“Small Business Stacey” interviews Erik Harbison from Aweber about how to leverage the power of email. And if you’d like to win $20,000 for your small business make sure you listen to learn more about the Small Business, Big Impact award.
Hello everybody, and welcome to another episode of Small Business Marketing Success Interview Series. I’m Small Business Stacey and today, I’m joined by Erik Harbison, who is the Big Kahuna or aka chief marketing officer over at AWeber. Now, AWeber is an online email marketing platform designed for organizations of all sizes, from the small startup to teams of 50 or more people. So I think you’re really gonna like what we talk about today.
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We’re going to be focusing on two different topics. One is debunking all of those email myths that you’ve probably heard before, and two, is we’ve got a special award to talk about. Who wants to win $20,000? Well, Erik’s going to share with you the Small Business Big Impact Award.
So welcome to the show, Erik.
Thanks, Stacey. Thanks for having me. Glad to be here.
Absolutely. Now you sent me your bio, but bio’s are a big B, boring. So take a few minutes, tell us about yourself, your story, and how you became the big CMO at AWeber.
Sure. I got started in advertising marketing when I was, I can remember back age eight, nine, 10, when I would just draw ads on paper during church to make my brothers laugh and bust up just to disrupt things, and that kind of stuck with me as something I wanted to do over time. And then when I got to college, I actually went to school for advertising because it was something I knew I wanted to follow up and do. And started my career in agencies, worked for a lot of traditional agencies, digital marketing agencies, and that kind of opened my eyes to different ways to connect with audiences.
And I started back when it was pre-internet and when the internet came out, it completely solved that need for me of finding something new and interesting to learn more about. And that led me down the path of SEO, paid search, social media, e-commerce. So I’ve been fortunate enough to touch all those different pieces of the marketing puzzle. And I gave myself a goal about, I’d say about 10 or 15 years ago that at some point, I wanted to be head of a marketing team at a business.
Having worked at agencies for so many times, I thought it’d be nice to be on the other side of the fence. And I was fortunate enough five years ago to find the opportunity here, to join AWeber, to help their marketing team grow a team and start identifying ways to help them increase brand awareness, increase customer growth, increase retention, all those key metrics for a software company. It’s just a great education for me in the last five years and it just again, aligns with what I wanted to do since I was young all the way to now. It’s just very fortunate to have been in the marketing experience for this many years.
Oh, well congratulations. I love hearing about people who are able to pursue and achieve their passion. They have this real strong focus of what they want to do. And I commend you for bringing that to life.
So now we know a little bit about the professional you, I think our audience wants to know a little bit more about the personal you. So I have some fun questions. Obviously, no right or wrong answer.
Would you say Mac or PC?
One hundred percent Mac.
An Apple guy.
Okay. Stripes or solids?
Well, you’re wearing solid today, so got to keep the theme going.
And this is an interesting one. Ready, aim, fire, or ready, fire, aim?
Wow, that’s a great, great question.
Yeah, for a marketing guy.
Exactly. And I’d like to say I like to think of myself as a ready, aim, fire when it comes to most of how I conduct operations and just kind of the linear progress of things, but in the marketing world, sometimes you just need to shoot, ask questions later in terms of finding out what worked, what didn’t work. So I’d say 80 percent of the time it’s probably ready, aim, fire, and then 20 percent of that time where I just kind of like to think about it, try it, and then kind of retro on what happened and see what we can do better.
Oh, I love the answer. It’s so true. Okay, well great. Then I think you’ve got a lot of brilliance to share with us today. So we’re gonna be talking about email marketing. Small business owners love to use email marketing. I think those that I talk to, maybe for the wrong reasons, which is usually because email’s free. So I’m just going to lambast out a bunch of emails. So what do you see that, when it comes to email, what are small business owners, what is their approach to it and is it the right one or not?
Yeah, and that’s a great point in terms of email is free so maybe I’ll think about it, maybe I won’t think about it, but I think the approach many marketers are taking is that they’re still embracing … when I hear the word all the time, it really makes me cringe, it’s the email blast. So if you’re listening and you’ve said this term in the last five to 10 days, let’s see if we can’t change your way of thinking to not use that word because it kind of is counterintuitive to the power of what email is, which has to be precise and segmented and focused on what we hear all the time, which is get that right message to that right individual or a segment of individuals at the right time.
