Retention by design: a Rovio art director on creativity, games, and keeping your users

rovio angry birds retention mobile users

We tend to think of great design as something that captures attention. But is it also something that keeps attention … and fosters retention?

In this episode of Retention Masterclass Peggy Anne Salz and I are talking with Tatu Petersen-Jessen, an art director at Rovio, about design and creative in mobile games from acquisition to retention.

Rovio’s mission statement is to “craft joy with player-focused gaming experiences that last for decades.” That’s kind of amazing … decades. Most gaming companies don’t think like that … they think of a day, a week, a few months. Rovio’s thinking retention right out of the gate. It seems to be working, too. In 2018, Rovio announced that their apps had been downloaded 4 billion times … and used in places like the International Space Station and Antarctica. But now … I’m guessing it might be 5 or 6 billion.

Scroll down for full audio, video, and a transcript of our conversation …

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(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity).

John Koetsier: We tend to think of great design as something that captures attention — and it totally does. But is it also something that keeps attention and fosters retention? Hello and welcome to Retention Masterclass. My name is John Koetsier. 

Peggy Anne Salz: And my name is Peggy Anne Salz and we’re your co-hosts on this show. 

John Koetsier: Today we’re chatting about design and creative from acquisition and to retention.

Peggy Anne Salz: And we’re talking to Rovio. Rovio’s mission is really exciting here. I mean, it’s a perfect fit, John.

Check this out: “craft joy with player-focused gaming experiences that lasts for decades.” Now that’s amazing right? Decades. No one thinks in decades. Hyper casual, not so long ago, was a 14-day thing, right?

It’s like, oh, we get them in now, we get them out in 14 days, and we’re in the money. Nobody thinks like this. These guys think like that. And that’s why thinking retention right out of the gate — so exciting. Such a great fit with what we’re doing here. 

John Koetsier: I love it. I mean, I was shocked to see that honestly, decades — decades from a gaming company, right? Which is counter-cultural, especially when you talk about the hyper casual. But, it does seem to be working. It’s doing something — something’s working.

In 2018, Rovio announced that their apps had been downloaded 4 billion times. I’m guessing that’s 5 or 6 billion right now, but we don’t have official word on that, so that is just my guess. 

Peggy Anne Salz: And we’re not going to ask that today. 

John Koetsier: Sure, exactly. But also what’s interesting is that their apps have been used in places like the International Space Station — now, you know, not too many people can say that — and Antarctica. So that’s pretty cool. 

Peggy Anne Salz: That is definitely cool. And we’ve got someone cool to talk about this because we’re going to talk about what the key is here, right? It’s design and creativity for retention. So to get started, we have Tatu Petersen-Jessen, an art director at Rovio. Thank you, Tatu. And full disclosure, I’ve spoken with him on a webinar before. He has some great stuff to share, John. So that’s why he’s here with us today. 

John Koetsier: That’s a horrible disclosure. How could you disclose that? [laughter]

Peggy Anne Salz: I know him. I brought him because I was fascinated by this. So, yeah. Welcome to Retention Masterclass, Tatu! 

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Thanks for having me. Thanks for having me and thanks, Peggy, for inviting me. 

Peggy Anne Salz: Absolutely. And from back then, we were talking about things like what we do here on this show, John, right? Keeping users hooked, getting them into the game. And guess what, you do that with game, gameplay, narrative. Let’s hear a little bit about your part of Rovio, to start, Tatu. 

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Hmm. So I’m fully focused on the art side. So, as a disclaimer, if I say something funny about the user acquisition campaign and stuff— 

John Koetsier: Pre-forgiven. Pre-forgiven.

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Yeah, thanks.

Peggy Anne Salz: You’re not allowed to.

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: That’s my disclaimer from there. But, I do tend to work a lot with the user acquisition and the marketing side as well.

And in Rovio we have like very integrated teams. So we get to kind of witness not only the game development side, but also the other side of it. So I don’t even see a big division between the marketing and games. They all are interacting with each other in a fluent way, in a natural way.

So, I’m touching a little bit of this and that on all of that. 

