understood our marketing strategy and direction for the year – and then pitched something that fit, we’d sit up and take notice.

So how can a blogger find this out? Easily. Look at the photos on the homepage of the site. Are there big pictures of food? Then chances are food and drink is a big part of the marketing strategy for the year. Are you seeing lots of luxury images and exclusive resorts? Then global nomads and backpacker specialists might want to stay away.

Don’t go straight for the freebie. And don’t try and shoehorn us into your travel desires. Find out what we want and then see if it works with your brand strategy. Because you need to remember that you are a brand too.

If you disagree with anything I have said in this post or in my SoMeT presentation, I welcome your feedback. If you think I have failed to point out other values bloggers deliver, I would greatly appreciate your feedback in the comments. At HouseTrip we are proud to have been supporting bloggers since 2010 and I have been personally involved in that process the entire time. We have been, and are still committed to working with new bloggers, and are continuing to build on our existing relationships.

Author bio:  Ryan Levitt is PR Director of, one of the world’s largest holiday rental websites offering over 230,000 rentals in more than 19,000 destinations worldwide. Prior to this time, he spent almost a decade in travel PR representing NYC, Bermuda, Mauritius, Queensland, Malaysia and many other destinations, hotels and cruise lines in Europe. Also a former travel journalist, he has written over 20 travel guides and contributed to The Independent on Sunday (UK), Arena Magazine, Wallpaper, South China Morning Post, Toronto Star – and was a guide writer for VisitBritain and the German National Tourist Office.

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30 Responses
  1. I come from traditional journalism so number 2 highly resonates with me. I’ve done the FAM trip thing and while I don’t mind them, there will always be greater value and meaning when we steer off the path, find a unique story angle to tell, or travel to an emerging destination no one is writing about. I try to put myself in the brand (and consumer’s) shoes and ask myself, what can I do that’s new or different. Sooner or later, offering just a blog post or social media promotion may not be innovative enough.

    1. rick

      Thanks for the comment Cristina. Living in our social media world we sometimes forget how much we can learn from traditional media.

      1. Just out of curiosity, when did blogs morph from “editorial media” into “social media”? (A lot of bloggers do seem focused on Facebook and Twitter these days. Is that a bug or a feature?)

        1. rick

          It’s a good question Durant. I prefer the term new media but try not to get hung up on the terminology. If you want to be really clear a blog is really just a simple CMS (Content Management System). It is a tool like a piece of paper. It can be used for editorial, for fiction, for marketing, journalism, or just plain old crap. So saying “blogs are X” is a pretty poor generalization.

    2. Ditto! As an editor, I always knew when there was a press trip in the works because I would get countless pitches for the same story angle. And a lot of the time, what gets included on the press trip itinerary isn’t really “story” worthy — as a writer/blogger, you have to seek out that unique angle. It’s more than just a good thing to do, it’s your JOB. Not just as an editor, but as a reader, I want a hook that isn’t the same thing I’ve seen a hundred times, or that tells me a story about something, whether it’s the culture, the people, the food, anything. I want to get to the end and say, “Wow, I totally didn’t know that.” Or, “This writer has a cool perspective. I want to read more by them.” Every blogger should aspire to have that effect on their readers.

