I can’t blame marketers for avoiding the development of marketing plans, launch plans or any other version of a strategic plan. This apparently reasonable request usually requires countless hours of writing and revisions, only to be filed away in some dusty online folder.

The reason marketing plans don’t get implemented is that they are focused on what you want to achieve. In fact, countless articles and templates for marketing planning suggest that you start with your goals, obstacles, and objectives. While these are certainly critical components, I don’t see how marketers could possibly expect anything built around internal needs could withstand exposure to the pressures of new priorities, ideas and people.

What do your buyers want?

While marketers often try to include market data and audience profiles in their plans, if you look closely you’ll see the plan says nothing about what your buyers want to know during their journey or where they go for this information. Thus, the actual content of marketing deliverables is left to the imagination of the team that is doing the work. It should be no surprise that depending on where the work originates, the content differs dramatically. Even more costly is the team’s guesswork about how to deliver the content, which has much more to do with your preferences than the buyers’.

A more rational and sustainable approach to planning begins with clarity about what affects your buyers’ decisions (and just as critically, what doesn’t matter to your buyer). It might feel like cheating, but what if you knew the buyers’ true story about everything they did, and every question they asked, as they went through their awareness, consideration and decision process? Now your marketing plan could be based on the information buyers are seeking and actual insight into how buyers decide that a competitor’s solution (or the status quo) is better suited to their needs.

Information your buyer needs to make a decision

To illustrate this potential, here is a mock-up of several different buyer’s journeys wrapped up into one. Note that we mixed up the findings from several personas to protect the intellectual property of the companies that invested in this research. So please don’t use this mock-up to guide your own planning, but this will give you a sense of the detail about your buyer’s informational needs that results from the proper research.

What your buyer does to make a decision

In this example, we have also combined results from several studies to illustrate the steps a buyer might take during their journey. You’ll note that unlike a lot of buyer journey examples you’ll find online, this one is about what the buyers do, not your marketing activities. Once you know where buyers go for trusted information and who influences their decisions, you’ll have the data you need to decide which marketing spend is most valuable and what deserves less attention.

Not knowing this information is costing you

Many marketers who wish they had deep buyer insights say it is difficult to justify the investment. If this is you, consider the very tangible costs of making stuff up as you go and failing to give buyers the useful information they are seeking during their journey. You’ll discover quite quickly, the costs are enormous for you, your sales team and your company’s bottom line.

For more recommendations, attend our virtual Buyer Persona Masterclass or read our book; Buyer Personas:  How to Gain Insight into Your Customer’s Expectations, Align your Marketing Strategies and Win More Business (Wiley). If you are even more passionate on the subject, contact the Buyer Persona Institute directly so we can learn about your special circumstances and tell you how other marketers have solved the same challenges.

Across thousands of buyer interviews spanning dozens of industries, there is one aspect of almost every buyer’s journey that is pervasive and absolutely terrifying –

Almost no one can recall any marketing engagement that influenced their decision.

I don’t like to communicate bad news. But I cringe every time I see a graphic depicting an elaborate buyer’s journey that is utterly unrelated to anything a real buyer has ever told us.

Here are a few facts we’ve learned from studies of buyers who have recently engaged in a decision that required committee approval or considerable thought. When we ask them to walk us through their actual buyer’s journey, we hear:

  • Buyers describing major investments where the only providers they even considered were current vendors or those recommended by their peers.
  • While some buyers visit vendor websites, most are well along in their buyer’s journey by that time.
  • Although we occasionally hear mentions of touchpoints such as webinars, whitepapers or case studies, most buyers tell us that vendor content can’t be trusted.

As a career sales and marketing professional, I feel like we’re living in an echo chamber that continually reinforces our own ideas and methods. We’re reading content and listening to our peers, all of whom are invested in defining, clarifying and increasing the importance of marketing.

Sadly, popular myths about buyer personas have contributed to the problem. Directed to build personas through surveys, a few customer interviews or conversations with sales people, marketers have started to believe that this rudimentary approach is good enough.

Additionally, marketing automation feeds our delusion, counting every point of engagement and assigning meaning to the buyer’s progress. If you’ve fallen into this trap, imagine with me the hubris if Google Maps, tracking your path through a city, purported to know why you embarked on this journey and how you determined which destination to target. Data can’t tell us a thing about buyer motivations.

