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Information Is Driving Innovation, Ingenuity at All Levels

Small Businesses: Embrace Big Data

By John Costello

John Costello

John Costello

The term ‘big data’ is wearing out its welcome.

From Silicon Valley to Madison Avenue, big data has been in the collective conscious of the business community for the better part of the new millennium. At this point, it has been relegated to buzzword status in the minds of many eye-rolling small-business owners. The inability to see how big data can actually make an impact on the bottom line has led many to dismiss it rather than embrace it.

However, big data isn’t a term that deserves the disdain associated with hollow boardroom jargon. It’s time for big data to earn back the reverence it deserves.

Whether by texting our friends, posting a video to Facebook, or buying a product online, we’re all creating tons of data. IBM has noted that 90% of the world’s data was created in just the past two years. IDC predicted that, by 2020, there will be more than 44 zetabytes of data in existence. That number falls into a category alongside ‘infinity’ and other quantities that are large beyond human comprehension.

This data is driving more innovation and ingenuity than at any point in history. Researchers are poised to use big data to enable monumental scientific and technological breakthroughs that will uncover details about pre-human existence and explore the possibilities of artificial intelligence. Projects that have their roots in the scientific community are using an unfathomable amount of data to fundamentally alter the course of humanity and science. Small-business leaders need to take note of the science community’s devotion to big data.

The first and only non-human Jeopardy! contestant exemplifies big data’s crossover from scientific research to truly impactful business application. IBM Watson is a technology platform that uses artificial intelligence to reveal insights from large amounts of unstructured data. Most people think of data in the binary sense, but 80% of all data today is in the form of things like text, sounds, photos, and videos which computers could never easily read. IBM is using Watson to solve that problem and give researchers and businesses the ability to quickly extract insights, patterns, and relationships from this data. Its database consists of more than 200 million pages of documents taking up four terabytes of disk space. At one point, its database was home to a copy of Wikipedia in its entirety.

Watson has mastered big data and the necessary management of that data to search millions of documents to find thousands of possible answers, and redefine our understanding of the possibilities of artificial intelligence. Even if it yielded a couple of goofy incorrect responses on Jeopardy!

One key differentiator between the commercial and scientific approach to big data is that the scientific community has mastered the management of these unfathomably huge databases. But you don’t need to be an enormous enterprise with high-powered server farms and a staff full of STEM PhDs to make data work for you in the digital age. In fact, if you’re a small-business owner, you’ve probably already used the one tool that will help you embrace big data. You probably used it several times today.

Mary Shea, vice president of digital strategy at Springfield marketing agency GCAi, puts it simply: “the most powerful tool available to marketers is right at their fingertips: Google.” All that data that everyone is creating through their online habits is logged, categorized, and made accessible by Google. While it can’t tell you exactly who searched for what, it can aggregate data into highly targeted personas that can give marketers insight into what a specific segment of users tends to search for.

Google allows marketers to reach users based on their inferred interests and demographics. This is helping small businesses refine customer-acquisition strategies, pivot to new product offerings, and gain valuable competitive intelligence. Google even lets marketers advertise directly in its search platform. With all the data it has available, it enables a level of targeting and personalization that no billboard or 30-second TV spot could ever achieve.

It lets marketers and small businesses shift from a ‘spray and pray’ model of traditional advertising to reaching a precise buyer persona in a non-interruptive way that increases the likelihood of them making a purchasing decision. Google uses behavior and search history to categorize users as pet lovers, running enthusiasts, foodies, beach-bound travelers, political junkies, and more. Marketers are then able to use the platform to put the right ads in front of the right audience at the right time.

“While users browse websites, like JCPenney or Porter Airlines, Google stores an advertising cookie on the user’s browser to understand the types of pages that user is visiting,” Shea said. “For example, if a user views a lot of recipe pages or watches cooking videos, Google may put them in the foodie category and show them a more food-related ad.”

Terms like big data are used regularly in the media and in boardrooms, but small-business owners may not have realized how accessible data is and how much value they can extract from it. As more organizations learn to use data, it will be the most valuable currency in the coming years. Big data is truly one of the most significant and dynamic forces shaping the course of science, business, and humanity.

There’s no doubt that overexposure has caused the business world to grow numb to the idea of big data. But make no mistake, while big data as a descriptor is overused, big data as a practice is still vastly underrated by small-business owners and marketers — in other words, those who can benefit from it the most.

As an experienced public-relations professional working with global tech companies, John Costello has helped major brands and ambitious high-growth startups break into new markets worldwide with international launches, local market intelligence, and integrated marketing campaigns. In his current position as account executive at Boston-based Corporate Ink, he drives marketing and PR initiatives for B2B clients in enterprise IT, marketing automation, financial services, and supply-chain management; [email protected]

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