“I like a good story well told. That’s the reason I’m sometimes forced to tell them myself.”
— Mark Twain, American writer and wit

The Awwwww Factor

How to make content marketing messages go viral

Have you seen the piece about the orphan baby kangaroo and wombat who become BFFs? They also have a baby wallaby friend. Because of course they do.


baby kangaroo and wombat who become BFFs

The awesome twosome How can you make your messages go as viral as little orphan animal stories? Try The Awwwww Factor.

It’s obvious why these bundles of joey are making the rounds on Facebook. But how can you use the same approaches to make your content marketing messages travel the world, while others just languish on the couch?

Content marketing — aka brand journalism — is relevant, valuable, interesting information you publish, post or otherwise present in owned, not rented, media. Not just blog posts and status updates, content marketing includes conference speeches (and your coverage of them), bylined articles, marketing magazines, e-zines and more.

Instead of pitching your products and services, content marketing messages position your organization as an expert in your field.

Get shared, get clicked.

So what’s the secret for writing content marketing messages that go viral? Make them positive and emotional, suggest Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman, two professors at the University of Pennsylvania.

And the No. 2 emotion we can tap to make messages go viral (after only anger) is awe. Call it The Awwwww Factor.

But how can you make your messages as awe-inspiring as little orphan animal stories?

1. Look for animals.

Maybe you have your own little orphan animal story.

FedEx, for instance, has Ben the Bear.

Ben the bear

The bear necessities Ben was moved from “a hellhole” to this luxurious Northern California spa where he lives today, thanks in part to FedEx. Image courtesy of PETA

Yes, my BFF and Chief Distribution Officer — aka FedEx — helped rescue a grizzly-black bear named Ben. The poor guy had been stuck in a 12-foot-by-22-foot concrete cage in a roadside North Carolina zoo. FedEx folks helped transport him — aboard “Bear Force One” — to his new digs, a lush animal sanctuary in Northern California.

Because of course they did. Awwwww.

Obviously, if the folks at FedEx can move a grizzly to California, they can deliver your wedding dress or medical supplies.

Here’s more coverage on Ben. Because when you tell awe-inspiring stories like Ben’s, people want to share them.

2. Look for people.

As the crazy cat lady who lives inside of me can attest: Animal interest is a great way to get your message to go viral. “Sundays at the Shelter” and this Deramaxx campaign also use this approach.

Photo Finish Kuala Lumpur

Photo finish A Ritz-Carlton butler recreated a newlywed couple’s photos of Kuala Lumpur after the duo lost their camera on the last night of their honeymoon.

But people are interested in people, too.

So tell your human-interest stories, too — specifically your customer service stories.

I once had to move my microwave-sized toiletry kit from my refrigerator-sized overnight bag into a duffel I keep for just such emergencies when the suitcase proved too heavy to check. When I arrived at my hotel room, I realized I’d forgotten the duffel, which was presumably still making the rounds at a baggage-claim carousel at LaGuardia.

Not wishing to skip lunch at Le Bernardin to retrieve my lost luggage, I called my AmEx travel agent, Katie, and asked her to solve my problem.

When I returned to the hotel, my duffel was waiting in my room. Katie had arranged to have a car service pick it up and deliver it to my hotel. There, she had arranged to have the front desk front me a loan for the car service — including a tip — and deliver the bag to my room.

Because, of course she did.


AmEx has a million such stories (though presented in the most difficult way imaginable; whattup with that, AmEx?) So has The Ritz-Carlton. So has your company.

Show us what over-and-above service we can expect from you by highlighting the awe-inspiring ways you’ve helped others.

3. Tell a story.

Finally, the best way to share The Awwwww Factor is to tell a story. Make the most of your awe-inspiring stories by using the PSR model. (I’ve edited accounts of Ben’s journey from FedEx and PETA into this version.)

Problem: Don’t start with a pat on your own back (it gets in the way of the story, and unless you’re really flexible, it’s hard). Instead, jump right into the most provocative details of the story at hand:

Ben, a grizzly-black bear, had spent six long years confined to a barren cage.