To clarify, we don’t work with extremely short/low consideration buying journeys, such as CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) companies. Based on my own experience buying consumer products online, I expect that buyers of those products could readily describe positive interactions with marketing. And I know that buyers who shop online reveal much about their intention and persona. But once these same buyer personas arrive at the office, or when they must make a high stakes personal buying decision, their engagement online and with sales teams represents a miniscule aspect of their journey.

If this article sounds all doom and gloom, consider what you could do to become the company that makes it easy for your buyers. What if you could align your sales and marketing efforts with the actual needs of your buyers? Could you divert some portion of your time and attention to hearing what buyers really think as they navigate the journey you want to influence? Is it time to understand which part of your company (or solution, product or service) story resonates with your buyers? Hint: If your story is based exclusively on what’s unique, new or made up in a conference room, I’ll lay you odds that it isn’t what your buyers want to hear.

This is the first of many upcoming blog posts from Steve Rankel, who joined our team last summer as COO. Steve is a 30-year veteran of marketing and sales, and an expert at decoding why customers buy, and transforming buying insights into actionable content strategy and content.

No matter your political persuasion, I think we can agree that recent events are contributing to increasing degrees of uncertainty and distraction for almost everyone.

As I write this, management teams, marketers, and agencies around the world are huddled in conference rooms asking the same question: “Okay, so what do we do now? How does this affect our content marketing strategy? What new content decisions do we need to make to more effectively market to our target audience – and ensure this new reality doesn’t affect this year’s metrics?”

And while those are good questions – there is one fundamental problem: they’re being asked of the wrong person.

That’s because there is no buyer, buyer representative, or buying insight in those meetings.

If you’re not asking this question of a buyer – someone whose MBO’s, reputation, 2017 bonus, and maybe job depends on the right choices about the kind of solutions you sell – then you’re going to get a bunch of opinions.

Making stuff up in a conference room, on a whiteboard, with smart people, as brilliant as it is, is just an educated guess.

Which is a common trap we see when content marketers “invent” their own fictional buyer persona.

A VP we interviewed recently explained a significant CapEx request he put in front of his CFO. The CFO said, “OK, I’ll approve this with your name on it. But if it doesn’t work, it’s your tombstone.”

What do you think that VP will share if you ask him? Opinions? Guesses? No. He’ll share war stories. Scars. Wounds. Emotions. REAL STUFF.

The world has become more confusing, complex, and distracting — for you and your buyers – to bet anything as important as your revenue, content strategy, sales training, maybe even your career, on a GUESS.

So you & I as marketers have several options:

  1. Involve your smartest people to invent a new content strategy on a whiteboard
  2. Keep guessing, but do it harder, and more earnestly
  3. Hold more meetings with your agency, to ask their opinion
  4. Meet with your analyst or research firm, to get their opinion
  5. Gather focus groups, and record their opinions
  6. Work your salesforce harder
  7. Generate MORE content in MORE formats – in the hopes that something sticks

OR we can go out into the market – interview buyers – and build actionable buyer personas that will reveal a content strategy and content marketing plan that matters to THEM.

(NOTE: I’m NOT talking about interviewing customers. They have a relationship with you. They have already aligned themselves with your firm. They think more like you than prospects do. You need to understand the buyers who HAVEN’T BOUGHT FROM YOU).

DECISION TIME: What will you do now? Will you increase the risks you face by relying on guesswork? Will you follow approaches like “Use a template to create a semi-fictional character representing your buyer,” and create content based on that?

Or, will you ask REAL BUYERS to tell you the truth about how they’re now approaching these decisions in 2017?

Go directly to the horses’ mouth. Your 2017 will be better for it.

I am fascinated by a recent Gartner study about the journey of 700 enterprise buyers across the U.S., EMEA, Brazil, India and China. According to a recent interview with Hank Barnes, Research Vice President at Gartner, the study focused on four areas:

  • During the buying process, what types of activities and information do you use, independent of the firm you are evaluating?
  • What type of content do you use from the provider itself?
  • What marketing activities get your attention?
  • What are you expecting from sales interactions?

Thebuyers journey findings? Buyers spend only 32% of their journey interacting with supplier-side content or sales people. Two thirds of the buyer’s journey is devoted to internal assessments, peer networking, and the recommendations of external experts.