  2. I do agree with a lot of this and having written something similar highlighting the hardships of us ‘bottom of the barrel bloggers’ to get recognition and how press trips offered to the bottom have little value. I was quickly put down by the blogger’s above / media professionals. I would say however that the 99% / 99.9% maybe right but it is misleading. The majority of these blogs will be hobby bloggers with no knowledge or interest in working with brands and there is little chance of contact between them. Those which do have contact will be professional bloggers who have utilized and promoted their blogs in ways the industry can benefit from them.
    Re the ‘exclusive’ pieces this doesn’t mean one travel blogger but utilizing blogger niches and diversify the outreach and exposure; Photographers, videographers, food tourism, adventure travel… and this goes the same for regional bloggers and niche. Bloggers don’t (yet) have the clout to utilize ‘Exclusive Pieces’ but throwing a bunch of like-minded bloggers, blogging to the same audience about the exact same things is little more than a wasted opportunity.
    I agree with the “stop talking to each other” and the blogging cliques which have always irked me as many spend more time networking between each other in attempt to get on the same gravy train before targeting valuable audiences, following and potential consumers. To be a successful blogger it is easier to back-scratch with other bloggers and to build value where it doesn’t really exist. Focus for bloggers should be on building valuable followers which is through valuable content, better targeting and of course high seo.
    SEO will always bring the best long-term value and it has lost its lead nowadays with emphasis on cheap, cringe-worthy social media boosts which create no more than short-term bites. These days with many travel bloggers ranking higher than online review sites and travel magazines there is great potential there to maximize and generate search traffic long into the future. I know SEO can at times be hard to quantify due to lack of transparency in blogging but this is changing with organisations like the Professional Travel Blogger Association.
    The begging bowl I feel is from views of short-termism and the get rich quick attitude of new travel blogs. Build a quick blog, network and link build with fellow bloggers, build value between one another, sell links, hit up brands for free stuff. It is what holds back the ethical bloggers and the industry as a whole but ignoring and hiding these issues is not going to make them go away (as many do) and by highlighting them will only educate brands to better select who to work with.
    I think most ‘professional travel blogs’ offer value to brands and it is up to the brand to better select the blogger to suit their campaign through niches, demographics and a balance of short-term and long-term benefits. I have personally been blogging for two years and while I feel I offer value to some companies there are others I would be of little to no use.

    1. rick

      Thank you for some really great points from a blogger prospective Allen. A lot of bloggers have no idea how many requests and really awful proposals brands get inundated with. Particularly industry leading brands or brands that have already demonstrated support for digital content creators.

      Based on your comments I wouldn’t consider you a “bottom of the barrel” blogger. Traffic is valuable but it isn’t the only measurement smart brands use to consider working with content creators.

      1. I’m glad you say “smart brands”.
        I only contact brands that I think I can be relevant for and that I think are relevant to my blog. However, before I used to contact them with the how and why and I very often got a short reply back asking me about my numbers. Now, I admit, I often focus more on numbers in my emails.
        It’s not always easy knowing what the brand you want to work with values more: the how and why, or the numbers.

  3. Hey Ryan. Your post was spot on. In the starting years of blogging, I once pitched for a freebie in return for a blog post. Trust me, it was the most disempowering experience ever. I got the freebie I wanted but it did not leave me fulfilled and proud of my work. That was the first and last time.
    Thanks again for the post.

    1. rick

      You touched on something important there Guarav. Everyone has to learn. Bloggers and other content creators learn by doing and making mistakes. You learned a lesson and got better at your pitches and the value you were offering right?

  4. Totally agree with #3.

    When all I see on a travel bloggers comments are comments from other travel bloggers, I begin to think they don’t have anybody from the general public who reads their stuff.

    Another comment…I know most travel bloggers are twenty and thirty somethings, but the use of swear words in their posts puts me off. I used to own an auto body repair shop, so trust me, I’ve heard it all. But there’s a time and a place for it, and when you’re trying to come across as professional, this does exactly the opposite.

  5. Aloha,
    This post is quite timely since I just finished reading about this whole controversy in a FB group recently, and bravo to you for following up on this site and sharing something that hits the mark in terms of making an imprint in this crowded marketplace. I enjoyed reading you key points and I think most of them apply depending on what a blogger’s focus is on developing some collaboration or branded strategy. Your point on really focusing on researching a desired brand and offering to do a targeted collaboration that works to spotlight the brands product or service makes sense to me, especially in working effectively with a brand that also fits a blogger’s readership. Blogging is not an easy thing for most of the professional bloggers that do deliver great content, imagery, or a variety of multi-media work and offering consistent content and message. So from that pool of talented bloggers, hopefully it will be easier to stand out from the 99% as you mentioned above.