So the myth here is that email is a blast mechanism and I think that’s a myth because while you can do that, I think it’s misusing the power of email in that it’s time to be more thoughtful in terms of how you schedule and how you segment and how you send.
Yeah, absolutely. So right, just because it’s free doesn’t mean you hit blast, blast, blast, right?
So I know you’ve got some other myths about email. What do you see going on out there in the small business world?
Well, it’s always the one, and we have meetups here at AWeber every so many months just to bring in the small business community and let them talk through challenges and things like that. But the biggest myth is just the challenge and the difficulty, in part, like I think everyone thinks email, it just feels like something that’s heavy and complex. And once you talk through it with a small business owner who doesn’t have that time, they feel like they don’t have the experience, and because it’s free they may not, or if it does cost money, they’re not sure if they can make that investment.
So debunking that myth that email is hard, and there’s just so many easy ways to get started with email in that it’s not complex and in some platforms it can be as easy as just using a mobile app to create and send messages, leveraging things that may already exist and that’s your social media accounts or an Instagram account. So there are ways to do it really, really quickly, but even if you use a general platform, people are scared of what to write.
And the fear they have about, “Geez, I don’t know what to tell them,” but chances are they have a website or even a brochure if you’re a pizza shop, there’s something, there’s a story to be told there that can easily translate into your very first email that you would send. So email is hard is a myth.
Email is dead, I’d say we’ve heard that one how many times?
Heard that one, yeah.
Not so much dead from the standpoint of those that feel that way may think that social is the way to go, and that social media is the solution for the small business owner because they launched a Facebook page, they’ve got some Instagram photos. In their mind they feel like, hey, we got this in cooking, but if Facebook and Google and Instagram all disappeared tomorrow, how would you connect with your audience?
And when you start thinking of it that way, look at the reaction on someone’s face when you asked them that question. And they start to realize like, I don’t know what I’d do. I’d probably send direct mail. See, they’re onto something there because email, although it may feel like it’s dead or it’s talked about being dead, it is the most powerful channel to use because the names that you’re getting and collecting and having people opt in to get your messages, you own that information.
You own the information that people were willing to give you. So in the case of Facebook and Google disappearing tomorrow, you would still have that information from people that want to hear from you. And when you start thinking of it that way, small businesses really start to understand the impact they can have with email as their primary channel.
Yeah, and it’s right because when you are emailing somebody, it’s like you can have a one-on-one conversation, whereas on social, you’re being much more generic and not everybody sees the posts. You don’t control the media. With email, and hopefully you’ll share some strategies of how to end up in the inbox, but people are definitely checking their email just as much as they’re checking social. So it’s not that email, the myth that email doesn’t work. I think it’s more that if you have the right message that somebody wants to read, yeah, they would love to read your email.
And to that point, I think in order to understand more, to me it’s just such a wonderful thing. It’s such a challenge, a good challenge, to try to figure out the best way to connect with your audience. Now, I don’t care if you have five subscribers or 500 subscribers because that’s the other thing we talked about is, well, my audience is too small for email marketing. And the reality is I have a side project, I’ve got 12 subscribers on my list, and I think about those 12 people like 12 of the most important people in the world. And I make sure to send information that’s relevant to them.
So whether it’s 12 or 1,200, it’s a great challenge to embrace, to say, “How can I make sure that I’m giving the most relevant information to those individuals in whichever way that we segment?” So my point here is a strategy, if you’re thinking about email or doing email, it’s how can you get more of that information from your audience because, again, they joined your list from various places. And you may not have been asking them things about themselves.
So short of getting into segmentation and automation rules, ask them a question. The power of email is that when you condition them to open up that email, have a link that asks them to just tell them more about yourself or give them some options. If you’re a bakery, you send an email that says, “Do you like muffins? Do you like cakes? Do you like doughnuts?” If someone’s clicking on one of those links, that gives you more information to then say, “Let’s send this information to all the people that clicked donuts, and this information to all the people that clicked bread or cakes or whatever.”
So by starting to ask questions, and businesses are often afraid. They feel like they’re inconveniencing their subscribers by asking them a question, but trust me, get over that hump and you’d be surprised with the gold that comes back when you just start asking your audience relevant information so that you can make sure you’re giving them the most relevant information in return.