According to Barnes, buyers “have access to all this stuff from vendors, but making sense of it, interpreting it, understanding that they have the right stuff is where they’re really struggling.”

This data quantifies exactly what we hear every day in our buyer persona interviews. And as a career sales and marketing professional, I am amazed that every company hasn’t realized that filling this void could be the best way to gain a competitive advantage.

In an article I wrote for CMO.com a few months ago, I related our experience interviewing buyers who say that marketing materials do nothing to help them make a decision, as competing solutions relate the same obvious benefits rather than useful information. The buyers’ experience with sales people is mostly a continuation of this theme, as sales arrives with the same marketing message rather than the critical details that help buyers gain confidence in their decision.

We know that many marketers are trying to explain the value of interviewing buyers to understand their needs and expectations. Maybe now that we have a report stating that vendors are privy to only 1/3 of the buyer’s journey, we can make it clear that it doesn’t work to build buyer personas by culling information from salespeople and marketing automation solutions. We’re seeing a very small part of the decision we need to influence.

A few days ago, Mark Schaefer published an article entitled “Why customer personas may be an outdated marketing technique.” In it he argues that every competitor is marketing to the same people, so if marketers rely on obvious data about their customers to guide their content, they’ll all come to the same conclusion and deliver the same useless content. I agree.

He goes on to relate a story about sitting with a CEO client while her agency asked questions in a persona template. Mark was trying to manage his frustration when the CEO stopped this ridiculous conversation, thank goodness.

The rush to build buyer personas is resulting in too many experiences just like Mark’s. If we don’t stop this insanity and get real about what’s involved in building and relying upon insights into buying decisions, influential stakeholders like Mark (and your CMO) will draw this same conclusion.

Buyers created the need for audience marketing

Let’s stop to remember why audience and content marketing first became vital initiatives. You have probably heard that today’s self-educated buyers are, on average, 60% of the way to a buying decision before they talk to our sales people.

Before the buyers messed this up, it was marketing’s job to build awareness with cleverly crafted and placed messaging about the benefits of our solutions. When buyers needed more information they’d contact us and we’d send in our sales experts, people who had been trained to discover the goals, concerns and purchase criteria for that buying decision. The reps would use these insights to position their solution as a perfect fit for that buyer and win the business.

Once buyers decided to keep salespeople at arms length until they had narrowed the field to just two or three solutions, audience marketing was supposed to keep us on the buyer’s list for as long as it took to get our sales people into the account.

Marketers underestimate the changes buyers have imposed

Few companies understood the magnitude of the responsibilities these buyers had imposed upon marketing. But it did make sense to “know your customer,” so marketers began to rely upon familiar approaches such as surveys, scripted interviews and agency partners to complete profiles for each job title or role who might influence the purchase. By some counts, 80% of marketers will have these templates completed by the end of this year.

But try to find a marketer who says that the purpose of audience marketing is to understand the buying decision so well that they know which questions buyers will ask, the answers they want to hear, and can create content that explains the capabilities that align with that buyer’s expectations.

It’s clear that the agency marketer Mark Schaefer met didn’t know that useful buyer personas require direct interviews with recent evaluators of a similar solution, or that they feature verbatim quotes to tell you, in the buyers’ own words, what triggers their decision to initiate this type of purchase, which outcomes they anticipate, their barriers to purchase, and the criteria they use to weigh their options.

If we don’t get this right, buyers will take things into their own hands

Yes, our goal is to know our buyers, but the knowledge we’re capturing in buyer personas is misguided and rarely used for anything at all.

Now that we have the mandate and automation to deliver content throughout the buying cycle, marketers need to know how to deliver more than the appetizer-grade, benefits-oriented messaging that was always meant for the top of the funnel. It’s time to deliver the beef, the main course that will help the buyer make an educated decision about whether we are the best qualified company to address their problem.

When we fail, buyers rely on their peers, consultants and employee’s prior experiences to decide which options they should consider. At that point, anything can happen.

This isn’t idle speculation. Over the course of the last year we had lengthy, unscripted conversations with 419 buyers who had recently evaluated our client’s high consideration solutions. It wasn’t fun to report back that we are losing deals, at least in part, because buyers couldn’t get the information they needed from their sales and marketing interactions.

