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Content Strategy: More than a Bunch of Tactics

by Kristina Halvorson on January 26th, 2010

I know this will likely come as a shock to many of you, but I have a Twitter alert set up for “content strategy.” 

It’s really extraordinary how the tweets about content strategy have EXPLODED over the past few months. A year ago, maybe I’d see one or two a day. Now, hourly, it’s mentioned dozens of times.
The thing that fascinates me is that it’s being used in about a hundred different contexts to mean a hundred different things.
Now, I don’t really care that people are using the term inconsistently. I’m not altogether invested in figuring out The One and Only Definition. What bugs me is that we seem to be missing the point altogether.
Content strategy isn’t just what content you publish. It isn’t deciding to publish more content than before. It’s not where you distribute it. It’s not a blog, and it’s not Twitter. And it definitely isn’t all about getting SEO results.
Content strategy is a plan to get you from where you are now with your current content (assets, operations, distribution, maintenance, and so on), to where you want to be. But for some reason, we want to skip that part and rush ahead to the execution piece. Which is why we tend to mix up content strategy … with tactics.
Is it a blog?
Early in the week, Valeria Maltoni (ConversationAgent.com) wrote a terrific post called How to Develop a Content Strategy Process. I really admire the hell out of Valeria and was thrilled to see her tackle this topic. However, a few paragraphs into the post, I realized that she was specifically talking about how to plan for blog content.
If you’re a small business or an independent consultant, your blog may very well be 99 percent of your content. In this case, Valeria’s post is on the money. But for a mid-sized or large organization, if social media content is conceived and created in a silo (or siloes) apart from the organization’s other content channels, it opens the door for inconsistent messaging, irrelevant content for current target audiences, and so on. So it’s important to understand that a blog, like all social media, is (among other things) a channel through which to distribute branded content.
[Note: Just discovered that Valeria has changed the title of the post to “How to Develop a Content Strategy Process (for your blog)”.]
Is it where you get content?
Yesterday, Barry Judge (@bestbuycmo) had this to say:
Interesting content strategy thought. Newspaper is best of, Internet is more of, mobile is instant.
What he’s talking about, here, is a little bit of a mishmash. The newspaper supposedly curates the “best of” content (editorial curation). The Internet gives us “more of” content (volume). Mobile gives us instant “access to” content (distribution channel).
These are all components of content strategy, but none of them really is, per se, a content strategy.
Is it whether you pay for content?
Then we have the big brouhaha over The New York Times paid content model that was announced last week. In follow-up discussions, lots of bloggers referred to it as their paid “content strategy.” Is it? Or is it just a new business model?
(Note that The New York Times press release did not refer to the plans as a “content strategy.”)
Or is it… something else?
A few other mentions of content strategy, all of which are totally different from one another:
Okay. What the hell is it?
The most important thing to understand is this: Content strategy isn’t a bunch of tactics. It’s a plan.
It’s a well-founded plan, fueled by your business objectives and user goals. An achievable plan, created with your current business reality, content assets, and limited resources in mind. A future plan, for what’s going to happen to your content once you send it off into the world. And, most importantly, a profitable plan, where your measures of success ultimately have impact on your organization’s bottom line.
So, folks, let’s try not to gloss over this process as the industry’s latest “shiny new object.” Instead, let’s talk about content strategy as a way of doing business, a way of looking at our content not as a commodity but as a valuable business asset, worthy of our strategic consideration.

  • kathysierra

    This may be the best paragraph related to “content” that I've ever read:
    “It’s a well-founded plan, fueled by your business objectives and user goals. An achievable plan, created with your current business reality, content assets, and limited resources in mind. A future plan, for what’s going to happen to your content once you send it off into the world. And, most importantly, a profitable plan, where your measures of success ultimately have impact on your organization’s bottom line.”

  • http://www.fivetechnology.com/ Aaron Weiche

    Kristina- Things are finally starting to boil in the water you have been swimming in for years. As content morphs into conversation (thanks to more social tools & approach) it is more important than ever to have a goal and a plan to reach it.

    I feel it's about having both a message AND a direction with content. Everyone has always wanted to have a message, though not always a great one, but we are seeing you need to move it in a direction too. Anytime you have direction involved, you better have a plan/map to get there. This applies to both your organization and your user/consumer. Great post.