Deemed “Attraction No. 2,″ Ben was deprived of even the most basic necessities. His world consisted of nothing more than a barren 12-foot-by-22-foot concrete floor and a chain-link fence with an old bowling ball and some moldy stumps of wood. His “caretakers” dumped dry dog food — what passed for his meals — onto the same concrete floor where he urinated and defecated.

Ben spent his waking hours pacing, the result of profound deprivation and a sign of chronic distress.

Solution: I know, I know. This is the part you care about most: the part where your organization helped solve the problem. Your readers, however, are more interested in your awe-inspiring subject. So make this the quickest part of the piece:

After a long battle with the zoo owner, several rescue organizations won the right to move Ben from his deplorable conditions to a lush animal sanctuary in Northern California. FedEx volunteered to help fly Ben across the country for free. A team of 42 folks made sure Ben got all of the comforts he needed as he journeyed aboard “Bear Force One” nearly 3,000 miles to his new home.

Results: Paint a picture of how great Ben’s life is now:

When Ben explored his vast new habitat for the first time, it was likely the first time he had ever felt grass beneath his paws. He pawed at the ground and smelled the grass. Within minutes, he was bathing and splashing in his own pool, ridding his body of grime for the first time in years. That night, he slept soundly on a comfortable bed of fresh hay and natural foliage.

Because of course he did.


How can you write awe-inspiring stories about your own organization’s service to others?

Make Your Copy More Creative

It’s not fluff. Creative material communicates more clearly, builds reader loyalty, creates a “buzz” for your topic — even enhances credibility. The good news is that creative copy doesn’t take talent. It doesn’t even take creativity. Instead, it takes techniques, tricks and time.

In Catch Your Readers, my two-day Master Class in Kansas City (April 29-30, 2014) and Portland (July 23-24, 2014), you’ll learn how to bring your messages to life with storytelling, wordplay and metaphor. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

  • Go beyond twist of phrase to diversify your wordplay. Soon, you’ll be listing, rhyming and twisting — even coining new words. The more techniques you master, the more sophisticated and satisfying your copy will be.
  • Work your word tools. Get links to online resources that are so good, you’ll hardly need to trouble your pretty head to write dazzling twists of phrase
  • Get inspired by some of the world’s most creative headlines
  • Ask the question that will help your subject matter experts recall a story
  • Use a simple structure for crafting an effective anecdote
  • Apply a four-step process for coming up with a creative metaphor
  • Take advantage of a fill-in-the-blanks template you can use to write your next analogy

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“It was 20 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play …”
— The Beatles

Blast the past

Don’t lead with a history lesson

It can be tempting to start your story at the beginning. After all, didn’t Lewis Carroll advise us to do so in Alice In Wonderland? “Begin at the beginning, the King said, very gravely, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Blast the past

Turn back time But not in the lead, please! Photo by Flicktone

The problem with this approach is that it buries the lead — also known as leading with the background. After all, nobody wants to start with the history lesson.

(When someone asks you about yourself, you don’t start at the year of your birth, do you?)

“Some of us are attracted to chronological order,” writes Malcolm Gibson, journalism professor at Kansas University. “Such an attraction can result in stories that read like the minutes of a meeting.”

Don’t start with the history lesson.

Instead of starting with the history lesson, lead by illustrating the most important point of your piece. So don’t lead with:

XYZ Company’s development of ear-blasting technologies began with the introduction of Make It Louder software in 2004. Since then, it has progressed to include three additional generations of ear-blasting technologies that continue to achieve the highest level of sound quality.

Why don’t we start by illustrating how the latest-generation ear-blasting technology will change your readers’ lives? Then move this history lesson to the third paragraph — aka the background section — where it can provide context for the current story.

Don’t lead with:

In 2011, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture launched Operation Wounded Warrior, a program through a partnership with the Wounded Warrior Project to invite wounded service members and veterans to enjoy recreational activities at Oklahoma State Forests. As part of Operation Wounded Warrior, five areas within Oklahoma’s State Forests have been designated as special hunt areas and are fully equipped to accommodate any veteran, despite his or her injuries. In many instances, these hunts serve not only as a weekend get-away but also a chance to heal.

