A Guy Gets Fed Up With Outrageous Clickbait Headlines… You’ll Never Guess What Happens Next!

Dear Advertisers and Publishers,

We need to talk.

Over the last year or two, the degree to which you have pushed the limits of hyperbole in the name of “social sharing” and CTR is truly incredible. However, it’s time to bring it to an end.

Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, UpWorthy, Outbrain, Taboola… I’m looking at you.

The technology and insight that is feeding these content strategies is impressive to say the least.

The insight teams that many of these publishers have built, the processes in place, and the optimisation of these sensational headlines to create content that will deliver on any number of KPIs (from shares, likes and CTR) is truly impressive. As far as advertising effectiveness goes, I tip my hat to you!

The fact that there are now self-optimising tools that will display links to other articles that are contextually relevant, targeted on demographics and behaviours, and that will learn and overtime display the most “successful” variant with the perfect assembly of over-the-top adjectives whilst creating a true sense of suspense is genuinely no small feat.

I am 100% on board with all of the above in theory, but I’m begging you to do better.

The headlines have seriously got to go. It’s like a cheap parlour trick to get a user to click on something and it’s gotten to the point that it makes me feel a bit sick every time I see one. I’m writing this plea because I believe most of you are better than this and we’ve now surpassed the “diminishing marginal returns” stage of the conversation.

Forget about EdgeRank, Earned media value, and something as simplistic as CTR for a moment – and think about your long term credibility as a publisher. In some instances these headlines may actually begin to erode the the brand value of the publisher.

Yesterday was the first time in my life that I saw a “news” article shared in my feed that I really wanted to read but refused to click it because of the headline. Do I want to see “26 Majestic Dogs Who Totally Redefine Perfection”? You bet I do. But you know what else would work, a trusted source of cute images with a link to “26 Adorable Dog Photos”.

Headlines like these need to stop, the user backlash is coming. Just look at some of these headlines and the “leading” stories in the native advertising space.*

Huffpost

dying

upworthy

Boston Marathon

cringeworthy

buzzfeed are you kidding me

Users everywhere – please think twice before clicking on these headlines.

Whether or not you’re aware, you are teaching our machine overlords (yes they actually learn) that we like this sort of thing. The next time you see an article that you really think looks interesting but has an absurd headline, please do your part and don’t click on it. Avoid the self-fulfilling trap.

The more clicks these outrageous headlines get, the more they will fill your social media feed… and before you know it, your whole life will become the sidebar of shame.

Sincerely,
Sam

Postscript:

The good news is, that because many of these editorial teams and the technology and advertising providers are so advanced, they will learn from the decay in effectiveness with hyperbolic headlines. Heck, there are regular updates about what keywords drive the most engagement, so they’re obviously examining what works and what doesn’t.

If users lose interest and stop clicking through and sharing this sort of drivel, the algorithms and teams will learn and get better – which is great news for us all.

If we consider the decay in effectiveness of “traditional” display campaigns we can think of these headlines as the the annoying blinking banners to the new native advertising/owned and earned landscape.

The technology and the publisher strategies are there to move on from this and users will eventually develop a sort of “banner blindness” to hyperbole and hopefully  the response will be more intelligent targeting rather than “higher impact” headlines.

That is… if we can stop ourselves from clicking on those darned adorable puppies in spite of the outrageous call to action.

As always (but I’ll say it again), the thoughts above are my own and do not represent the views of my employer or anyone else. This is my personal blog.

*Hat-tip to @BrentHodgson for sharing this one

Google Keyword Data Posturing

The more I look at the actual changes to the keyword data that will be provided by Google for paid search activity the more it looks like a non-story. Digging into the details of the official announcement it looks like the loss of data will be nowhere near as significant as the loss of data from organic search in the move toward “secure search” and the resulting (not provided).

This particular section from the official announcement was very interesting indeed:

  • “For customizing landing pages, we suggest using the keyword that generated the ad click, rather than the query. The keyword and match type can be passed to your web server by using a ValueTrack parameter in your destination URLs.”

As far as I can tell it looks like – at worst – some advertisers may need to change the way the organise and tag their campaigns and they will still be able to pass the keyword that triggers an ad, just not the exact query.This is, of course, even less of a problem if you were only running exact match campaigns. They will also still be able to get exact query data within the AdWords interface.