John Koetsier: Very, very cool. I mean, so let’s talk about — we’re going to get into retention. We’re going to get into how to keep people after you’ve hooked them in your games, but obviously it does start with acquisition. You mentioned that, and you mentioned you might say some interesting things there, so that’s cool. How do you approach acquisition from the start — to make sure that you’re finding the right players, the right people who will not just be those who pop in/pop out and never come back, but will be engaged for the long term? 

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Yeah. I think like you said, like before retention there’s acquisition. Before that is research and development. 

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: So, there’s many ways of approaching this.

But I think like you have to first make sure that the game you’re developing is the right one — that there is actually an audience for that game. That you are addressing the needs of the users with your game. So, it all starts from the game — and the game has to be good.

That’s the kind of key thing in everything. 

John Koetsier: Especially if you want to last a decade, yes. 

Peggy Anne Salz: But we’re hearing that a lot, right, John? I mean, it starts with the product. We’re hearing that so much. And as a little bit of background, Tatu, you know, you’re focused on puzzle games within Rovio. 

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Yes.

Peggy Anne Salz: It’s a different part. You want to maybe — just to tick up on John’s question — you know, it’s not just getting me really interested in Rovio because it’s a cool company and it wants to get me for decades and has some great games as well, but you’re getting me into a puzzle game. So it’s really understanding how am I going to engage someone to come in here? ‘Cause it’s not just a puzzle, you’re turning it into a story, which I thought was pretty cool. 

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Yeah, I think it’s especially visible in one of the latest games. I hope you guys have played the game called Small Town Murders. But even with that game, it starts that the game itself needs to be good.

You come for the short term and you stay for the long term. So, you have to like the core game, you have to like the usability, and the kind of foundation needs to be good. But then what keeps you in the game for a longer period of time is often the narrative, the storylines, the world is engaging.

And it’s having characters that you can relate to, characters that you can fall in love with, and characters that you can really care about, or characters that make you laugh. 

John Koetsier: And apparently characters that you murder, based on the name of that last game?

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Yeah. Yeah. 

John Koetsier: I confess I haven’t played that. I haven’t heard that. That seems like a new one for Rovio. I mean, I know, I think Angry Birds. Sorry about that. You know, it’s your big hit, right? So— 

Peggy Anne Salz: Yeah. 

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Hmm. Yeah but … and it is what we were very much known for. Angry Birds is [a] big part of us, so … but there [are] other things to Rovio than just Angry Birds. And I think some of the new IP games we’ve been developing lately are a good example of that — like Small Town Murders. So, I do recommend taking a deeper look on that.

And it’s a good example of how narratives can be used in [a] very engaging way. 

John Koetsier: Cool. 

Peggy Anne Salz: So I get the storytelling. Let’s talk about the creative. You’re an art director, and we’re all hearing now, you know, the core competitive advantage is in creative. That’s what’s gonna hook us. That’s what’s gonna do it.

What’s the interplay — first of all, to start out — between thinking creative and retention marketing? You get me with the storytelling, you get me with the imagery as well. 

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Yeah. Maybe as a kind of like a one point, I think the retention marketing and re-engagement marketing is not necessarily as peak for us as it is for some other industries. Usually in those industries, also the brand marketing plays [a] bigger part.

Like of course, we also do a lot of that, especially for Angry Birds, but what I’m more focused on — and what our teams, the game teams and the marketing teams are more focused on — is the user acquisition, and the acquisition part, you know, in a big picture. But yeah, but the trend on the team side is that we are really trying to go towards more integrated teams, so that all the functions are working together, they are interacting with each other, they are talking to each other.

Every artist should know why they’re making the art and what kind of an impact it could have.

And often, even more often nowadays, we have to make the games in a way that we’re fueling the user acquisition machine, and bringing great assets and great creatives and create pieces for new creatives from the game side, into the marketing and into the disposal of the marketing team.

Peggy Anne Salz: Mm-hmm.

John Koetsier: That’s a great kind of segue, really, because we wanted to talk a little bit about data, which of course informs all marketing or most marketing. How does it inform the creative that you’re making? What metrics are you looking at? How do you know whether your creative is working or not? 