Since this should be a human-interest story, let’s start with a wounded warrior who’s hunting and healing through this program. This background should go in — Yep! You got it! — paragraph three, or the background section.

And don’t lead with:

Last week, I shared with you the many challenges currently facing retailers – a jittery economy and aggressive online retailing, to name just two – as well as some of the things we’re doing to address those challenges.

And this week, you’re going to share with us something else. Why not lead with an illustration of this week’s topic? If last week’s post is important to understanding the broader context of this week’s, move it to the background section. Otherwise, hit Delete.

Avoid ancient history.

Even the ancient Romans knew not to bury the lead under a history lesson. As Horace wrote of Homer’s Iliad in Ars Poetica:

“To tell Diomedes’ story he doesn’t think
“He has to start with the death of the hero’s uncle,
“Or start, in telling about the Trojan War,
“By telling us how Helen came out of an egg.
“He goes right to the point and carries the reader
“Into the midst of things, as if known already;
“And if there’s material that he despairs of presenting
“So as to shine for us, he leaves it out;
“And he makes his whole poem one. What’s true, what’s invented,
“Beginning, middle and end, all fit together.”

Tempted to start your story by telling readers how Helen came out of an egg? Take Horace’s advice: Go right to the point — and carry the reader into the midst of the story.

(Also see “when” leads.)

Go Beyond the Inverted Pyramid

Our old friend the inverted pyramid hasn’t fared well in recent research.

According to new studies by such think tanks as The Readership Institute and The Poynter Institute, inverted pyramids:

  1. Reduce readership
  2. Slash understanding
  3. Don’t make readers care about the information

In short, researchers say, inverted pyramids “do not work well with readers.”

But in Catch Your Readers, my two-day Master Class in Kansas City (April 29-30, 2014) and Portland (July 23-24, 2014), you’ll learn a structure that will:

  1. Increase reader satisfaction
  2. Boost the amount of time readers spend with your message
  3. Help readers understand your information more easily

Specifically, you’ll learn:

  • How to organize your message to grab readers’ attention, keep it for the long haul and leave a lasting impression
  • Three elements of a great lead — and five leads to avoid
  • How to stop bewildering your readers by leaving out an essential paragraph. (Many communicators forget it.)
  • Five ways to avoid the “muddle in the middle”
  • A three-step test for ending with a bang

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“Every good title is a short story.”
— Russell Banks, American writer of fiction and poetry

Subject to revision

Don’t repeat subject lines for every issue

Generic subject lines — “Newsletter name” — are more likely to be deleted than opened. So says usability guru Jakob Nielsen. So says MailChimp.

Don't repeat subject lines

Don’t doom yourself to repeat it Want more opens? Change up your subject lines

So why do some of the most popular, most respected e-zines out there — I’m talkin’ to you, Instapaper and HubSpot — use generic subject lines?

For example, here are the subject lines for the last five editions of HubSpot’s Opinion Blog e-zine:

  • HubSpot Blog, Opinion
  • HubSpot Blog, Opinion
  • HubSpot Blog, Opinion
  • HubSpot Blog, Opinion
  • HubSpot Blog, Opinion

Why avoid generic subject lines?

What’s wrong with this approach? Repeating subject lines:

1. Reduces opens. “It’s obvious that if you send the same campaign over and over again (such as reminders for an event), your open rates will decline with each subsequent campaign,” write the experts at MailChimp.

But how much should you expect it to decline? In one study, MailChimp tracked the results of these similar event reminders:

  • First email: “Funk n Sandi @ The Roxy on 3 March.” 8% open rate
  • Second: “Funk ‘n’ Sandi @ The Roxy on 3 March.” 6.3%
  • Third: “This Sat 3 Feb – Funk n Sandi @ The Roxy.” 5.1%
  • Fourth: “Don’t forget – Funk ‘n’ Sandi this Sat 3 Mar!” 3.5%

Want to get opened? Change up the subject line.