  • http://pjbfcp.com/ pjbfcp

    Nice thoughts Kristina, I especially like, “…a way of looking at our content not as a commodity but as a valuable business asset,…” Also, the fact that, “…it’s being used in about a hundred different contexts to mean a hundred different things.” reminds me of the number of times I've had to explain what UX or IA is. If you get the practitioners all in a room together to define it they'll all have different descriptions of what it is. They will, however, agree that all of those different definitions are correct. Years later UX and IA still have this problem and I expect that content strategy will have the same problem.

  • bencurnett

    Hi Kristina. This was the first point I keyed in on when I began investigating content strategy for myself. It was my instinct to begin looking at content strategy in terms of tactics, as those were the elements of content I've been most familiar with.

    But I've since started to understand CS by thinking of strategy as the context in which tactics become effective.

    It's like being given a picture of a house, and a stack of supplies. A client points to the picture and says, “I want this”. You've got all the stuff to build it, but without the plan, it's unlikely you'll end up with what's in the picture.

    Thanks for the post.

  • http://predicate-llc.com jeffmacintyre

    One of the best things about this field is it capaciousness. It's well earned, in my opinion. On the downside, content strategy's lack of profile over the years, combined with its current vogue, make it especially susceptible to different meanings and community-specific contexts.

    I suspect those of us who've worked under the CS title for years are not especially anxious about it getting successfully hijacked overnight. But as the volume of conversation has picked up, so has the level of noise.

    In the spirit of content strategy, it might be a worthwhile project for someone to try disambiguating and tweezing apart some of the going definitions, as you've begun for us, Kristina. Not in the pursuit of some unified theory, of jargon policing, or especially of introducing ultimately limiting partitions, so much as to demonstrate how important an idea it has become.

    I've offered space on the knol in the past, for example, to folks from the tech comm community to advance their own definition and methodology of CS–and I likewise extend the invitation to anyone reading here. (http://knol.google.com/k/jeffrey-macintyre/cont...)

    I'm down with plurality, and even (maybe particularly!) with meanings we haven't quite chimed on as yet. There's much to like in the current fluid state of things.

    With CS as a whole, however, I do feel we only get so far with talking it, and we need to do more showing. But in terms of the word itself, so long as we don't kill ourselves over semantics (meaningful minutiae only, hah) and we maintain courteous intentions, a little community elbow grease here might just help general observers looking for clearer signposting of content strategy.

  • fmachs

    Just like…

    “Affordance” should be about “perceived affordance”.


    “Usability” should be about doing your own research and tests.

    The most annoying thing I read about content strategy was at uxmatters where someone was talking about “sampling” content.

    The most glad thing I read about content strategy is right here:
    “Content strategy is a plan to get you from where you are now with your current content”.

    We need a thinking-centered-design and not a follow-up-formula-without-thinking-design.

    Thinking should be the process.

  • http://braintraffic.com Kristina Halvorson

    Thanks, Kathy. I think about this stuff a lot. :)

  • http://braintraffic.com Kristina Halvorson

    Yeah, it's hard not to run after the content strategy land grab… I like to keep things fairly simple, which is why I use a simple definition. There are going to be several, and, just as you say, many of them will be right. Again, the main goal is to keep our eyes on the prize of making content matter. Even the phrase “content strategy” begins to elevate it beyond “just words.”

  • http://braintraffic.com Kristina Halvorson

    Exactly. I've used the house metaphor dozens of times when trying to explain why content strategy can help. Last night in a UX Book Club discussion, someone also compared content strategy to the script of a play… you need it before you start designing the set!

  • http://braintraffic.com Kristina Halvorson

    “With CS as a whole, however, I do feel we only get so far with talking it, and we need to do more showing.”


  • http://www.twitter.com/mbloomstein mbloomstein

    Yay! Points for a timely and smart post. Too often we confuse strategy and tactics. It makes sense, when tactics are fast, visible, and garner recognition. In contrast, a strategy merely–merely!–grounds those tactics in vision and direction. Content strategy dares to ask those tough questions that can disrupt or derail big-ticket tactics. The strategist asks why, by whom, and what are you trying to accomplish with this campaign anyhow? It's tough to throw more money into blog posts or rehash the same content in a shiny new site redesign when someone wants to ensure it's serving the right purpose, meets your audience's expectations, and is appropriate for your brand.