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Of course, like we’re probably looking at the very much same metrics as everybody else, and the foundation is offering like click-through rates, and funnel conversions, and different kind of retention metrics.

But I think the main thing on the metrics side is that it’s becoming — at least, my personal opinion is that you have to really look at the big picture. You can’t be only looking at final conversion and optimizing towards that, or you can’t [be] looking only at the click-through rates and only optimizing towards that.

Like, if you optimize only on final conversion or only at click-through rate, and you take the hit on retention … it’s not necessarily a good combination. So, you have to always look at the big picture and how if you take a dip on the click-through rates but get much better users and much, much higher retention, it can be beneficial on the big picture.

John Koetsier: Totally. 

Peggy Anne Salz: Mm-hmm. So you come into that with an idea of what you want to achieve? Or do you also sort of follow the flow a little bit? Because you and your team are seeking to make the match. I think it’s great, by the way, that you’re so integrated that everyone knows why they’re doing something, right? So you know why you’re making the creative, you understand the campaign objective.

How do you make that match still? Because that’s not something that follows without some metrics, without some strategy. Can you give some example of how you do more than just say, ‘This will work in this campaign, but this will work with this campaign to achieve that objective.’ Right? For example, deep funnel conversion, retention — what we’re talking about here.

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Yeah. And on that, I think strategy is a very good word. It all starts from understanding the overall strategy and, not — like what works for one game doesn’t necessarily work for one thing.

So there is no absolute truths on this one either.

And I think, when you are making a game, you have to start from basically the strategy that it’s like — even before you have fully developed the game, you have to start thinking about the strategies and different kind of ways you can market that game.

You first have to really understand the audience for your game, and you have to understand what makes your audience choose your game instead of the competing offering. And once you understand your audience, and you understand why they are playing your game, then you can focus your creative efforts on that as well.

One thing that I’m glad to see happening more nowadays, is that we’re looking more into overall user journeys and we’re looking more into the overall bigger picture, rather than just kind of individual parts of the equation.

John Koetsier: Cool. Wanted to get into a little bit of ad creative, about effectiveness and authenticity. I think there’s been some playable ads that have in the past borne almost no relationship to the actual game that you install when you get — when you play that and then you install the app. And there’s been some that have been kicked off platforms for that reason.

How do you stay kind of truthful to what the game actually is, while also trying to interpret that in — whether it’s a playable, or whether it’s a display ad, or an interstitial, or something like that — give something that looks amazing and incredible, but is really related to what the actual game is?

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Yeah. Well, I think … I could kind of go back to that, what works for one game, doesn’t work for all games. So there’s many, many strategies in this game of marketing.

But one approach is that you really start by having those — like the marketing side, and the game design side, and the product strategy, and the marketing strategy – really go hand in hand. So you don’t do like first do product, and then you figure out how to market that. Because, if you do it that way, you can easily end up in situations where you have to be inventing marketing messages, and you run out of fuel for your user acquisition creative machine.

But if you think about games like, well, I mentioned Small Town Murders earlier, and I think like some of the ads for that game are really great examples. The whole game has a narrative that is ever expanding. Its [a] never-ending story and we’re all the time adding more chapters to the game. So with every chapter we bring in new characters, new storylines, new murder cases. So—

Peggy Anne Salz: Mm-hmm.

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: What it allows us is that we have also more and more new characters. Like, we’re not stuck with only the main characters in the user acquisition, we can bring like that guy from episode six or eight and totally new phase for the user acquisition. So we have thought about the whole making of the game, from the ground up, in a way that it allows us to have more, well, ammunition for the user acquisition.

John Koetsier: Yeah. Well, the beauty of that is that you can appeal to different people in different ways. I mean, I may want to play — I’m assuming there’s a detective or somebody who’s in the police there. Maybe there’s a perpetrator, I don’t know. 

Maybe there’s somebody who’s a neighbor, or whatever the characters are. You can appeal to different people in different ways based on who they want to be in the game.