There may be a requirement to change some of the systems in place for tracking but the degree to which this will need to change will likely vary. It seems like in the case of Google Analytics (and other tools using the AdWords API) a few minor tweaks here and there should allow the majority of data to still be passed along, just not the exact query. So the data available within analytics platforms will be slightly less granular, and perhaps slightly more difficult to implement, but nowhere near as significant as the loss of keyword data from organic search.

I will update this as more information comes through but it looks at this stage to be a bit of a non-story now that the official version of events is out. The cynical onlooker may even suggest that it is an attempt to pacify the cries of hypocrisy over the discrepancy between paid and organic data in the previous scenario, but this will do little to dampen those cries based on my current interpretation.

Some of the observations from yesterday based on the early leaked reports remain valid and make no mistake about the battle for enterprise budgets through “stack” solutions, but it seems with the official announcement the story may not be about the competitive advantage gained, but rather the half-hearted efforts to protect privacy whilst still passing virtually all of the information to advertisers and keeping a pretty clear double standard in place for data from advertising vs. organic traffic.

As always, the above thoughts are my own and do not reflect the opinion of my employer or anyone else. This is my personal blog.

The Death of Keyword Data and Competition

Update (10 Apr 2014, 9:09am): I will leave this post live in its original form for posterity and because the thought exercise was still interesting. However, with more details from the official announcement from Google I have written a follow-up about the “non-story” that it looks like this is shaping up to be.

Personally, I felt the writing was on the wall when this post went up. Many were hopeful that this meant keyword data would be returned for organic search, but if you look at the semantics of the wording and the “importance of users” and the fact that “[they] really like the way things have gone on the organic side of search” it seemed pretty clear that this day would eventually come.

There are (so far unconfirmed*) reports that Google will no longer be passing referring keyword data for paid search advertisers, following the earlier decision not to do so for organic search.

Advertisers Lose Some “Personal” Data, So What?

If the early reports coming out in the last 24 hours about Google no longer passing referring keyword data for paid search traffic are true it means a couple of things for certain:

1. This does answer critics’ questions about the hypocrisy of passing keyword data for paid search data but not for organic search.

2. It also makes for a much more difficult time for analysts to find insight about the performance of their website and the traffic that is being referred to their website – it places full reliance on performance of “keyword groups” and matching up data from multiple sources when previously this extra step was not required.

3. The data will still be available (unchanged based upon the earlier reports) within Google’s platforms – AdWords and Webmaster Tools. (Update: It will also still be available in bid management platforms like Marin – and one can assume that means Kenshoo, DART, and Adobe SearchCenter+).

Why Would Google do This?

For me the most fascinating part of the story is one that I’ve not seen a lot of people talking about and that’s the possible rationale for Google doing this. This is purely speculation on my part but if you think about this critically, privacy alone doesn’t seem a significant justification from taking away valuable insight from the people that pay the bills (i.e. advertisers).

I’ve outlined a few thoughts on what this could mean for the broader competitive landscape which I believe may provide a clue as to the motivations and potential gains:

1. Going down this route creates a massive competitive advantage for Google. They own the keyword data and can choose to provide it to users through their own products if they choose. They could also keep it to themselves if they see the benefits outweighing providing some level of data to advertisers (hint: they won’t keep it to themselves).

2. They are setting up the opportunity to control the data integration conversation as well as the data provision conversation. This is extremely important as it could give their analytics platform (Google Analytics) a massive advantage over other platforms. At the moment the integration of AdWords and Google Webmaster Tools into Analytics provides additional information within Google Analytics. Going forward, Google can decide to whom, at what price, and which data they wish to provide to any competitors.

Suddenly the huge price tag for other premium analytics platforms may look a lot less appealing.

3. Finally, this is a huge shot across the bow to any other providers wishing to offer the coveted “stack” solution including analytics/data management, advertising buying and selling, and optimisation.

Make no bones about it, both Adobe (with their Marketing Cloud) and Google (with their stack that has been loosely dubbed DDM) are ramping up for the battle for the full-service offering spanning advertising creation, execution, tracking, measurement and insight, as well as the optimisation of that entire cycle.

