Big data might seem like it's something that only big business can make use of. When people first hear that massive volumes of information are being used to fight terrorism, cure cancer or predict the spread of Ebola, it sounds expensive, difficult and time-consuming. But that doesn't have to be the case. Huge datasets on everything from demographics to weather and consumer spending habits are freely available online - if you know where to look. Plus, the basic tools to make sense of the data are also free and becoming increasingly simple for anyone to use.
At its most basic, anyone who is using Google's Adwords to track what their customers are searching for online (as most businesses surely are by now) is engaging in big data analysis, often without even knowing it. However, too often big data analysis is being done in an infrequent, unstructured or ad-hoc way. Without an underlying strategy, you may occasionally get lucky and stumble across a valuable insight. But with proper planning and preparation, insights will pop up with far more predictable regularity.
In many ways, big data is suited to small business in ways that it never was for big business - even the most potent insights are valueless if your business is not agile enough to act on them in a timely fashion. Small businesses have the advantage of agility, making it perfectly suited to act on data-derived insights with speed and efficiency. As Duncan Ross, director of data science at analytics service provider Teradata told the BBC in an interview last year: "Big data presents many business opportunities. But you have to be prepared to pivot and follow where the data - and the money - takes you." It isn't just the high-tech arena that can benefit either - companies offering traditional trades and services have just as much to gain as Silicon Valley start-ups"
Great customer insight
Social media as a science
Social media is, of course, an obvious and potent source of data for any small business. All of the big platforms offer targeted advertising, allowing you to precisely target the age groups and geographical areas where your products and services will sell. But even without spending a penny they can be used to see who is talking about what - and determine how that is likely to affect demand for products or services.