    Whew! So tough to talk with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

    That said, between strategic direction and tactical execution, I think there's still room to ensure strategy affects our lowest-level decisions. In the misnomer of “Twitter content strategy,” we can't forget to apply high-level communication goals–an aspect of strategy–to the structure and diction of our Tweets. As we continue to evolve the tenets of strategy, I'm excited to see how, as a community, we figure out the implications to what we've been delivering all along.

  • http://www.campbell-ewald.com/ chrismoritz

    I'd even venture that we may be confusing things just as much when we conflate “strategy” and “planning” as we are with “strategy” and “tactics.”

    Could be that I'm seeing things through too much of a big agency perspective, but in my world you need a strategy before you develop a plan. More times than not we'll include an outline of a plan in the strategy, but nothing that I'd call an Official Plan™©®.

  • http://braintraffic.com Kristina Halvorson

    Could you define… “strategy”?

  • http://www.fionacullinan.com/ FionaC

    I'm guessing 'Content Tactics' just isn't macho, catchy or sexy enough to describe what most people are doing.

  • http://www.campbell-ewald.com/ chrismoritz

    A strategic question would be something along the lines of “should we build on top of our existing properties, create something new and complementary, or go with a pure syndication play to existing high-profile outlets?”

    Or it might be – reach the end consumer, influential figures, or vendors and partners through the supply chain with content that will help our business goals?

    Once the strategy is in place, a plan can be developed to handle sourcing, distribution, creation, governance, and promotion. Each strategy would have radically different content needs in terms of volume, cadence, and subject matter.

    That’s not to say the strategy wouldn’t be “all of the above” of course, but even then, I’d doubt it would be equal from a budget perspective.

    Or am I missing something?

  • fmachs

    If you are asking those questions, you are probably in the conceptual stage of development. Probably, you are defining goals.
    That's the way your definition sounds.

    For me, it's not (content) strategy.

    I quoted before what I think content strategy means, because you wouldn't know what to do next if you don't know what's going on right now. That is strategy. Focus thinking.

    Just think about been an entrepreneur. You can't start a business if you don't understand the state-of-the-art of the current business market. You will just fail.

    I was talking with a friend yesterday about it.

    We are so tied with the tactics, like when we are in front of a computer and need to be productive, that we can't even start from the most-first-awesome-approach: thinking.

  • http://www.campbell-ewald.com/ chrismoritz

    What I outlined above would be question that would follow a business goals discussion. So, given that you want to accomplish X, Y, and Z – here are the possible strategies, pros and cons, and backup to support each (case studies, trends, market research, etc.)

    I'm willing to concede that I'm wandering into “general” digital strategy, or general strategy overall, and outside of content strategy proper, but there's still a ton of overlap.

    You'd need to rely on other strategist to flesh out a complete program (promotion, service, operations, etc.) but a content strategist with a seat at the table at what you're calling the “conceptual” stage is something I think we're all interested in.

    I guess I'm still not sold on the notion that strategy and planning are the same activity. A content strategy should exist prior to and independent of a particular content plan. A given plan may fail, but the strategy should endure.

  • Leanne H

    I completely agree with kathysierra. A paragraph the even my clients could understand! Kristina, do you mind if I quote you in a proposal I'm writing?
    Much obliged,
    (still enjoying your book)

  • http://BrainTraffic.com/ Melissa Rach

    Ooh. What a fun-filled discussion this blog is stirring up!

    Chris M: I think you bring up some excellent points. Kristina and I have actually been having the “strategy vs. plan” debate for, oh, three years. (You should have seen the duel we had over making “Plan” a section title in “Content Strategy for the Web.” George Lucas and James Cameron would have been impressed.)

    At the end of the day, however, I think it's a semantics argument. Kristina uses the word “plan” because her conversation style is pragmatic.

    But at Brain Traffic, when we talk to our clients at Brain Traffic, “the plan” is only one part of the work we call “strategy.” We use the following definition of strategy (which I stole largely from my friend Chris Mahai).

    Strategy helps facilitate smart decision making, by:
    + Creating clarity (about business situation, environmental pressures, user needs, etc.)
    + Aligning stakeholders (on objectives, strategic concepts, etc.)
    + Making informed recommendations (on content and related topics)
    + Creating/documenting the action plan (how will we get from today to achieved objectives)

    I also think there is a difference between strategy (noun) and strategy (verb). But, that is a blog post for another day.

