How small business can go big data

Just because you're a small business doesn't mean you can't tap the benefits of big data, too.
Written by Howard Lo, Contributor

Big Data. It's quite the buzzword, isn't it? When I think of big data I picture racks and racks of servers in the bowels of a big company, silently recording every interaction we have, and then spitting out predictions like: "Based on buying trends, next year's popular toy will be plastic knives!"

This image is misleading though; it makes me feel that, as a small business, all these data tools are only meant for larger enterprises.

Plenty of small businesses are doing their own data analysis using tools such as Microsoft's Excel and Access. They note down a few inputs and over time can see trends. At my restaurant this comes into play when we look at the average dollar spent per customer, lunch diners versus dinner diners, days of the week, etc. You could say this is "small data analysis."

How can a small business use big data? Conveniently there are a lot of interfaces into massive datasets that are of use:

- Facebook. If your business has a Facebook page, then you're already tapping the reams of data that Facebook collects per user. Look at your page insights to find out demographics and other information about who is interacting with your page. You can also use their ad system to target specific groups of people based on interest, employer, etc. This is data that you're not gathering yourself as a small business, so it's great that Facebook can plug you into all of it.

- Google Maps, Yelp, Foursquare. Say you're looking to expand your retail business... Using these location-base service providers' databases and mapping tools, you can get a headstart on areas which may be underserved on what you want to provide, and also an understanding of the existing competitors and what people think about them.

- Libraries. Yes, I know this sounds weird but many libraries provide access to huge data stores such as Lexis-Nexis and other industry-specific tools. The librarians can help you navigate these tools to find out all kinds of information that may help with your business.

- Credit card companies. Another one that may sound strange, but in retail and food and beverage, there are lots of opportunities to partner up with credit card companies. They have access to customers' spending habits and data, and can help structure promotions utilizing that data.

What are other ways in which big data can play a part in small business? 


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