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Yeah, definitely. And that’s the kind of beauty of games like this that have expanding narratives and expanding — of course they are not the most cheapest games to make, because you have to also keep on making the characters, and you need to keep on creating the fairly costly content for the users.

It’s high quality content, but at the same time, when the high quality content is designed in a way that we can use the same content for the game side and the same content for the marketing, we’re kind of like taking off some of that cost, because now you don’t have to create new separate assets for the marketing side. 

John Koetsier: Nice.

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: We have high quality assets in the game and we have high quality assets in the marketing creative. So it’s a kind of a win-win from there.

Peggy Anne Salz: And there may be — you get that feeling don’t you, John, you know, all the emphasis on storytelling, the episodes. Doesn’t it sound like spillover in Netflix is possible? I mean…[inaudible

John Koetsier: We’ve never seen Rovio do anything like that in the past, Peggy. 

Peggy Anne Salz: No, exactly. I mean, I might be hearing something here. But you know, to your point, it’s got to be great storytelling. And it’s good if it’s high quality, it’ll get you high quality users.

But you know, retention, that’s the name of the game here. That’s the end game, literally. And you know if you’ve hit it, you know if you’ve missed, usually, because then you’ll have the creative failed — perhaps, because benchmarks are tricky, you know, John.

We’ve had Brian Balfour here from Reforge, we know that they’re bogus, for that matter. 

John Koetsier: In some cases.

Peggy Anne Salz: Absolutely. So, there’s a level of — yes, I want to aim for the benchmark, but then there’s like, how do you decide what to aim for? And are they bogus? So what do you think? What do you see from your vantage point? 

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Yeah. And I think there I have to kind of repeat the same thing, that what matters is the big picture. 

Peggy Anne Salz: Mm-hmm. Okay. 

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: You can’t look at any of these metrics individually. If you take any of the — like, of course, all of these metrics are important, but if you take click-through rate or funnel conversion to be your north star metric, or even like D1, or some other retention metric, without looking at the other metrics they are going to be bogus.

You have to look at the big picture to make sure that the whole equation is profitable and makes sense. 

John Koetsier: Tatu, can you dive into that a little deeper here just a second, ’cause you’re not looking at one metric, you’re not looking at two metrics — that’ll be bogus, as you said — you have to look at the big picture.

What does that mean? Does that mean looking at five or six metrics? Does that mean looking at overall engagement and ROI, as well as retention? What does that mean for you? 

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: I think, here, I probably have to also make a disclaimer that I’m not the numbers guy. I’m very, very much number-driven for an artistic guy, but I’m mostly looking on [a] very high level, and often filtered level where I get the analyses from an analyst … and I’m trusting their guidance. 

So, maybe you just have to trust the numbers guy. First have a good numbers guy and then trust the good numbers guy.

John Koetsier: It’s faith-based retention. I get it, totally. Got it. [laughter]

Peggy Anne Salz: With the math men, not the mad men, right? I get it.

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Yeah.

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: But then, kind of like what it means in practice is that for almost everything you have to kind of work with the scientific method. You always start with [a] hypothesis, and then you figure out whether the — what’s the best way of testing the hypothesis, and then whether the test is refuting or supporting your hypothesis.

So that’s pretty much how it is with kind of like every different segment on the way. And for me, it’s important that we also will look at that very creative — like, we need to look at the big picture, but we need to look at the big picture also on a very granular level on like creative, by creative basis.

It’s not enough that we are looking at campaign by campaign basis. We need to be looking at how does it affect that we changed something in the creative? How does the whole big picture change when we change a character in our ad? Or change the cores or the messages of our ad? So…

John Koetsier: Cool. 

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Big picture, small picture. Like…

Peggy Anne Salz: No, I like that. I like the fact that it’s very holistic, very big picture. You know, it’s looking at things at a broad level, but you also, of course, you have to be granular, you said it yourself. So if we’re looking at the audience, it’s audience focused, right? Is your model. 

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Yep.

Peggy Anne Salz: It’s about storytelling. It’s about understanding the audience — still have to segment that audience, you know? And you also, like all companies, have a special approach to segmentation because it has to fit what you have. 