    Anyhoo, thanks for taking my side in the (non-)debate. Between you and Karen McGrane's lorem ipsum post, I'm having a good week!

  • http://braintraffic.com Kristina Halvorson

    Begrudgingly, I agree with Melissa. (Clearly, she's the brains behind our entire operation. I am merely her puppet. “Dance, Kristina! Dance!”)

  • http://BrainTraffic.com/ Melissa Rach

    heh. right. Shall we debate that?

  • fmachs

    You need a content strategist at the conceptual stage of any artifact. Because content isn't just about text.

    Can you talk more about your distinction between strategy and planning?

  • http://www.campbell-ewald.com/ chrismoritz

    Yep – I concur. The plan is a component of a strategy.

    In my experience, if you don't have at least cursory agreement and buy-in on your first 3 bullets, it's risky and frustrating to start on the last one.

  • http://www.campbell-ewald.com/ chrismoritz

    Take a look at Melissa's comment below; I think she nailed it.

  • http://BrainTraffic.com/ Melissa Rach

    Because “the plan” is the final deliverable, “plan” becomes conversational shorthand for the whole process. And, most of the time, that's fine as long as it's a springboard for the the larger conversation.

    It's not very pithy to say, “Content Strategy is about getting clarity-alignment-recommendations-and-a-plan around creating, sharing, and governing content.”

    Both definitions and styles have their use.

  • fmachs

    Can we say that both definitions haver their use because the field definition isn't clear enough?

  • http://BrainTraffic.com/ Melissa Rach

    Hmm… not exactly clear on your question… To me, it's less about the “field defintion” being disputed and more about context.

    The definition I use both depends on the context/person I'm talking to. When talking to a CMO, I emphasize the finer points of strategy first and then talk about content second. If I'm talking to a content manager, I'd do the reverse. Have to start somewhere.

    Hope that answered your question. Sorry!

  • fmachs

    Don't need to sorry.
    I asked because, reading again the post, it seems there's a clear problem with the field definition (which has common implications with its context).
    You wouldn't need to have different speeches for different people if there were an agreement on what is Content Strategy.
    Maybe, that's why there are so many conte(x|n)ts. Or that's why we see many different uses of the term. Finally, that's why this post has so many replies. ^^

  • Jeffls

    In a nutshell, here are my thoughts: I tend to think of this as more of a hierarchy: Strategy->Plan->Tactics, with the plan->tactics stages being repeated within a tighter cycle down to final implementation, including measurement of the results.

    For me, a strategy – any strategy – is composed of:
    1. Where are we?
    — In business terms; what goals are we achieving? Which goals are we missing?
    2. Where do we want to be?
    — Why do we want to be there?
    3. What does that “where” look like when we are done? How do we act? What do we see? What outcomes do we expect to experience?

    Again, all of the above are in business terms. The danger is that so often people jump in with the solution/tactic far too early, without any actual, agreed business targets. This usually results in missed expectations in the end result.

    For me, the plan that is most directly linked to the strategy development is more of a high level business plan: Which markets, business models, lines-of-business, etc. are going to contribute to reaching the new goals, and how much contribution from each?

    The thing about all of this is that we aren't developing a content strategy just for the sake of having one. We should be connected to how the content strategy is expected to contribute to the whole set of business objectives. Content Strategy is only one tool in the shed, and the contribution to the overall business success should be well defined (i.e., explicit) where possible; and in the implementation, it should be measured for effectiveness (along with everything else).

  • http://www.campbell-ewald.com/ chrismoritz

    I'm with Melissa on this one. Even if there's a common agreement on the definition of content strategy, that in no way changes the fact that senior executives, middle management, and “worker bees” have radically different views on the world, and will inevitably interpret and value things differently; sometimes sharply so. That's not reserved to this discipline – it applies broadly for communications specifically and business in general. At least that's been my experience.

  • http://www.campbell-ewald.com/ chrismoritz

    You're spot on – a content strategy must fit in with the company's existing (or prospective) business objectives, history, culture, brand equity, and financial position.