2. Makes your message hard to store. I save my e-zines for reading on planes. I’ll bet you save yours for a more convenient time, too.

The problem with generic subject lines is that they’re hard to store. When I save one with a generic subject line to my “reads” file, I have to rewrite the subject line:

  • Instapaper
  • Instapaper-2
  • Instapaper-3
  • Instapaper-4
  • Instapaper-5

3. Makes your message hard to find. Oh, my God! An article in one of your e-zines has changed my life. I want to be able to refer to it often and share it with everyone I know.

But where is it? Will I find it in:

  • HubSpot Blog, Opinion
  • HubSpot Blog, Opinion
  • HubSpot Blog, Opinion
  • HubSpot Blog, Opinion
  • HubSpot Blog, Opinion

How to write specific subject lines

So how can you make your subject lines less generic?

1. Add a key story. To improve your e-zine subject lines, mention your lead article. Here are some of Nielsen’s e-zine subject lines for inspiration:

  • Alertbox: Write Articles, Not Blog Postings
  • Alertbox: Use Old Words When Writing for Findability
  • Alertbox: 5 Types of E-Commerce Shoppers
  • Alertbox: The Reciprocity Principal
  • Alertbox: Talking-Head Video Is Boring Online

2. Be consistent. Once you come up with an approach that works, stick with it. That way, recipients — and their spam filters — will “recognize” you as a friendly emailer. Here are the subject lines of some of my most-opened e-zines:

  • Wylie’s Writing Tips | One-sentence stories
  • Wylie’s Writing Tips | The shark is down
  • Wylie’s Writing Tips | Block that cliché
  • Wylie’s Writing Tips | Don’t mis-lead readers
  • Wylie’s Writing Tips | Go beyond paragraphs
  • Wylie’s Writing Tips | Turn ideas into things
  • Wylie’s Writing Tips | It’s about time
  • Wylie’s Writing Tips | How small is small?

3. Keep it short. You should be able to do all of this and still keep your subject lines to the recommended 50 characters or less.

April writing contest: Send me your most effective subject line by April 30, and tell us about its success. If your subject line is the best, I’ll send you my favorite subject-line-related gift.

Get opened, get clicked

Want to learn more ways to get emails opened, links clicked and status updates liked and shared?

At Catch Your Readers, my two-day Master Class in Kansas City (April 29-30, 2014) and Portland (July 23-24, 2014), you’ll discover how to make your Web pages, intranet articles, blog postings, tweets and status updates more relevant, valuable and interesting to your readers. And you’ll learn a six-step process for writing copy that overcomes the obstacles of online reading. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

  • Increase usability by 124% with three simple copywriting steps
  • Determine how long your Web page should be. (Beware: Many page-length recommendations are based on outdated research)
  • Apply the 30-3-30-3 rule to give online readers what they’re looking for
  • Use the 70-20-10 rule to make sure your status updates are welcome guests, not intrusive pests
  • Steal from the FBI. Write dramatic, compelling status updates that draw followers and get clicks

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“In the Olympics, they all talk in acronyms all the time. You spend most of the meeting trying to work out what the acronym meant. By the time you’ve done that it’s time for the next meeting.”
— Danny Boyle, director and producer, known for Slumdog Millionaire, who served as artistic director for the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games

How is IBNR like a rented suit?

Steal Warren Buffett 3-step process for defining acronyms

How can you make sure your readers don’t spend the time between meetings trying to figure out what the acronyms mean?

3 step process for defining acronyms

Like a brick wall Acronyms put readers off. So take a tip from Warren Buffett and spell out, explain and illustrate acronyms.

Here’s a tip to steal from the Oracle of Omaha: Spell out, explain and illustrate acronyms.

1. Spell out acronyms.

In one of his famous letters to shareholders, Buffett spells out an acronym:

“These losses are called IBNR, for incurred but not reported. …”

2. Explain acronyms.

But spelling out the acronym isn’t enough. (Do you feel like you have a solid grounding in IBNR just because you know what the initials stand for? Didn’t think so.)