Has to fit the games, has to fit your objectives. Tell me a little bit about that strategy. How do you segment? How do you bucket? You know, ’cause that sounds so broad — how do you bucket the audience, with still a feeling of engagement? It’s not bucketing them. It’s… 

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Yeah. Yeah.

Peggy Anne Salz: It’s placing them, carefully, and lovingly, in a spot. 

John Koetsier: Lovingly, wow!

Peggy Anne Salz: It’s the female in me, John. I’m thinking about, you know, a little TLC with segmentation. 

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Yeah. Yeah. And that’s a very broad question as well. So, please interrupt me if I’m, again, going a little bit on [a] tangent on this, but there’s [a] few things that come to my mind from this question.

One is, all our studios have a very focused approach on like, what are the ideal users for the games that we’re making. Usually the kind of user persona, if you may — kind of loaning that from the user research and UX playbook — that is based on our research on who are the people who are most profitable users for our existing games.

Who are the players who are actually enjoying our games the most? By knowing who are playing our existing games, we can make more games to the same audiences.

Of course, there’s always this thing, like, you don’t always go just digging deeper into that one segment, but usually we keep that one segment — that kind of like, very much the best segment for our studios, puzzle games — in mind when we’re designing the games and when we’re marketing the games. So, we do have this certain user persona that we have given a name, we’ve given all kinds of stats. 

Peggy Anne Salz: Mm-hmm.

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: And we are using it to kind of guide our decision making. And this is not something new for people who have been making games. I think, like ever since UX was known, user personas were used to help and guide the game-level decisions.

For us, it’s been always kind of like, we’ve been reminding that we’re not making these games for ourselves. We’re making these games for this fictional persona that has [a] totally different kind of a life situation than we do … might have some totally different kind of preferences than we do. And then, once we know who we are targeting mainly — of course we’re never targeting only for that — we want our games to be inclusive.

We want our audience to be broad as possible. But then when we’re making a lot of those decisions, on the game side and on the marketing side, often we are having that one very specific user segment in mind.

John Koetsier: That’s a good segue as well, actually, because you’ve got that persona that you have in mind. And I wanted to ask, you know, how you understand sort of a need state, a player need state, right? That you want to satisfy with creatives and ultimately the user experience. How’s that work? 

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Yeah. I think, yeah, you first have to know that kind of like fictional persona, and you have to kind of prove that that fictional persona exists in large masses.

Personally, I think you have to kind of go back to the basics of like, why are they playing our game? What is the thing that they’re getting from your game? What is the thing that motivates them to play games? Understanding the need that you’re serving is kind of like very fundamental for many games. I don’t know why, but with games we often forgot that.

So we’re just like, yeah, games are played because they are fun, but games are not only being played because they’re fun. But people might have a lot of different kind of reasons why they play games. They might play them from relaxation, for the thrills, for having excitement in their life. They can be playing the games to have a meaningful interaction with other people. 

So there’s many, many different reasons why people play games. So, kind of like you were asking about needs, but I think it kind of goes into the territory of motivations maybe. The needs are fueling the motivations and the motivations are the reasons why the users are clicking your ads. So… 

John Koetsier: Cool.

Peggy Anne Salz: Yeah.

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: In a way, we have to kind of make sure that the game is actually answering to that need. Then once we know that what — like sometimes we know that people are loving our game, but we don’t know why.

So, here I’m referring, like maybe 10 or 15 years ago, or 20 years ago, that was more often the case — we were just like, ‘Games are fun.’ Nowadays, I think it’s more, there’s more understanding into the motivations of users.

And we are understanding that, for example, our main segment might be playing the game to get relaxation after a long day at work, or between their breaks, between meetings. So we have to understand the whole user journey and all the kind of motivations, and all the kind of reasons why they are playing the games, to be better at making the games, and better at marketing the games to the right audiences.

Peggy Anne Salz: That’s really interesting. And you think about like a mashup between the old player types in games, right? Personas were coming together. There’s something — there’s some other ingredient there.