Absolutely, Erik. I’m so on board with you and you’re absolutely right. Number one, it’s not the size of the list that matters. I’m always preaching to my audience that a small list is actually preferable because then it’s almost like you are having a one-on-one conversation with them and isn’t it better to have people who won’t go anywhere else and you build a little fence around them? You have your own tribe.
In my book, Small Business Marketing Made EZ, I talk about the ACTION Marketing System. And the A stands for getting attention. While most small business owners want to run up and down the street naked with their sign because they just want to get attention, that’s probably the wrong kind of attention, you’re honing in on getting really crystal clear on the who. And you do that by asking questions, by going really deep. Do you like donuts? Do you like cakes? Are you gluten free? What’s ultimately trying to get to their pain and challenges so that you can then be the only possible solution.
Yeah, they’re going to open your email if you can help them.
Exactly, and I think you’re touching on another critical thing there, which is around conditioning your audience to expect goodness from your emails because I think on average we get about, I think there’s some stat about 150 to 200 emails a day in your inbox. When’s the last time you sat and went through 150 anything in one sitting or one day? So how do you cut through all that clutter?
Your point about attention is, well, if I’m always getting good things from Stacey, then no matter where I am, if I’m kind of in transit or in commuting or at work and I see that email come from Stacey, I know that there’s something good in there. So I’m automatically forgetting about these other 149 other emails and I’m going right for her email because I’ve been conditioned with the value that’s coming from the center.
I think that’s a critical piece not just for long-term success, but also this notion of this other myth which is, hey, when I send emails through my platform, it’s AWeber, MailChimp, Constant Contact, whoever it is, and it ends up in the spam folder, what are they doing? It’s their fault. That’s a myth because I guess I’m representing the association of all email platforms, but the email platform you use to send your emails is not the only reason your message may end up in the spam folder or promotion tab.
And it’s one of those hard things to really grasp. It’s part technical, part theoretical. It’s almost like SEO for those that understand kind of how Google has this black box of 250 plus criteria they use to rank organic searches. They’ll never tell you what they are, or you may know what some of them are, but it won’t tell you which one is weighted higher than the other. Well, it’s kind of like that with email when it comes to, how do I know I’m doing all the right things to get my email into the inbox?
We like to look at it from, there are four main pillars for businesses to consider when it comes to building their email list. So you can Google best practices for email sending and you’ll get a bunch of great information. When you think about the spectrum of these four pillars, it lets you understand and kind of dissect where you have influence over giving yourself that best chance.
So quickly, those four pillars are, the first is the marketer themselves. So as the brand, how good of a job are you doing setting expectations? Because again, reputation is probably the key thing that drives all delivery of emails into inboxes because again, reputation is something that over time if it gets stronger, that’s a positive, but if you keep on doing bad things, it starts to trend down. So reputation is kind of a foothold for deliverability. So the marketer as number one is, am I setting the right expectations, am I providing value? So just clean and simple. That’s that.
The second is the email platform. So pick the platform that has an existing strong reputation with the inbox providers. And if you choose the right, do your research, and pick the one that’s right for you and your needs, you want to make sure you have someone that has a strong reputation, sends mail, and there’s a bunch of other factors that go into that. So that’s a piece of the overall mix. The third piece is that inbox provider, so Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook, et cetera.
So this is where it gets interesting because they’re the black box starts to come into play where we know there are good signals and bad signals for a brand to send a message. For example, we know that if you send an email and someone drags it automatically into the spam folder or deletes it without even opening it, that’s a bad signal to Gmail that says, “Wait a minute. Who’s sending this information? It must be incorrect or not relevant.” If that trend continues, well then guess where your emails are going to go two months from now when you start to send different emails?
I do love email. Wherever possible I try to communicate asynchronously. I’m really good at email.
So that’s a bad signal. No, a good signal would be if it delivers into the promotions tab and I, as the the receiver, drag it into the primary inbox. So that’s a signal, that’s an action that’s helping to increase that reputation. So as you send more emails over time, the inbox providers know that, hey, this email has got a better chance of hitting the inbox because we’re getting good signals from the recipients.