    Now, we content strategists don't need to run off and start getting MBAs; just means we need to understand what people who DO have MBAs are talking about, what they care about, and how to position our work as advantageous (and critical) to their goals (and reward systems).

  • http://twitter.com/juliov27612 Julio Vazquez

    Love this post. It states the most important part of content strategy – strategy. You need to plan all aspects of content delivery in medium and large corporations so there is a consistent and accurate message throughout all areas that have contact with customers. Too often, each producer has their own view of the message and they don't mesh well.

    Let's get the strategy set and then figure out the tactics to implement!

  • fmachs

    That doesn't excuse the current state of things. Even with communication issues (which needs a solution, too).

    I really (really³) understand you (and Melissa). I am a front-end engineer. I just have a huge set of (communication) problems with the management.

    But Content Strategy is Content Strategy. Doesn't matter if you are talking with the president or a 65 years old manager. How can we tell people about the importance of Content Strategy as part of the business if we can't define it? People will not pay any attention.

    See, Cris. Let's look at the post again. There are 7 different contexts for CS. That's a lot.

  • http://BrainTraffic.com/ Melissa Rach


    Poll a few friends and ask for their definitions of words like “marketing” or “management.” If you want real fun, try “information architecture,” or “front-end engineer.” All business terms are open to interpretation and used differently in context of a person's needs/experience/knowledge.

    There will be a different interpretation for the term “content strategy” for every single person who uses it. At the base of it all is this: we need strategies for content. I think we can all agree on that. After that, figure out what works for you. I will respect whatever you come up with.

    The world would be a very dull place indeed, if language was rigid. T.S. Elliot rolls over in his grave at the thought.

  • fmachs

    Have you ever read about how the term “usability” is used today?
    Have you ever read about how piss Don Norman was because he introduced a misleading definition in the design field?

    I will poll friends, but may you poll yours about affordance?

    Melissa: things can go really strange without clarity and obviousness in terminologies. That's one reason why we have information architecture (and that's THE reason why Mega Menus are BAD).

    Terminologies are not esoteric artifacts that we use when and how we want. We are professionals. We are not consumers.

    Maybe business and research don't shake hands.

    Machado de Assis > T.S. Elliot. ^^

  • http://smyword.com/ Gabriel Smy

    An incisive definition of content strategy in the article followed by a call to more-action-less-conversation in the comments – I'm happy. Let's do it.

  • http://www.b2bbloggers.com Jeremy Victor


    Your knowledge on this topic really comes through in this post. With grace you address two views from other voices on the topic without being harmful (we can all benefit from this example). You provide clarity on a subject that many are skipping and are putting the cart before the horse. And finally, you provide a clear, helpful definition for those of who need it: marketers and agencies alike.

    Well Done!

  • http://twitter.com/DavidWLocke David W. Locke

    Years and years ago I came across Elaine Floyd's “Marketing with Newsletters, 1st edition. Skip the 2nd edition. This was back before the internet.

    She created something she called the RISE framework. Each letter stood for a layer in a content framework: Recognition, Image, Specifics, and Enactment. All documents have these components even if you haven't given any thought to it. That last thing, Enactment, includes call to action, contact devices, contact addresses.

    The web came along and Information Architecture spans the document set, some of it organized, the enactments measured. But, the architecture really reaches well beyond the internet document set.

    It turns out that if you have five stakeholder groups in the buy, you need to market to each. Each needs its own enactment chain of linked documents building towards the buy.

    This stands as my model of marketing w/content.

  • lolbsolis1

    Agree vehemently with everything you have said. You epitomize the filtering process of this new “fearless” world. You help us conserve energy, by connecting dots. Thank you. I will be honored if you read my thoughts on Darwinism & Social Media, and please bless me with a “mind-share” point – “term” – courtesy Venessa Miemis :) ) http://ow.ly/12KHk

    As you have argued, it has to be a holistic approach, but how do we do it for corporations, given this new world of superconnectivity, and being all about one to one conversations, with authentic folks, nurturing relationships and building towards trust. For me, personal branding is the key, and even corporations will need to start hiring/training Engagement managers (across the entire corporation. It could be anyone) in order to optimize RORI (return on relationship investment) with target communities. In fact, one of the titles of my post is “Why Personal Branding is your Social Media hub”. Would love your feedback :) ) http://ow.ly/12L14

    Look forward to participating in this fascinating conversation :) )


  • http://ianwaugh.tumblr.com/ Ian Waugh

    The more time I spend away from my computer, thinking about what I should do, the better I get at my job. No doubt that this strategy step needs to be carefully considered and reviewed often, and I try to not be afraid of stepping away from the screen!

