As buzzwords go, big data is currently one of the most powerful--and one of the most perplexing. It sounds like something only multinational conglomerates can afford. But the concept of analyzing very large amounts of data and looking within it for patterns, trends, and insights is one that nearly any business, large or small, can use to help make better decisions.
The big data you might not know you have
Chances are, you're already processing big data, even if you aren't aware of it. If you have a website, you probably use a tracking system like Google Analytics to help you determine who's coming to your site, what pages they're looking at, and what its overall traffic patterns are like. This is, in simple terms, big data in action. You'd never manually download your Web server's log files and pore through them, entry by entry. You need to step back and let a big-data tool--in this case, Google Analytics--help you make sense of it and present the insights in a more visual, easily understood way.
The key word in "big data" is big: The more data you have, the better it works. Want to gain insights into your finances? A few hundred sales records might tell you something, but a few million will turn up more trends and help you gain a deeper understanding of where your money is coming from. Want to get a bird's-eye view of your customer base? Thousands of customers and prospects fed into a big-data tool will be more valuable than an analysis of, say, your top ten buyers.
How small companies are profiting from big data
The goal of any big-data effort is to improve your business. If you've traveled through a major airport lately, for instance, you've probably seen Vino Volo, a small chain of wine bars that can now be found in 28 airports. Vino Volo is using big data in the form of a mobile app developed by Punchh, which works as a loyalty program and referrals system.
Punchh co-founder Sastry Penumarthy says Punchh "crunches lots of real-time data from mobile, social, and POS to automatically provide brands (in real-time) 360-degree insights about their customers and stores, including visits by location and time of day, orders including specific menu items, reviews and sentiments of reviews, and campaign response rates," among other insights.
Riviera Partners uses big data for recruiting. The job placement company keeps a huge database of potential candidates that is constantly being updated. Searching this database for the right candidate involves not merely searching for keywords on resumes but by aggregating its own data on a candidate and cross-referencing it with public information (like LinkedIn profiles). Candidates are then scored based on all of these factors on a job-by-job basis before being further vetted and presented to the client.
How can your small business use big data?
If you're a typical small business, just crunching along from day to day without any real strategic direction, the ability to finally get your arms around your business by digging into the data you already have probably sounds enticing. But big-data service providers don't make it easy. There are literally hundreds of companies out there, all of which promise to open your eyes to your company's future by "harnessing big data."