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Look inside any marketing or PR agency, and you'll see an abundance of data. From social media monitoring to sentiment monitoring, traditional media list services, and Google alerts—new tools are popping up each day to help marketers collect data. As a result, agencies are swimming in data, but that data doesn't always translate to insight, let alone intelligence.

In all areas of market research, there are growing disconnects between data gathering, data analysis, and action. There's little doubt that media lists, large datasets, and cool charts are important to understanding the media landscape. But, frankly, in the era of Google and social search, data has become a commodity.

Truly successful marketing firms can't just dump data on their client's doorstep. They need to tell clients something they don't already know by putting the information into a meaningful context, and then creating a strategic action plan based on that data.

In short, data is only as good as the strategic mind that does something with it. Understanding that is one thing. Being able to do something about it in day-to-day business is another.

Here's why...

The average PR or marketing job has gotten harder over the years. With the explosion of a 24-hour news cycle, blogs, Twitter, and countless niche networks and sites, there are more voices out there than ever before. The noise can be downright deafening. And marketers simply haven't had the right set of tools to cope with today's media landscape.

These circumstances force you into one of two suboptimal workflows.

Dilemma One: The Traditional Media List Service

In scenario one, you use a traditional media list service to gather a massive target list for your clients. This process is automated; it's fast, but it's not effective. By relying on fairly generic beats to describe a journalist's topical focus, these tools result in very large and shallow lists that contain many irrelevant targets. Just think about how many journalists or bloggers would fall under the "technology" category.

Drowning under such a large list, you have nothing to do but send out a generic pitch email and press release to all?the dreaded press release blast. Your message reaches people who have never covered your market and have no intention of starting now. This approach does nothing but clutter inboxes, frustrate reporters, and strain the relationship between PR and journalism.

Some clients may be impressed by the sheer numbers you've reached, but they will eventually begin to wonder when they'll actually see results.

Dilemma Two: Manual Monitoring and List Building

Perhaps understanding the inherent limitations of putting quantity ahead of quality, you set out to use some elbow grease to whittle down those massive lists. You diligently try to read posts from your top blog hits?all 1,000 of them, starting at No. 1. You set up a few Google alerts—and you're soon bombarded with updates, most of them irrelevant.

The result of all this hard work is a fantastically focused media list composed of wonderful, high-value targets... individuals who could really move markets and drive action for your clients. But there's one problem. It's 5:00 PM, and you've spent your entire day cultivating the list, leaving little time for anything else. It's little wonder, then, that so many agencies are stuck producing strategy plans far below their capabilities.

Moving Toward a Solution

Manual data collection is simply not feasible today, but neither is acting blindly. Yes, data might be a commodity, but it is the essential building block to any campaign. After all, how can you create an engagement plan without knowing whom to engage?

Rather than struggling with the old ways of doing things, you'll need some new technology tools that let you...

  • Create granular media lists based on specific keywords, not beat categories. The ability to drill down on specific keywords is critical to building a truly relevant media list. For example, consider the difference between searching for "iPhone games" vs. "technology" or "organic microbrews" vs. "food & beverage." Keyword-based lists automate your manual browsing and searching tasks to create a topically relevant list in a fraction of the time.
  • Rank targets by "influence." Though the concept of creating a digital hierarchy might be controversial, influence scores can help you determine where to put your limited resources and focus. But tread carefully. Using influence scoring is beneficial only if your scores take into account topical relevancy (i.e., what are "influencers" writing about), and encompass more than just the number of followers or fans (aka popularity). 

No matter what technology solution you use, it's important to remember that tools are meant to assist your job as a marketer, not replace it. The value you bring to clients is far more than your target list (no matter how long it took you to build it). Your value is in your creativity, your relationships, and your ability to craft and execute a plan. Fortunately, those tasks are far more fun than wading through vast media lists or spending days on end with Google Alerts. And they're far more worthy of your time.

By getting the right kind of help from your technology, you can free up huge swaths of your time to build relationships, attend industry events, design creative engagement plans, craft personalized pitch letters, and much more.

In short, it's actionable data, combined with your skills and savvy, that will set you apart and generate the results your clients deserve.

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Gary Lee is the CEO of mBLAST, which provides cloud-based solutions to help PR and marketing professionals better identify and engage with their key influencers.