We can change this outcome, but first we must realize that we have big shoes to fill. Salespeople have a much better chance of convincing one buyer at a time, but the buyers we interview don’t seem likely to make this any easier for us.

I was saddened by Radio Shack’s recent bankruptcy filing. Its convenient stores and helpful staff are easy to find in any city I’m visiting. There is even a store in the tiny community where I live.

Radio Shack logoRadio Shack’s 60-year rise and fall is a case study in what happens when a company’s vision isn’t balanced by insight into its customer’s expectations.

When Charles Tandy bought a small-time chain of nine stores in 1963, advances in technology and automation pointed to a future where we would all enjoy lives of leisure, freed of the need to spend eight hours a day at the office. Radio Shack would become a place for tinkerers and hobbyists with lots of free time and a desire to explore the brave new world of technology.

Radio Shack employees were drawn from the same pool of hobbyists, so they were ideally suited to engage shoppers with enthusiasm and knowledge. By the mid-1970s, the citizens band radio craze had made the company incredibly profitable. At it’s peak, the company had 7,000 stores.

But as we all know, technology didn’t give us more free time. In fact, in 1979 the average American worker was on the job for 1687 hours a year. By 2007, that number had ballooned to 1868 hours – adding more than a month of extra work hours every year.

We can only speculate about what might have happened had Radio Shack focused on its origins when it jumped into the personal computer market in 1977 with the TRS-80. This was a time when computers were often assembled from kits, but Tandy chose to sell his pre-assembled in one box. Radio Shack had found success marketing to “do-it-yourselfers,” so why would they not continue to do so with their computers? It’s hard to say, but the TRS-80 is now barely a footnote in computing history, and marked the beginning of the decline for the corporation.

Over the next few decades, the company flailed about, expanding their product selections to focus more on consumer electronics and launching a mail-order catalog business. Their ability to solve a unique problem for their buyers continued to deteriorate, as there were plenty of other players in the consumer electronics space, and the Internet quickly made mail-order catalogs obsolete. Attempts to launch a “big box” electronics chain failed, and the company sold off the electronics manufacturers that made their house brands to focus on third-party products, with disastrous results.

By 2011, stock prices had fallen from $24.33 to $2.53 a share, and in January the company announced they were filing for bankruptcy.

Radio Shack is only one of many market leaders who lost their way as their vision came face-to-face with customer expectations. Similar failures to understand their target buyer and deliver on their specific needs have defeated behemoth companies like Unisys, Digital Equipment Corporation and countless others.

The changes that cause large, successful companies to fail are rarely sudden, which is why they are so easy to dismiss and also why they are so disturbing. Like Radio Shack, most companies have many opportunities to adjust their strategies to align with their buyers’ needs. Radio Shack might well have survived had they maintained their focus on their audience of electronics hobbyists and adjusted their strategies accordingly. Instead, they pursued a “me too” strategy that stripped them of their purpose, steadily reducing their unique product offerings to sell mobile phones and consumer gear that could be purchased anywhere. The hobbyists went elsewhere, and in the end, Radio Shack couldn’t serve any buyer better than some other store could.

It’s too late for Radio Shack, but it doesn’t have to be too late for your company. If you’re developing strategies without understanding your customer’s expectations, consider the possibility that you might be missing facts that will be retold in a story like this.

And beware of the online tools that help you build buyer personas without interviewing real buyers. As the people at Radio Shack can attest, it is incredibly dangerous to recycle your internal mis-perceptions into a new template and rely on your own hopes and vision.

P.S. My new book “Buyer Personas: How to Gain Insights into your Customer’s Expectations, Align your Marketing Strategies, and Win More Business” (Wiley) is now shipping.

There’s a wonderful Mark Twain quote that goes like this “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

One of the most compelling aspects of buyer personas is their ability to identify the words that inspire buyers to take action. In a content marketing sea of buzzwords, jargon and “me too-ness”, marketers who can say something non-obvious and meaningful have a real competitive advantage.

island vacationHere’s an example. I recently arrived early for lunch with a business associate and noticed a Tommy Bahama store next door. Curious, I drifted in and immediately caught the eye of a salesperson who said, “I’ll be right with you, I’m with another guest right now.”