Then the fourth pillar is the subscriber themselves. Now, in some ways you can control how they react and act, but in most cases, subscribers are subscribers and they’re humans. They will make their own choices. But going back to the first part is like, how do you set the expectation with the subscribers so they know to pull your email into the inbox? Are you telling them to do that? And are you conditioning them, like we talked about earlier, to look for your emails? Think about this isn’t a linear path of an email.
What are you telling them in social? And what are you telling them in paid search? And how are you telling them about these great deals that exist through your email lists that you can only find in the inbox? Well, if you’re doing that, that’s helping to influence the subscribers to then find your email and click it. So at a very high level, we think of those four pieces that are very influential in establishing email reputation and making sure that there’s engagement coming from your subscribers.
Wow. Really four great pillars. Now, I’m sure in your work with AWeber, I mean you guys stay on top of the trends and what’s happening in email and how to make it better for everybody. So are there things that people should and or shouldn’t do? Like a subject line is obviously really important. It’s the first thing somebody is going to see. Do you have some tips or strategies how to, one, help it get into the inbox because I think certain things make it go to the promotions tab. And what could a small business owner put that is enticing to get it opened?
So it’s such a great topic to talk about because I love the fact that there’s no four answers.
Yeah, I know. Right?
Because it really depends on your business and what you’re doing to condition your subscribers. But there are some words stop words that are really not your friend when it comes to wanting to get into the inbox. So “free,” a series of exclamation points. Just think about that. It’s one of those things that you see. If you want to know what not to put in a subject line, go to your spam folder and see what’s in there from … Maybe there’s some emails in there from people that you do want, but there’s definitely those emails that you do not want.
What are they putting in there… clearly, they’re using like the number three is an E, so they’re doing things like that. Obviously, we’re not saying you’re gonna use that for your business, but you get a sense for what sorts of things in the subject line people are trying to push through as legitimate. So you just want to, if it feels like it’s too spammy or if it feels like it’s erring on the side of trying to be deceitful, stay away.
On the flip side, I would say any brand that has asked me this question, I always tell them, just try all lowercase. Try all lowercase letters from the standpoint of, look at your last 10 emails sends. What trends do you see there? And chances are people use punctuation. If you’re a bank, maybe not, but if you’re an informational marketer, if you’re someone who has information to share with your audience, that’s a way to cut through that clutter in the inbox because that would be something that a friend would send.
And I think it was the President Obama campaign way back when. He sends an email that just said the subject line, “Hey,” H-E-Y, and that’s it. Now obviously the context of that is a little bit different, but if you’re sending emails every week, every month, and you’re talking about, check out the information, hey did you know this, the top three things, well, what if the next email that you send was like, “Are you there,” question mark and it’s lowercase. Is that going to be seen as spam?
And that’s the thing is like, there’s no updated list that says, “Don’t use these words,” so you got to test it and you got to try it out and think unconventional versus the conventional that you’ve been doing for however long you’ve been sending emails. And if you’re just getting started, you’ve only sent two or three emails, in some ways, you kind of have a lot of wiggle room there. Just find something that’s going to connect with your audience. Most tools today have split testing, so you definitely want to be split testing email sends to your list.
Well, speaking of split testing, I’ve heard differing reports. I would love your input on this. Text-based, just plain text emails versus those with images. Do you have any perspective on that?
I do. I tend to err on the side of … again, for AWeber as a brand, educational, friendly, trying to help you, we tend to err on the side of provide straight to the point. Fewer images, it’s more about the content and the context of that content that lets the text be more impactful than the image. However, if there’s a feature, we want to show something that’s visual, we will use an image inside the body of that email, whether it’s at the top or in the middle, but there are cases where you want to have some sort of visual connection, but that is definitely something fair to split test if the context of image versus non-image is still relevant.
So an example of that could be if you’re introducing your subscribers to your team and just giving kind of an about us. Well, here’s one email that just kind of gives some very fun, one or two sentence fragments of just kind of how fun it is and how great your team is at helping customers. And then the next email would just be the same copy with a picture of the team. And chances are, you may see higher click-through rates because of the personal connection of seeing faces. That’s just one example of types of images to test.
But I tend to think that if you’re, again, think of that inbox. Short, succinct text, getting to the point, having calls to action that are hyperlinked is something that’s worked well for us.
Yeah, I think I agree with you. And the reality is so many people nowadays are checking email on their phones. So by having lots of images and a really long email, it can create a bad experience for the user.