And I want to ask you how you make certain that’s a part of this as well. Because, yes, I’m playing it for a reason. I have a motivation. You know, we’re in a pandemic. I’m probably playing it because I’m also confined, you know, there’s other reasons. But you also want to make certain that all of this doesn’t come together in your marketing as some sort of afterthought. You also think about my journey, you know, the life cycle marketing, not just the marketing, but where I am as well.

How do you do that? How do you bring that into the creative — keep that, you know, amplified center of the experience?

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Yeah. And, I think like one reason why I love to be in the loop for what happens in the marketing side as well, and not just focusing fully on the games, because I think that the marketing side of things, the user acquisition, is kind of like a never-ending A/B test loop where I get lots more — much faster information about the users than I would be getting from running A/B tests on the game side.

So that’s why I absolutely love the kind of UA side. I get to know much more about the users. I get to know more about what seems to be working with them and then I can, again, make hypotheses based on those.

So we might run ads that are emphasizing the relaxation part of our game, or the satisfaction part of our game. And if those work, maybe we can make like a — maybe that’s a little bit of a jump — but we can make that assumption and hypothesis based that maybe relaxation is what our users are looking for. And then we can take another jump and test if we just like to make sure that both the game and the marketing, and all the steps in the users or the consumers journey are optimized towards that feeling. So …

Sounds fancy, but then I think it’s like, is maybe more easier to understand from kind of an example of thinking about that often the user acquisition ad is the first point of contact, like first user touch point. We’re focusing on relaxation on that point, and then we take him or her into [the] app store where it’s full of explosions.

It’s not kind of like consistent messaging.

Peggy Anne Salz: Sure.

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: So, we have to make sure that from the ad to app store, and to the first-time user experience, it’s kind of like all feeding through that same main messages we’re trying to come across 

John Koetsier: Like it. Like it. I have to ask, I mean, we’re going to close up here. I’ve got another question for you, but I have to ask, you have some deer [artwork] behind you. Are those your own creations? 

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: No. I think those are from IKEA.

John Koetsier: Ohhhhh, wow. Our Rovio art director has art from IKEA. I like ’em. I like ’em. 

Peggy Anne Salz: I do too, actually. 

John Koetsier: Don’t get me wrong, it’s all good.

Peggy Anne Salz: I was looking at them.

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Like I said, before we started recording like six months into a lockdown or working from home, I finally have an office. I haven’t had a lot of time thinking about it, but…

John Koetsier: That is all good. You have an office. It’s wonderful. I enjoy working from home, but I also enjoy getting in offices and stuff like that. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to do that at some point. Want to end with this question, and maybe go back over — dredge up all the stuff out of your personal databases.

What are some of the most common retention marketing mistakes that you’ve seen marketers make? 

 Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Mmm.

Well, all the ones that I maybe mentioned earlier … but one thing that I … one of the good advices I’ve heard recently, then one that I could pass onwards, is that companies shouldn’t really blindly look at what their competitors are doing on like what kind of tactics their competitors  are using. If you want to do what your competitors are doing, you should understand their strategy … not just their tactics. 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: And then you have to figure out whether those tactics are valid for the strategy that is good for your game. It all comes down to the kind of strategy — strategy and then tactics. If you blindly follow the tactics, you’re not going to be ending up in a good place. 

Peggy Anne Salz: Makes sense, and that’s where we were up until now, right? We’re getting to a big picture view of things. We’re getting away from just that campaign and that metric and all of this, you know, we’re thinking big. And yeah, and it’s been great having you here, Tatu, today on Retention Masterclass — telling us about how you approach this, you know, your view, and your accomplishments. So, great. Thanks so much! 

John Koetsier: Thank you. 

Tatu Petersen-Jessen: Thank you. It was a pleasure being here. 

John Koetsier: It’s been a real pleasure. And for everybody else who’s joined us and will join us on the audio podcast as well, whatever platform you’re on, hey, please like, subscribe, share, comment, all the above. If you love it — rate it, review it, that’d be a massive help.

 Peggy Anne Salz: Absolutely. Until next time, you know, keep well, keep safe. This is Peggy Anne Salz signing off for Retention Masterclass. 

John Koetsier: And I’m John Koetsier. Have a wonderful day.

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