The above “data integration” conversation is thus more important than ever. If the only way to integrate Google AdWords keyword data (even at a group or campaign level) and Google Webmaster Tools keyword data with your site performance data is through this integration, Google has the potential to create a huge competitive advantage in stack space too.

It feels like there’s a real convergence afoot with a number of Google’s products at the moment (just look at the number of questions about GTM in the newest Google Analytics exam) and make no bones about it, there is the potential for this to be a massive hand in the overall “big data” and integrated advertising arms race.

There’s a lot more thinking to be done on what the future looks like and interesting ways in which Google could allow this proprietary data to be passed within the walled garden of a Google stack solution, but we can be certain of this much: shots have been fired.

As always, the above thoughts are my own and do not reflect the opinion of my employer or anyone else. This is my personal blog.

*Update: As of 22:31 (GMT) on Apr 9, 2014 the move to Secure Search (aka “not provided” for paid search) has been officially confirmed by Google (http://googleadsdeveloper.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/security-enhancements-for-search-users.html)

Measuring Online Success: Oreo Still Wins the Super Bowl

I just got through reading Mark Ritson’s piece on how “Oreo didn’t win the Super Bowl” with their tremendous and quick thinking Tweet about dunking in the dark. Ritson blames all of the praise that has been heaped on this campaign on “lazy journalists and social media pundits” but in so doing highlights issues with measurement of social media and indeed with the out of date view of many traditional brands and media folks on how to measure the impact of online media.

Ritson Tweet

The thing that came across most clearly seems to be Ritson’s (and many other more traditional ATL marketers) unwillingness to look at how social media works and how it should be measured in spite of his view social media “sometimes” has it’s place in a communications strategy for a brand.

Flawed Analysis

The biggest issue is not with the claims that Ritson makes but in his analysis of the impact that such activity had. This analysis highlights the reason that social media actually probably doesn’t take up more of most major brands’ budgets rather than less. For one reason or another it seems that many that work in online disciplines have a hard time of qualifying the value they add and it leaves room for many a cynical view.

Given Ritson’s desire to measure only the activity generated on the platform (i.e. the “150,000″ Twitter users he calculates saw the Oreo tweet) whilst giving a slight nod to the interactivity and engagement metrics through favorites and retweets he is missing out on two major points that should be considered in his analysis:

1. How far did the advertisement spread?

This is social media after all. One of the major benefits of content shared through this medium is that it is shared amongst friends and family and can spread organically. Whilst Ritson limits his analysis to that spread within Twitter he does not look at how far this branded messaging actually spread – it was passed on through Facebook and other social media channels such as Reddit where it made the front page (and the linked imgur image has 895,000 views), and so forth. Let’s also not forget the “lazy journalists” that covered the story from Forbes and other authoritative sources that covered their quick thinking – oh look this Buzzfeed article also has 389,000 views.

The point is, the content reached a much larger audience than the BRW piece gives credit. It may not have reached the numbers that a Super Bowl TV advertisement did but it sure as heck reached more than 150,000.

2. What is the ROI on the activity versus other channels?

If you want to measure social media and the impact it has for the sake of comparing that to TV then you need to be willing to use some softer branding metrics akin to reach or TVR’s to put a value against it.

The big issue is that few who work in social media (or any other online advertising discipline) would dare rely on branding metrics only and in fact are likely too shy (or perhaps too lazy or modest) to try and capture reach across multiple channels online. The issue is not, as Ritson raises, that “marketers who are too naïve or too nervous to question something that garners such widespread media support” it’s in fact that marketers are less well equipped to measure this impact, yet are held to a much greater level of accountability for their impact.

There is an expectation from clients and others that “because it is digital it can be measured in the most granular of ways” – when perhaps it’s better to compare it more directly to other channels for the assessment of value.