So he clarifies the term with this explanation:

“Indeed, in some cases (involving, say, product liability or embezzlement) the insured itself will not yet be aware that a loss has occurred. Even when companies have the best of intentions, it’s not easy to reserve properly. …”

3. Illustrate acronyms.

That’s a little better. But I still don’t think I could explain IBNR to my friends.

So Buffett illustrates the acronym with an apocryphal story:

“… I’ve told the story in the past about the fellow traveling abroad whose sister called to tell him that their dad had died. The brother replied that it was impossible for him to get home for the funeral; he volunteered, however, to shoulder its cost. Upon returning, the brother received a bill from the mortuary for $4,500, which he promptly paid. A month later, and a month after that also, he paid $10 pursuant to an add-on invoice. When a third $10 invoice came, he called his sister for an explanation. ‘Oh,’ she replied. ‘I forgot to tell you. We buried dad in a rented suit.’

“There are a lot of ‘rented suits’ buried in the past operations of insurance companies.”

OK, now I see!

Cut Through the Clutter

Is your copy easy to read? According to communication experts, that’s one of the two key questions people ask to determine whether to read a piece — or toss it.

Fortunately, academics have tested and quantified what makes copy easy to read. Unfortunately, that research virtually never makes it out of the ivory tower and into the hands of writers who could actually apply it.

But you’ll leave Catch Your Readers, my two-day Master Class in Kansas City (April 29-30, 2014) and Portland (July 23-24, 2014), with “the numbers” you need to measurably improve your copy’s readability. Specifically, you’ll learn:

  • How long is too long: for paragraphs? Sentences? Words?
  • Three ways to shorten your copy — and which is the most effective way
  • How to cut your copy before you’ve even written the first word
  • How to avoid causing your reader to skip your paragraphs
  • A tool you can use (you probably already have it, but you might not know it) to quantifiably improve your copy’s readability
  • A seven-step system for making your copy clearer and more concise

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“Why isn’t ‘phonetic’ spelled the way it sounds?”
— The Atomic Café

More Wordoids

Readers make up words with this cool naming tool

Have you tried Wordoid? This cool tool is designed to help you find a catchy name for your business by auto-creating new words. But you can create words to use in your copy, as well.

Coin a word with wordoid

Rewriterians, unite Coin a word with Wordoid.

I did so for our February issue, and invited you to play along. Just plug in a word or word fragment, click a button, and get your Wordoids.

Here are the results two of our readers got when they gave it a go:

grotesquerist (n) — one who queries or questions the grotesque. ‘The grotesquerist was easily and overly disturbed by the creation of words such as “coachersecutive” and “consultatisting.”’”

— Daniel L. Crouch, communications manager, Camico

Busatarian — someone who will not drive or ride in a car: somebody who will walk to and take the bus, but does not own a car and, rather than ride in someone else’s car, would prefer to take the bus.

“‘Ann, would you like a ride to the meeting tomorrow?’

“‘No, thanks, I’ll just take the bus. Actually, there will be two buses — I’ll have to transfer.’

“‘I could pick you up downtown?’

“‘No, thanks, I’ll just take the bus.’

“‘It’s no trouble. Are you sure you’d rather take the bus?’

“‘Yeah. Thanks.’

“‘Oh, that’s right. I forgot that you’re a busatarian.’”

— Julie Kettman, director of Communications
and Marketing, YMCA Seattle

And the winner is …

Daniel, I love your cheeky entry (and will not hold it against you that you found my Wordoids grotesque!)

But as a newish and enthusiastic Portlander, Julie, I found that your entry rang a few bells. It’s easy to imagine that busatarian might make it into the current season of Portlandia soon.

Congratulations, Julie, you are our winner! Watch your mailbox for a little wordplay-themed gift from me. And thank you both for playing.

How can you use Wordoids to make your copy more creative?