  6. Some of the points you make are good Ryan, but they are marred by hyperbole and made at the expense of other, potentially more valuable points. That is why bloggers are angry.

    You completely ignore the PR value of blogs. SEO is not the only reason to work with blogs. It’s just the only easily actionable and quantifiable reason.

    PR value does exist. It’s just not as easy to create and measure. It requires skill, creativity, and effort, but it is of value (potentially far greater value than SEO) and should not be ignored.

    Saying that 99.9% of blogs are shit is true, but it’s also inflammatory and not helpful. It only serves to belittle a lot of hard working people. In the context of a professional industry conversation, it would be more useful to speak in terms of blogs that operate within the industry, which are the blogs maintained by professionals (or those aspiring to be), which are not 99% shit.

    Speaking that way sounds like a childish cry for attention. You expect the bloggers you work with to act like professionals. You should act like one yourself.

    1. rick

      Where is the hyperbole in his post Matt? I’m not arguing it’s not there. I just didn’t notice and am curious if you saw something I missed. If you are referring to his statement that 99.9% of blogs are S**T, even in this context, I have to disagree.

      I agree with you, if you are only measuring professionals, aspiring professionals and hobbyists who conduct themselves professionally then the number would be far lower. But brands get approached by far more unprofessional bloggers than the other. You might and you might not be surprised by the overwhelming amount of pitches that brands get from bloggers (journalists too btw).

      Horror stories about bloggers are well known in every business sector. I haven’t seen anyone called out publicly in the travel industry yet. But I hear them all the time privately from travel brands. Nearly every single DMO and brand I talk to has a horror story/ stories to tell about working with bloggers. Some are so upset they decide to quit working with bloggers altogether. Here is a well known case of a blogger blackmailing a brand for free stuff at an industry conference. Yes I know it’s consumer products but the same thing happens in travel all the time.

      I agree with you 100% on your point about PR value. There are numerous other benefits to brands working with professional bloggers.

  7. Ryan,

    There is new competition from multi-level marketing travel agents from YTB Travel or World Ventures starting travel blogs as a wait to find clients to sign up for memberships. This has dramatically increased the number of really bad blogs. Many of the these travel agents lack travel and blogging experience. The traveling public cannot discern a multi-level travel blog from an authentic travel blogger. So I agree with you, Ryan 99.9% of blogs suck.

    I have been contacted by one YTB National Sales Director who wants to follow me and learn my social media skills to sign up clients. There is a difference between travel blogging to represent brands and travel blogging for recruitment into multi-level marketing. I understand the need to monetize blogs, but I don’t think MLM is the proper venue for travel blogging. The waters are so murky with the influx of these MLM travel blogs. Travel blogging is a skill that takes time to develop.

    Also Ryan thanks for the tips on how to pitch to brands. We all need reminders on how to improve our pitches.

  8. Ryan,

    Terrific article! It was nice to hear you talk about the fact that brands want to know that bloggers have researched their brand and can identify how they can work together beyond a blog post and social media stats.

    As a food blogger, (I’ve just stared to dip my toe into the travel blogging arena) I see the “cool kids” table – literally – at media events. The high school behavior is ridiculous for adults, especially ones that are supposedly “influencers.” I also find that bloggers sometimes forget who their audience is. They write for other bloggers rather than their readers. Doing so is a surefire way to alienate your readers and followers.

  9. I am SO freakin glad you’ve said this! Most recently I switched my gears to an all new brand design that places partners in the spotlight, even if I haven’t made them yet (new site launch this summer). I know my brand and what it needs to engage my audience, and I know what partners are a part of that vision. So why not do the SEO that brings everyone to the party. Design with partners in mind! Great points, anyone who argues them has no idea what they are talking about. I just wish there was a way to weed out all the crap bloggers.