So, if we were to throw a few other metrics into his assessment on the return we should be looking at:

  • Reach – a rough and dirty eyeballs metric similar to TVRs – as it’s not all paid-for reach generated you’re going to need to look beyond net promoter score and do a bit of digging yourself to see who else has picked up on the story and on what other platforms it has been shared
  • Value of coverage – looking at where the story was covered (i.e. Forbes, Wall Street Journal, etc.) how much would a similar amount of space be worth in terms of advertising spend? Are there any links back to the site? If so what are these worth to the brand given their source? The fact is, both he and I are still talking about the Tweet (and not a single other Super Bowl ad) so it’s got to have meant something to us.
  • Cost – Ritson fails to point out that for the time that those few quick thinking marketers spent on this activity it wouldn’t have cost Oreo more than a few thousand dollars in man hours (assumed based upon 5 hours of overtime for a small handful of agency staff, all Oreo staff will likely have been on salary) and additionally they may have paid to promote the tweet (I’m not sure about this) so that would have set them back another good few thousand, but even so as opposed to the $3.8m the 30 second TV spot set them back I’m guessing Oreo got a higher ROI on the Twitter activity
  • Incremental audience – finally there is a huge missed point in the argument here: the Oreo Twitter antics spread globally and reached an audience that simply could not have been reached through TV alone. Guess how many Super Bowl ads I watched here in the UK? Zero. Nil. Zilch. Guess how many different places I read about Oreo’s Tweet? A lot.

Conclusion

The point here is that more should be done to investigate the right way to measure online channels and how we get better at comparing them to traditional media. If I had more time – and if it were my campaign or budget to defend – I’d go into more depth.

Rather than focus on a (massively oversimplified) view on how social media is ‘overrated’, perhaps it’s time we look at how we measure activity through digital channels, get a bit smarter and start asking for the budget these channels actually deserve – whether that be more or less than they currently receive. I suspect it will be more in a lot of cases.

Google Launches SSL Encrypted Searching

The following, as with anything else found on this blog (my personal blog) are my own thoughts and do not reflect the views of my employer or anyone else but myself.

As I am sure anyone in the digital marketing space will have heard by now – Google announced in the past couple of days that they would be launching SSL encrypted searching as the default for logged-in searchers on Google.com. There are many implications of this change but I will leave the technical analysis to this article which I believe does the best job of summarising what it means and what the impacts are. The long and short of it for we marketers is as follows: natural search traffic will appear in analytics without keyword referral data and will appear simply as “not provided”. This was done as a response to some malicious tracking and identification from unsecure Google searches and was done on Google’s end as a change to the search engine rather than as a change to Google Analytics.

Single digit numbers?

Being in the UK we are at present seeing a fairly small number of referrals changing for any of the sites that I have looked at, but I do expect to see that change over time. I think the “less than 10%” or “single digit” figure provided by Matt Cutts to Search Engine Land (in the above link) grossly underestimates the number of true users there are as a percentage because that quote was made in reference to “of searches” I believe, rather than “of searchers.”

As evidenced by folks like Martin MacDonald with his query manipulation discussion in a handful of presentations he has done over the past year, there is a WHOLE lot of search activity (searches) that are not done by humans at all. I would suggest the true number of searchers that are logged in is at least double what we’re being quoted in terms of a percentage of human searches. At this point we are looking at a much more sizeable chunk of the market which will have a large impact when you actually want to look at conversions and true USER behaviour – but we’ll have to wait and see what the true percentage of valuable search data this impacts I suppose.

This will almost certainly change the way we report (though in the UK probably won’t be for a few more weeks until it really hits hard) and brand vs. non-brand will be one of the first things to go in my opinion – as mentioned by Hugo Guzman in the following post.

Checks and balances?

For me though, the slight inconvenience to us as marketers is not my main source of contention it is how blindly Google have defended the move (even some of their best known data lovers). I know that there were some dangerous loopholes and so forth (see additional resources below) but I also know that organic search marketers have now lost our only way to verify or test on our own Google’s assertions “PPC adds incremental traffic x% of the time” or anything to do with branded versus non-branded testing. All of that would now be statistically insignificant and there is no check on that power or independent verification possible anymore. This will only add further speculation and mistrust in Google’s figures about search behaviour as there is no genuine way to verify any longer.

Further to the point, the amount of hypocrisy associated with applying this to organic results and not paid results seems like playing with fire to me and I would expect a strong response from a lot of watchdog agencies on this front. If this was truly undertaken as a means of protecting privacy this surely needs to be applied to all data – which would also be a considerable blow to Google’s position in the provision of web analytics (which coincidentally they have recently started charging large sums of money for premium accounts).

Unforgivable?