Right, but if you’re a product company and you’ve got shirts, shoes, pants, and you want to feature that, well by all means, you want to feature those images inside of your emails, making sure you’re following the best practices of having alt text on those images. So if the images don’t show, what are people staring at? So they know it’s a shirt versus pants as opposed to image.png. That doesn’t tell me anything if I open your email, images are suppressed, alt text will help people know what it is that’s behind that image. But even when it comes to products, that’s where video becomes interesting.
It isn’t the video playing in the email as much as it is teasing the video itself with a thumbnail so people know that they expect that after they click, they’re going to get something that’s a little more engaging. So that’s something I would recommend testing when it comes. If you have a product or product lines or if it’s an introduction video, again, back to that AB test, alt text with a link or text with a picture of yourself saying, kind of doing one of these. Click that image to go to the video of watching a personal welcome message.
Well, you’re absolutely right. The marketer’s answer is always test, test, test. There’s not one size fits all, but you provided so many great tips today from the subject line, to getting in the email box, to how to structure your email and the content, and even honing in on your perfect who to deliver, like you said, the right message to the right person at the right time. So I could sit on here all day chatting about email because it’s a topic I’m passionate about, but I know our listeners, they heard that $20,000 that I mentioned at the beginning of the call. So let’s talk about that. I understand that AWeber is running an award. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Absolutely, and this is something that the team, we kind of brainstormed on how can we offer and give something back to the small business community because AWeber is a business. We’ve been around 20 years this year. So 20 years ago we got started and for 20 years have been helping over a million businesses, small businesses, succeed in getting into the inboxes. And we thought, how can we give back? How can we show our appreciation to the community that we served?
And we thought, hey, let’s get people to just share their stories. One of our core values is creating remarkable experiences. And we said, “There’s got to be businesses out there because we know them because we see them as our customers.” But beyond our customers, what are the businesses doing remarkable things? And let’s let them tell us about their story.
So we opened this kind of award giveaway where it’s, let us hear about your story. And a business can submit an entry and tell us in an essay format or a short video, what is your business doing to create remarkable experiences and then also tell us, if you were to win $20,000, how would you create an even bigger impact for your community, for your customers? We want to just kind of hear their brainstorm about how can they do even more. And we want to use this as an additive thing, not as something that’s going to detract or retract the progress of a business, but how can this be additive to themselves and their community?
So it’s been live now for, I want to say a little over a month, and the entries we’ve been seeing are just so inspirational, just the types of businesses out there that are just doing such great things. And they’re so inspired by just touching people’s lives in different ways that it’s gonna be a hard choice. It’s going to be definitely a hard choice to pick one.
Yeah. Is there certain criteria that you’re using?
So US only companies and must be what is qualified as a small business, so less than 50 employees.
Okay. That’s it?
Wow. So all you have to do with sort of state your case very shortly and succinctly of how you’re making a difference. And if you were to win $20,000, how you can make an even bigger difference.
Perfect for small business. Wow. Well, I don’t know if you guys are doing this or not, but I would love to see a gallery of everybody’s entries because that would just be so inspiring.
So we have 100 so far that have come through and January fourth is the cut off date for entries to let’s hear your story. And then after that point, somewhere in, I want to say late January, we’ll open up and pick up 20. We’ll have 20 what we’ll call finalists of really inspirational stories that really stack up well against each other. And then the public is going to vote and be inspired to vote on those 20. And that’s going to be a piece of the criteria to get to that final decision. We’ve got a panel of judges that represent the small business community, going to help us get to that very, very hard choice of picking just one business.
Wow. Fantastic. So just to clarify, you do not have to be an AWeber client to enter.
Right, any business. Customer of AWeber’s or not, we’re just ready to hear even more inspirational stories.
Oh, I am as well. That’s so inspiring. Congratulations for putting together such an important award and recognizing small business. So how can people learn more about it?
So real easy, just go to aweber.com/bigimpact. And there is the landing page, give you more about the contest. There’s a form there you need to give us your name and email to be sent all the detailed criteria and the form to submit your essay or your video.
Okay. And the deadline again?
Deadline for those entries is January fourth, 2019.
Okay. So we still have time.
Still have time, exactly.
All right. And how about AWeber? You guys provide a great automation tool that’s so easy to use for small business owners. Talk a little bit about that and how they can learn more.