  • fmachs

    That reminds me of something I read somewhere…
    It was like: “People tend to think that if they are in front of a computer they need to be productive”. Also, the quote reminds me of taylorism.

  • http://www.rightsourcemarketing.com/ Mike Sweeney

    Excellent post Kristina. Content marketing is getting hotter and hotter, which means that the usual suspects will try to jump right in without a well thought out strategy and an achievable set of goals. Bravo to you for trying to help people avoid that tactics without strategy approach.

  • http://twitter.com/emerigent/lists/memberships Emeri Gent [Em]

    Good question – “Could you define . . . “strategy”?

    My personal answer is no.

    Worse still, in this present moment I find that I am not able to define “leadership” either.

    Having already read the quality of this blog, I have a feeling that by the time I have spent quality time lurking here, I may finally arrive at personally suitable answer that will satisfy this newly found curiosity.

    I am glad to have found this place, and henceforth until I have an adequate answer that I have also “field tested”, I will observe from a respectful and appreciative distance.

    I pass my compliments to all who participate here for I am presently witness to a splendid community of thinkers and doers. My online journeys take me here, there and everywhere and so this observation I have made is itself “field tested”.


  • http://www.sourgrapes.ie/ Lar Veale

    My colleague, Elizabeth, was also one who added to the discussion on content strategy. See here:http://www.iqcontent.com/blog/2010/02/how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-content-strategy/

    What's interesting is that over 10 years ago we started as a content company and only now are we hearing clients talk about content and strategy in the same sentence

  • ryan sackett

    I want to print the last two paragraphs LARGE and stick them to our office wall. In fact, I may do exactly that.

    Excellent post Kristina (As usual)

  • http://twitter.com/emerigent/lists/memberships Emeri Gent [Em]

    I found this “content strategy” discussion about 2 months ago and I have been thinking about this word strategy between moments when I was not thinking about something else.

    As of May 6th 2010, the only person to have mentioned the word “customer” in this thread has been Julio Vazquez, and he mentioned this word in passing about three months ago.

    It is here that I look at strategy as the connecting thread between great overarching vision and the singular experience of a customer.

    If there is no customer for this content is content strategy a treatise from Sun Tzu “Art of War”?

    What is the value of intellectual edification around the word strategy (never mind content) if the sum total of what we think about it has no relevance or regard to the existence of a recipient or value creation that is meaningful to a customer.

    Perhaps then, content strategy is actually content wisdom. Yet I find that we have more information in this world of ours than we know what to do with, and more content is quite pointless, if it simply substitutes the mountain of content that has already been deposited from the libraries of the collective human imagination.

    The idea that less is more means to me a sharpening of the saw, so that strategy – that connecting thread between a grand vision and value creation (let me account wisdom here as valuable as money), then I feel that discernment trumps definition.

    A realized vision, the magic of value creation, a result that differentiates itself from the madding crowd, now that is the hallmark of something that transcends the mass market of content.

    If strategy then is the connecting flow (rather than thread) between vision and value creation, it becomes more than the science of method to deal with a customer and more than the art of giving birth to a vision. Strategy therefore is a thread that can be easily broken or a flow that inspires purpose.

    From this I simply would like to deduct that strategy is for the most part a connecting thread, but if we are really mindful of it, it might become a connecting flow.

    I must take my leave here now, for thinking is not strategic, strategic is the practical wisdom of having a great vision and strategy is the connecting flow or thread that transforms imagination into innovation and innovation into value creation.

    What I am highly blessed with is not to know what strategy is, but realize what strategy can do.


  • Katie P

    I enjoyed this article and agree. Where would you suggest starting? I just began a new job and have a small idea of where to begin!

  • Kdangelo

    Having just recruited for our first content strategy contract position with our company, I found it a valuable learning experience. There’s a myriad of job descriptions out there for this position. Kristina Halvorson does a great job in her post explaining what it is…and is not. Most definitely a plan. A map that includes objectives, message tone and thoughtful insight.

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