Lastly, it makes me a bit upset the degree to which this has been defended. There would be plenty of ways to pass referral data on in a more secure manner without some of the previous exposed risks with tracking and identification – if it was in the interest of privacy I could not see this being rolled out only to logged-in users it would be to everyone and paid search results would not be excluded.

The potential implications of this are massive to competitor analytics platforms as well as organic search marketers – something that is probably not a big concern for Google – however, the biggest single issue with this announcement for me is the fact that it seems to go directly against Google’s stated preference for webmasters to create great content that is of value to our users. If we can’t know what keywords provide the greatest satisfaction for our users and those keywords that are most likely to lead a user to make a purchase how on earth are we to target our pages and improve our content accordingly. Unfortunately, the logic that follows, is that this data is only readily available if you’re willing to pay for advertising.

This is of course a complicated and complex issue and at the moment I think there have been a lot of overreactions – however, I cannot help but stress my concern about the direction in which Google appear to be heading with decisions like this and cannot see how this particular “fix” is considered the best way to deal with the original issue that triggered the problem.

This feels to me more like a warning shot across the bow of SEO practitioners, affiliate marketers, and loads of other webmasters and though it may not be that far reaching yet, this could have huge implications.

The most important and most difficult part:

SEO would not and will not die as a result of this. What really sucks is this hurts the genuine SEO agencies that take their job seriously, that actually report on their work and create clever reporting and optimise in a manner that provides value to their users and leads to “satisfied searchers” (i.e. ones that convert). Taking this away doesn’t make SEO go away, it makes it harder for the good guys in the industry to continue to provide a professional service.

The fact that we can’t track the results of our work as easily won’t make webspam go away or even be that much less effective – the results will still come from whatever methods are working for a given search engine at a given time and the revenues will still stream into the pockets of those that optimise best, but most won’t know how to communicate what is working.

It looks like Google has moved first, it will be interesting to see what this growing battle might amount to.

Edit: What they’re not talking about (!)

One thing that no one seems to be talking about and was pointed out to me by one of my colleagues at my day job, Rob Hammond, is the fact that whilst Google are no longer sharing the referring keyword they are still sending the site that was visited. If the concern was truly with privacy and the fact that people might see your search history, surely it is no better that they can see the website visited even if not the query. We will leave the graphic details aside but as Rob pointed out, if the concern is that your family, employer, loved ones, etc. might tie a query back to you as an individual for the term “redacted” surely if they could see the fact that you subsequently viewed the website “redacted.com” this would not be any better.

Lastly, as Rob also raised, in addition to the fact that this doesn’t really close the loophole that was allegedly the initial concern, it leaves another potential loophole wide open to be exploited with the data that is passed.

Additional Resources:

https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2011/10/google-encrypts-more-searches

http://searchnewscentral.com/20111019195/Latest/dear-google-this-is-war.html

http://econsultancy.com/uk/blog/8163-google-ssl-encryption-for-search-queries-the-experts-view

http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2011/10/making-search-more-secure.html

http://www.google.com/support/websearch/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=173733

http://twitter.com/#!/avinash/status/127153191824539648

How to Pitch SEO

On Friday September 9th I gave a presentation down in Brighton at the Corn Exchange as part of this year’s #BrightonSEO event. The organiser (Kelvin Newman) had asked if I’d be willing to give a 20×20 presentation a try – a presentation in which you have 20 seconds per slide, 20 slides and the slides all auto-advance. Needless to say it was a slightly daunting task but I really think it was a good opportunity for me and gave me a chance to really focus in on something that may be difficult to discuss for a full 45 minute session, but to give some insight into a world that a lot of SEO practitioners may not have seen much: the all famous big SEO pitch.

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Response to: “Is my Infographic Worth £2,000?”

Right, so sometimes I get asked to comment on people’s blog posts or feedback on a certain area and every now and again go somewhat overboard with the response. I have just done that very thing whilst commenting on a blog post from one of my friends in the industry Chee Ho Wan in response to this post looking at answering the question “Is my infographic worth £2,000?”.

After looking through some of his logic and reasoning as well as some of the tough questions asked I came up with the following response/rant. His main questions arose from the fact that on average, across a group of randomly selected infographics, he found that based upon a cost of £2,000, the average value of each link was somewhere in the £100+ range per unique linking domain.

