“Yes, we’re stalking you.”

That’s how one publisher puts it, referring to the amount of data available via mobile and social platforms, along with an ever-expanding online world.

Add those sources to an already-voluminous print database and publishers now have more information on their readers than they can even make use of.

According to the 2012 BRITE/NYAMA Marketing in Transition Study, there is near unanimity about the need for data-driven business. More than 90 percent of marketing executives surveyed agree that it’s necessary for success.

However, the report says, almost 40 percent also admit that their own company’s data management is insufficient to act on. More than a quarter of them are still basing marketing spending primarily on “gut instinct.”

Data Paralysis

The problem is merging and making sense of the information coming in from so many different sources. The sheer volume can be paralyzing.

Janet Donnelly, VP of consumer marketing for Meredith, says her team deals with more than 100 million names, some with up to 800 data points.

“We have a vast amount of data,” she says. “We have a lot of information on our individuals already, and most of those data points have come in gradually over the years and months, but with online, social and mobile data, it’s coming fast and furious.”

Working these new streams of data into the existing models has become the biggest task facing the industry.

“The challenge is not one medium or the other,” says Amandeep Sandhu, director of audience engagement and analytics for UBM Electronics. “The challenge is to combine various mediums and the extent of engagement with products and services throughout [a consumer’s] lifetime.”

Social data has proven especially difficult to merge with more conventional forms. Quantifiable social metrics like “retweets” or “likes” are channel-specific. They don’t mesh well with traditional records or even the information gathered from other social platforms. With their use expanding exponentially, that only adds to the quagmire.

Matt Turner, worldwide director of media solutions for MarkLogic, a database provider for publishers including Condé Nast and Rodale, says developing a database specifically for handling multiple types of information is the best solution. Forcing new types of data into older models or combining data from multiple systems can ultimately devalue the information.

“The hardest problems we have to deal with are the systems that attempt an aggregation, but do it in a relational way,” he says. “When you’ve got something that’s mushed all together, [the data] loses its value.”

The industry is in an experimentation stage now, Donnelly, Sandhu and Turner each admit. That makes the human element of data management—the ability to step back, assess the data, develop a question and come up with a practical solution relevant to the consumer—invaluable.

“We know it’s not only data that drives decision making,” Donnelly says. “It’s the intangibles too, like marketing intuition. That will allow us to deliver the big ‘a-ha’ moment.”