That’s brilliant. If you’re marketing a brand that wants to inspire buyers to spend north of $100 on a Hawaiian shirt, you need to change their mood. By training their sales people to say “guest” instead of “customer”, Tommy Bahama evokes the attitude of a carefree vacation where buyers might actually indulge in such an extravagance.

IBM is the source of a similar example. In 2002, when they bought Price Waterhouse Cooper’s consulting business, they made the deliberate decision to drop the term customers and start referring to clients. The logic? While customers engage in a single sales transaction, clients are involved in a much longer, strategic relationship.

A fascinating article on Salon last week talks about how language influences people’s perception of reality. Cognitive scientist Lena Boroditsky has conducted multiple experiments on words and the emotions they inspire. I thought this one was especially relevant:

“In a series of experiments by Boroditsky and Paul Thibodeau, test subjects were asked to read short paragraphs about rising crime rates in a fictional city and answer questions about the city. The researchers then assessed how people answered the questions based on whether crime was described as a beast or a virus. In one study, 71 percent of the participants called for more enforcement when they read crime described as a beast. When the metaphor was changed to virus, the number dropped to 54 percent.”

Can you imagine achieving a 17% improvement by changing just one word?

While these examples are simple in the retelling, they all began with something that isn’t the least bit easy — choosing the words that will fundamentally alter their audience’s experience. One of the best reasons to build buyer personas is to uncover the insights that clarify those words, and make it possible to rally internal stakeholders around that decision even if it challenges cherished opinions.

One of the most important decisions a marketer needs to make is segmentation – how to determine the essential differences between customer groups and effectively market to them.

Companies use lots of criteria to define these segments – industry, company size, and geography are the most common. If you’re one of the many who have attempted to add buyer personas to these segments, you’ve probably noticed that it’s hard to see how you can to market to all of them.

Sales is lucky. They can identify the needs of one account and tailor the story accordingly. And it’s a lot easier to sell to one person than a group.

So the natural instinct for marketers is to segment more and more in an effort to shape messaging and content for the needs of different buyers.

But that’s a very expensive and ineffective strategy. Here’s a client case that makes the point very clearly.

The building cskid-steer-introonstruction group of Caterpillar hired us to create buyer personas for customers of their compact and small Cat® equipment. In our early discussions, they identified five industry segments that they wanted to research – residential and commercial construction, concrete construction, agriculture, landscape and snow & ice removal.

We counseled them that assigning buyer personas to those five market segments would result in way too many niches to effectively market to. So we set out to to determine the essential differences in their buying decisions.

We conducted interviews with Caterpillar customers using the framework in the 5 Rings of Buying Insight™ to understand who, when and why buyers in each of these segments evaluated their equipment.

At the end of our research, what we found is that Caterpillar had only two types of buyer personas that they needed to target, and industry was not relevant to the segmentation.

One was what we’ll call a “high-information” buyer. These buyers wanted the see a long list of the specifications of the equipment in a format that made it easy to compare different models of machines, including the competitors’.

The other was a “results-oriented” buyer. They had a specific task that they wanted to do and wanted rapid access to guidance on which machine would meet that need.

These two personas were common across all five of Caterpillar’s market segments. No matter what the buyers were using the product for, the key distinction between Caterpillar’s strategies to persuade them is based on their need for detailed information or specific functionality, full stop.

It’s important to note that we didn’t recommend that Caterpillar completely abandon their traditional segmentation. Caterpillar still produces marketing materials for each of these industries. But deep insights into their buyer’s expectations for purchasing their equipment eliminated the need to invest in too many marketing activities, streamlining their content marketing and SEO strategy at a lower than anticipated cost.

For another example, we just published three slides to help you think about whether the buyer persona on our website should be one or two buyer personas.

When you’re segmenting your market, buyer personas should simplify and reduce the number of ways you need to tell your story. If you’re not seeing that outcome, you’re placing too much emphasis on differences in who buys and not enough on how, when and why they buy.


It’s been ahotoffthepresslmost three years since I published The Buyer Persona Manifesto, and so much has changed.

In 2011, few marketers had even heard about buyer personas. That’s why I devoted a sizable portion of the book to explaining what a buyer persona is about and why they are important.