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301 Redirects vs. Rel=Canconical – Answer by Matt Cutts

Well, today was exciting in my seriously geeky terms in that 1.) I learned Matt Cutts (head of Web Spam at Google) is a fellow Tar Heel  and that 2.)He answered a question I posited to him by way of the Google Webmaster Help videos several months ago.

Whilst the video does not really reveal anything groundbreaking, it does confirm what many webmasters and SEO’s have thought for a long time: although rel=canonical is a directive that Google generally does follow, 301 redirects are to be preferred whenever/wherever possible.

Matt’s logic is less about what my initial question asked (about churn and loss of strength of a 301 redirect or a rel=canonical) and more to do with the complication of different Content Management Systems and the fact that not all other search engines will necessarily support the rel=canonical directive. Obviously redirects are not always an option, but adding the directive within the header of a page will suffice where you may not have control over the htaccess or server headers.

In terms of PageRank, however, he suggests there is “really not a lot of difference” – thanks very much for answering the question Matt and go Tar Heels!

Presentation of What’s Exciting Me Online – HMS President February 2011

Hi Everyone!

I just wanted to embed a presentation that I delivered last night on the HMS President for the London Online Marketers Meetup Group. It is generally just a quick look into some of the things that are exciting me online at the moment, provides a few predictions about what the marketplace might look like over the next year and basically provides just what’s on the tin: what’s exciting me online at the moment.
Sam Crocker – What’s Exciting Me Online

Links of interest:

BMW Campaign
Tippex YouTube Campaign
Mini Capture the Flag
Beautiful Data Visualisation
New The Streets Interactive Video
Search Talk

These are the types of things I also like to share as I come across them so please feel free to follow me on Twitter if you enjoy hearing about new forms of online marketing.

New Years Resolutions for 2011

So this is a bit on the personal side for the blog but I think it is important with any and all important goals to share them with people and in that way hold yourself to account. Below, in no particular order, are my goals for the new year.

Where applicable I will be crossing these off as I go.

1. Be a better friend.

I have found it difficult in the past to juggle being a young professional, being in a serious relationship, living 3,000+ miles from close friends and family and making time for my friends. I want to put a lot more energy into all of these areas and though it may mean a bit less “me” time I am determined to be better (at a minimum) at staying in touch with people and in an ideal world make a lot more time for people. In light of having lost two dear friends in 2010 I believe this to be even more important now. To any friends back home please know that you’ve got a (busy but happy) tour-guide in London whenever you like.

2. Get back in shape.

Me and everyone else right? At any rate, the slide downhill has gone far enough and though a desk job means sitting around a whole lot more than originally planned, I need to make time for this.

3. Run the Reykjavik Marathon

I tend to do a lot better at getting in shape when I have a goal in mind. I will begin training with the aim of running this on July 16, 2011 with Nick Spearing. If I can remain injury free I will be doing this to raise money for charity and it should be a nice way to combine the above two.

4. Travel More

This is more a reminder to myself than anything else. I forget how much I love travelling shortly after every trip I take. I want to take the time to do some exploring this year.

5. Work harder

I have been very fortunate to have found a job I love and to have experienced a great deal of success in my first year as an SEO. In 2011 I will be looking to take my game to the next level, learn a few new coding languages and take on new challenges wherever possible.

6. Dress Better/Shave More Regularly

Along with other signs of laziness I think along with shedding a few pounds and making more time for the important things I would like to build up the old wardrobe, keep on top of my mop and shave more than once a week.

7. Help Build a Top-Rate Team

In my new job I am very excited to be involved in some of the recruiting process but also want to take more responsibility for helping us develop processes, work across teams and do big things. I know this sounds vague, but it’s a lot clearer in my head and I know I’ve got the right people around and above me to accomplish this.

8. Grow up a bit

Being young is fun but this is an important year in my life and I need to take more responsibility for my finances, start planning for my future a bit and just generally try to make better decisions.

9. Whinge Less

I know I’ve always been a bit of a complainer but I know it can be a bit annoying. In general I think I have a positive attitude but I know I often joke or make a big deal out of little things and it’s played out.

10. Support Others

I owe so much to so many people. This year I want to focus less on me and more on others’ needs. I want to be supportive in any way I can so holler if you need help and think I can provide it.

Some of these things won’t come easy but I’m hungry for some new challenges this year and am ready to start taking some names…

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