Yeah. So as we like to say, we’re a little bit biased, but it’s a great time now to be an AWeber customer because of so many things we’ve been launching in the last, I’ll even say six months. Automation features, we kind of relaunched our split testing feature as well. We have a couple cool things planned for the next couple of months, but aweber.com is the best place to start. There’s a 30-day free trial for anybody who signs up.
And what’s interesting about our trial versus others is that you can actually call us during your trial. You don’t have to pay us more to get access to our team of experts. We’re ready to help you right now to get started, to answer questions you have, to migrate your list over from another provider. Our team, you don’t need to make an appointment. You can just do that after you sign up and we’re ready to help you. So aweber.com, sign up with information.
And what I will offer your audience, Stacey, is if anybody wants to just have a quick conversation about their business or is interested after they learned more about Aweber wants to migrate over, they can email me directly and they can email me directly erikh, and that’s firstname.lastname@example.org. Connect with me and I’ll make sure that we will … if it isn’t myself, one of our team members here will help get you what you need so that we can get your business growing.
Great. Well thanks, Erik. You’ve been so gracious with your time and expertise today. Do you have any parting words of advice for a small business owner who’s just looking to grow their business, but they don’t just have a lot of time to sit there and figure it all out? What would your parting words of advice be?
Yeah, the time thing is tough. There’s a great quote by Seth Godin that is, “You don’t need more time. You just need to decide.” And when I always hear that, I always think of, is there a 30 minutes a week you could dedicate to just trying to figure it out or 30 minutes a week to write that email, or 30 minutes a week to send or schedule that email to go out next week? It only has to be 30 minutes.
Or if you don’t even know where to get started, dedicate 30 minutes to call whoever it is your provider is or try to get educated before investing more time because a lot of people say they just kind of getting this whirlwind of, I just get lost and frustrated, but if you chunk it out to just commit yourself to just 30 minutes, set a timer, do the things you need to do in those 30 minutes. And if you get it done, great. If you don’t, well, set another 30 minutes whenever that is.
Because again, schedules are crazy and everyone needs more time. But if you just maximize a piece of time, that can help you get over that hump. And we’ve all seen this, right? The compounding confidence is infectious, meaning once you to do something that works and you get confident about it, you’ll be more inspired to give an hour, and an hour and a half. And next thing you know, people are coming to you saying like, “Hey, how do I do this thing that you’re so good at?” So just give yourself, start with that 30 minute timeframe.
Great advice, great parting words. We’re going to end on there. So Erik, if people want to reach you, I know you shared your email. Are there other ways they can connect with you?
Connect on Twitter, and that’s just my name, @erikharbison in Twitter and LinkedIn, just search my name and connect with me there. I am happy to talk email, digital marketing, anything, anytime to anybody because it’s just a passion of mine and I’m happy to help any way I can.
Great. Well, thanks for coming on today, Erik. You provided really great information, so helpful to the small business community. Keep pushing on and doing what you guys do best over there.
My pleasure, and thanks Stacey for having me on.
You’re welcome. All right, everybody. This is Small Business Stacey, your Small Biz Marketing Specialist here to help you get your marketing into action and help you become a #SmallBizMarketingWiz.
Stacey Riska, aka "Small Business Stacey" is a serial entrepreneur who is passionate about saving small - and not so small - businesses one marketing plan at a time. She helps business owners become a #SmallBizMarketingWiz by teaching them marketing strategies that get MORE: MORE leads, MORE customers/clients/patients, MORE sales, and MORE profit. Stacey's in-demand "Small Biz Marketing Success Coaching and Mastermind Program" is transforming the businesses - and lives - of those who want wealth, freedom, and market domination. Her highly acclaimed book "Small Business Marketing Made EZ" lays out the 6-simple-step plan to get your marketing into ACTION - literally and figuratively. Stacey is also the creator of Cups To Gallons, the place where independent coffee, smoothie, juice bar, ice cream, dessert and snack shop owners go to learn how get into lucrative catering so they stop selling by the cup and start selling by the gallon. In this program she teaches from experience, as it was the key strategy that transformed her coffee and smoothie business from being $500K in debt to a 7-figure profitable business. When not saving the small business world, she enjoys sipping red wine, eating chocolate (who doesn't!) and spending time with her amazing husband.
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