  10. I don’t get the difference between a blogger and a journalist. The same issues exist, only the medium is different. If you are a quality blogger, with a quality audience, than you are just like a quality journalist. Act accordingly and the issues raised by Ryan are just plain common sense.

    1. rick

      Not all bloggers are journalists Bruce. Far from it. Bloggers can be journalists or they could be marketers, or any number of other things. Some journalists are also bloggers but in this case A does not necessarily equal B.

      More often than not bloggers do not hold themselves to the same church and state separation that journalists do. Not because they are unethical, but out of necessity. Most part time or full time professional bloggers are the writer, editor, publisher and sales team. That’s quite a difference from being a journalist.

  11. Thanks for the helpful insight from the brand’s perspective. I’ve worked with some hotel and property rental brands recently, and my first thought when reaching out is: is this a brand I am personally interested in (for my own use)? Would my readers want to know about this brand? Then I approach the partnership from a mutually beneficial perspective. I gain experience and a fuller partner portfolio, and I strive to give the brand what they want or need. Sure the free or discounted stay or stipend is “payment” for my services, but I think the bigger takeaway is the solidifying that working relationship and expanding a client network. I think your top 5 list is a very helpful reference and a good reminder of the right way to approach brands. I will say that I completely agree with #3, although it does make me feel great to support a blogger friend by mentioning them to a brand if they are a better fit for them. I’ve also received a few paid opportunities from similar blogger friend reference situations. It can feel good to scratch each others backs a little in a field that can be a bit lonely, but from a business perspective, as far as establishing relationships with brands and building a readership of potential clients for these brands, it is counter productive to incestuously connect only with other travel bloggers. I’m in the process of trying to solidify a strategy for branching out. It can be tough, but it will be worth it!

  12. I appreciate this article and agree with many of the points Ryan makes, but also agree that it doesn’t need to be quite so sensational. Blogging, and travel blogging, is still in its infancy and there’s bound to be growing pains. I think it is worthwhile to offer inspiring and educational articles and conference sessions to bloggers so they can improve. As someone with a degree in print who journalism, who moved over to starting a blog platform because I realized that was my best chance to do the kind of work I dreamed of doing, I am sometimes dismayed at being lumped in with people who have no idea how to write or report and who have no idea about journalistic ethics. I wish there was a way to effectively separate the pros from the amateurs, with room and support for amateurs to become pros. I also would like to see more support for various blogging strategies. For example, I run a largely destination-specific blog (India) and I am slowly turning it into more of a website than blog, by adding things like tours, affiliate arrangements with Indian travel companies, travel guides etc. It’s a very effective strategy that is opening up all kinds of opportunities for me, but I rarely see anything that addresses the destination specific strategy. There’s just too many travel blogs that all seem to do the same thing: I went *here* and this is what I did. Totally agree that more creativity, more professionalism is needed … it will benefit both the bloggers and the brands.

    1. rick

      Thank you for some very insightful comments Mariellen. I think you just made a great suggestions for several future TBEX sessions.

  13. Great post! It is direct and informative. I am a blogger, and a new blogger at that., but more importantly I am a consumer. I considered myself a smart consumer, and although posts about products let me know about new products, they rarely sway my purchasing decisions. The exception would be reviewers such as Techno Buffalo. I work hard to make each post (whether product related or not) offer something different, and not a cookie cutter copy of everyone else’s posts. I am not saying I am succeeding, but it is my goal. The reason it is my goal is I hate lazy cut and paste posts. My time is valuable! How can I seriously consider anything in the post or recommendation if it wasn’t important enough to write a good post about it. I can tell when someone has done a proper review of a product, and when it is simply one more of dozens of paid posts, with the same pictures. That will never encourage me to buy that product, in fact just the opposite. So at the end of the day it is all about time. Time to do the homework about the brand or product Time to make sure you and brands you work with are a good match. Time to build your blog and followers. Time to write a post on ANY product that people want to take their previous time to read.