Fast forward to 2014 and buyer personas are in use or under development by 73% of B2B marketers who completed a recent survey by ITSMA.

The interest in buyer personas has exploded, but the need to understand them hasn’t changed. In fact, at the Buyer Persona Institute we hear from marketers every day who lost their way as they attempted to build or leverage this important tool.

So I decided to publish a Second Edition of The Buyer Persona Manifesto to clear the waters and lay down a proven foundation for using buyer personas to produce reliable, actionable results in marketing.

In this completely updated ebook, I talk about:

  • How to move beyond the buyer’s picture and capture her voice, focusing precisely on the narratives that are crucial to the marketing mission
  • How buyer personas differ based on the amount of consideration a buyer gives to the buying decision
  • How to avoid the traps of too many buyer personas that reveal too little in the way of insights
  • How to interview buyers, including who to interview and what to ask
  • How to put buyer personas to work for marketing and sales enablement

The one thing we didn’t change? All of our buyer persona resources, including this new ebook, our buyer persona templates, and the ebook I co-authored with Maribeth Ross: For Content Marketing, Let Your Buyers Be Your Guide, are still available absolutely free. And the ebook is published under a Creative Commons license to encourage everyone to share it with anyone who might benefit.

I believe that buyer personas are one of the most powerful resources in a marketer’s toolset. I want to make sure that every single person using them has the reaction that inspired the opening sentences of The Buyer Persona Manifesto:

“It’s almost like cheating, like getting the exam paper weeks before the final. Instead of guessing what matters, now I know… not only what the customer wants; I know how she goes about deciding. It’s fantastic!”

So please read, share, and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to ask any questions you might have.

Top 10 2014 Resolutions

Top Resolutions for 2014

I wonder if the companies that help us to get fit or organized realize just how lucky they are. They have the luxury of perfect timing, confident that once each year the clock will strike midnight, the ball will drop in New York’s Times Square and millions of people will suddenly be motivated to BUY NOW.

Those of us in B2B marketing can learn a lot from this extraordinary shift in buyer priorities. Consumer buyers have likely wanted to lose weight, quit smoking or clean up their messy closets for a long time. They have been the target of extensive marketing programs extolling the benefits of perfectly relevant products and services. Yet throughout the year, only a fraction of them invested the time or money to make that happen.

Then every year on January 1, approximately 45% of consumers* make a decision to adjust their priorities. Within a few short weeks, they’ll consume marketing content at an unprecedented rate and spend money on solutions that had been there all along.

Although B2B marketers will never experience anything like this dramatic shift in their buyers’ priorities, this annual event tells us a lot about why our marketing frequently inspires such a disappointing response rate. We can see that every buyer’s journey begins with a deep motivation to achieve a specific goal, and absent that commitment, they’re simply not listening.

Our buyer’s attention is almost always focused on priorities that we do not address. Then “something happens” and whammo!, solving this problem is suddenly at or near the top of the buyer’s priority list. This is the moment when that buyer will find the time, budget and political capital to solve the problem that we’ve been talking about for so long.

B2B marketers will never have the confidence of New Year’s Eve for market timing, but we can understand how the buyer’s internally driven circumstances impact their decision to consider the solutions we are marketing. This Priority Initiative insight (one of the 5 Rings of Buying Insight™ for buyer personas) tells us what we need to do and say to look like a perfect match for whatever inspires that resolution to take action now.

Most marketers know very little about these triggers. They can talk about their solution’s pain points and benefits, statements that are usually reverse engineered based on the features and functions of their products or services. But very few companies can explain, in their buyer’s own words, why so many people choose to live with that pain. Nor can they say what is unique about the circumstances that drive buyers to resolve that pain.

I’m not suggesting that we should stop marketing to people who aren’t currently evaluating our category of solutions.  I’m saying that if at all possible, we need to learn how to do or say something that captures the attention of buyers whose priorities lie elsewhere. I’m also noting that achieving this outcome is more difficult and protracted than we would hope, and that our best chance to motivate any buyer is to understand what really triggers their peers to take action.

With so much emphasis on the buyer’s journey, it’s interesting that marketers seem to know the least about the very first step. Insightful buyer personas tell marketers exactly what drives their buyers’ resolve, clarifying the marketing activities that will capture a disproportionate share of that buyer’s attention and business.



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