Make Your Copy More Creative

Wordplay can help you captivate your readers, get the media to steal your sound bites and make your messages more memorable.

The good news is that wordplay doesn’t take talent. It doesn’t take creativity. Instead, it takes techniques, tricks and time.

In Catch Your Readers, my two-day Master Class in Kansas City (April 29-30, 2014) and Portland (July 23-24, 2014), you’ll learn how to bring your messages to life with storytelling, wordplay and metaphor. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

  • Go beyond twist of phrase to diversify your wordplay. Soon, you’ll be flipping phrases; compressing details; subbing soundalikes; listing, rhyming and twisting — even coining new words. The more techniques you master, the more sophisticated and satisfying your copy will be.
  • Work your word tools. There are so many great online resources for wordplay, busy writers need hardly trouble their pretty heads to write dazzlers. In this session, you’ll get links to some of the best sources — as well as ideas for how to use them.
  • Get inspired by some of the world’s most creative headlines.
  • Lead better brainstorming sessions. You’ll learn a simple step to add to the process that will help your group dream up more bright ideas.
  • Stop writing groaners. Are you still cranking out clichés and -ing headlines? Learn techniques that let you come up with surprising lines — and leave the boring approaches to the hacks.

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“This workshop was so informative and helpful. The science behind PR was so insightful! The inverted pyramid is passé? Who knew?”
— Tammy Poole, Public Affairs communication specialist, State Farm

Ann’s touring schedule

Polish your skills at one of these events

Alas, I can’t invite you to the in-house seminars I present for private organizations.

Come along for the ride Catch Ann at one of her upcoming workshops.

But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:

  • Anchorage on Aug. 6: Catch Your Readers, a half-day workshop for PRSA Alaska
  • Lincoln, Neb., on April 17: Catch Your Readers, a full-day workshop for IABC Lincoln
  • New York City on Dec. 8: Catch Your Readers, a one-day workshop for PRSA
  • Overland Park, Kan., on April 29-30: Catch Your Readers, a two-day master class, open to the public
  • Portland, Ore., on July 23-24: Catch Your Readers, a two-day master class, open to the public
  • Salt Lake City on May 15: Think Like a Reader, a 90-minute preconference session, and Cut Through the Clutter, a 90-minute keynote, for the Salt Lake City PRSA chapter’s Spring Conference
  • Tacoma on Aug. 20: Catch Your Readers, a half-day workshop for PRSA Puget Sound
  • Toronto on June 8-11: Go Beyond the Inverted Pyramid, a breakout session for the IABC World Conference
  • Your own home or office on April 15: Write for Social Media, a one-hour webinar for PRSA
  • Your own home or office on June 3: Content Marketing Writing, a one-hour webinar for PRSA

Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.

Can’t make these events? If you’d like to bring me in for a workshop at your organization, contact me.

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“Absolutely invaluable and essential for all writers.”
— Robert Gelber, Interactive Marketing director, Hawai’i Pacific Health

Where in the world is Ann?

Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program

Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.

Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:

  • Anchorage: Aug. 6
  • Atlanta: April 2
  • Lincoln, Neb.: April 17
  • Naperville, Ill.: April 22
  • New York City: June 23-24, & Dec. 8
  • Overland Park, Kan.: April 29-30
  • Portland, Ore.: May 8, & July 23-24
  • Philadelphia, Penn.: July 15
  • Richland, Wash.: May 22
  • Seattle: June 17-18
  • Salt Lake City: May 15
  • Tacoma: Aug. 20
  • Toronto: June 8-11

Save even more: Ask about my communication-association discounts and second-day fee reductions.

Contact me to discuss piggybacking.

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What are we up to?

The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:

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Keep up with my calendar

Find out when I’m coming to your neighborhood, learn when you can sign up for one of my programs and otherwise keep up with my calendar.

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Please share this issue

… with two of your colleagues by directing them to our current issue. Better yet, invite them to subscribe to Wylie’s Writing Tips. They’ll thank you — and so will I!

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For more info …

… about my seminars, publication consulting or writing and editing services, please contact me or visit my website.

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