  14. This post makes me so happy. While I can understand those with concerns that Ryan is perhaps playing up the sensational side, I also think it needs to be done. His tone is spot-on, IMO. There isn’t enough tough love in the blogging world (not just travel blogging, but food, fashion, parenting, everything). Every time I go to a blogging conference or event, I get this sense of it all just being “rah-rah, you can do it, look how successful you can be!” There’s not enough discussion taking place about the practice and ethics of journalism, about understanding the divide between advertorial and editorial, and about crafting writing, reporting and fact-checking skills. About how bloody hard it can be to find a story and make it your own and not sound like you’re just prattling on about some freebie that was handed to you. Blogging now fills such an odd space in media — part marketing for brands, part journalism. Some stay strictly on one side or the other, some float somewhere in the middle. And all of that is fine, as long as you know who you are. But I fear that very few actually understand the distinctions. I’m not saying it’s intentional ignorance; rather, I think a lot of the time it’s lack of knowledge. Because of how easy it is to start up a blog and put your words out there (there’s no longer the barrier of editor to pass through), people are diving in before learning the finer points of the writing (or photography or videography) craft. I don’t have a journalism degree, but I did spend many years taking part-time journalism courses and getting my hand smacked by editors when I submitted bad copy. And I think anyone who ever wants to run a media business or work in the industry in any capacity needs to do the same. Bloggers have a bad rap — I’ve heard it, too, from various brands. And the only way to fix those negative impressions is for bloggers to starting thinking like journalists and publishers, because really, *that’s what we are.*

  15. Great post, Ryan. I know people were riled up by #1, but suspect that those who participate in TBEX don’t realize the volume of spam they are competing with these days (because most of the spam I get is from non-TBEX’ers). Rick mentioned that most aren’t getting called out…and I happened to have this recent gem in my in-box. I’m removing her name but otherwise leaving unedited. Among the many things I love about this approach:
    -It was sent to a bunch of people (some competitors) at once, without tailoring, or even BCC’ing
    -It was sent to our office manager. Must have just scraped an email off the website without doing any real research on who to actually contact (and I’m pretty easy to track down online)
    -The use of creative grammar choices, including parenthesis (especially “luxury hotel”) and misspelling Clients in the subject line. That doesn’t bode well for overall content quality, eh?
    -The price tag. $10,000 doesn’t even get you exclusivity. She wants FIVE brands at that price
    -No mention of any of her stats or what she might be doing to justify that 10k. The ‘about’ section of her blog is blank
    -The blog doesn’t even own a name. Its still a site, with the cheapest template I’ve ever seen



    Dear Pubic Relations (Media Buying Dept):

    Re: A NationWide Promo For Your Clients

    1. I’m planning a trip to a “family event” and am planning to do a “5 Day Photo Diary”. I would like to get five Corporate Sponsors (each with $10,000).
    2. Each Corporate Sponsor will have a page in my “photo diary” which can be promoted on the Sponsor’s webpages, on the Sponsor’s Facebook Pages, on the Sponsor’s Twitter pages as well.
    3. I’ll spending 5 days in a “luxury hotel” and will be doing other things that I’ll make interesting photographically.
    4. Your most immediate replay is appreciated as trip reservations must be made by May 30, 2014. You may view my website at: XXXX

    1. Oh my! I’m speechless! I had no idea that’s what you were up against. Good grief, where to begin? Thanks for posting this. It’s certainly opened my eyes.

  16. I guess I missed all the fuss from the original presentation, but the points made in this article all make perfect sense to me. It reminded me of talk by William Bakker, of Think! SM last year at TBEX in Toronto. I wrote about it too, here:

    There’s more to blogging benefits than SEO, sure. But it really boils down to what DMO are seeking, in terms of objectives for their campaign, and what travel bloggers can provide, through their network, influence and social platforms (including their blog). Not an easy balance to strike, sure, but events such as TBEX help towards achieving this common goal.

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