What is “Big Data,” anyway?
It’s hard to define, and made even more difficult by the world’s inability to agree on what it is.
One generally-accepted standard was laid out by analyst Doug Laney in 2001, and has been in constant use ever since. It’s called “The 3 Vs,” short for volume, variety, and velocity. In other words, Big Data is “a large amount of stuff, being generated very quickly, and incorporating a wide variety of content.” However, some people disagree with this definition, claiming that’s an oversimplification or that other metrics need to be used. Still others claim that Big Data is just “anything too big to deal with in an Excel spreadsheet.”
But no matter how you personally choose to define it, the truth is that it’s a catch-all term for any data sets too large to process using conventional methods. It can sometimes take parallel software running on thousands of servers just to handle it.
What does all of this have to do with your business?
It’s deceptively simple, actually. In fact, many applications for Big Data are in things you’re already doing. If you do keyword research, market via social media, or follow trends in searches related to your industry, you’re already using Big Data.
The internet, as a whole, is made of Big Data. It’s estimated that we churn out another 2.5 billion gigabytes every day, and most of it ends up here. If you use the internet–which you obviously do, since I haven’t published this in book form–you’re already interacting with it on a near-constant basis.
So, let’s go over some ways to do that more effectively.
Explore Trends on Google
Google Trends is one of the simplest and most well-known Big Data-related services, so it’s a good introduction to the topic.
For the uninitiated, Trends compiles information about who’s searched for what. That might not sound like much, but it’s an excellent indicator of which subjects are piquing public curiosity, and it’s been found to be a powerful predictor of trends. In fact, data from Google Trends has even been found useful in predicting the Dow Jones industrial average.
For an e-business, the ability to compare the volume and popularity of search queries can give you a good general idea of supply and demand in your field.
Monitor Social Media
There are tools that will let you search social media sites by keyword giving you, in essence, an up-to-the-minute picture of what people are saying about your business and your industry. You can have a constant stream of ideas and opinions that you can use to supplement your marketing research, clue you in to the current zeitgeist of your niche, and let you know how to adapt to the changing market.
The simplest one can be found on SocialMention.com.
A slew of other Big Data applications have been created just to help make sense of social media data, too. Datameer has a whole market of apps for this purpose. And more information on Hadoop – a powerful open-source Big Data analytical tool – and its uses as they relate to social media can be found at HootSuite.
Keep Better Track of Your Own Business
With a solid big data processor like Amazon’s Hadoop-based EMR, you can track your own expenses, income, and human resources down to the last detail. Companies that have thoroughly incorporated Big Data have found two primary benefits to their operations.
The first is in achieving better, fact-based decision making.
For example, UPS has installed sensors in more than 46,000 vehicles, allowing them to track things like speed and direction at any given moment. They use the (staggering amounts of) resulting data to plan the most efficient routes, and are working on a system that will redesign routes and configure drivers’ pick-ups and drop-offs in real time. The project has already saved the company millions of gallons of fuel, and shaved hundreds of millions of miles off of daily routes. They’re now working on using a similar system to analyze their flight paths.
The second is in improving customer experiences based on data on previous customer interactions. One of the primary values in Big Data is in accelerating time-to-answer. By using new Big Data technologies, retailers can create much better databases of common problems, letting them answer customers’ questions in matters of seconds or minutes, not hours or days.
Track People’s Preferences
Big Data’s primary use for marketers is in microtargeting. The bigger your data, the smaller you can target, and the more potentially crucial details about your customers you’ll receive. Credit card companies, for example, have found some strange and fascinating correlations when it comes to who’s likely to pay and who’s not. People who buy anti-scuff pads for their furniture have been found to be some of the most reliable bill-payers. An insight into their cautious personalities, perhaps?
Bringing in more information about your customers can also bring to light information and metrics you may have never thought to track. It can also tell you what kind of treatment certain segments of customers prefer to receive, and what other products they may be interested in. One familiar use of Big Data is in “Recommendation Engines” like the one Amazon uses to suggest things that you might be interested in based on your viewing history.
For example, companies like SAS offer services that let you create customer profiles that will help you deliver much more personalized experiences to certain blocks and demographics of customers. They also offer Marketing Automation services so that they can handle a lot of the complications of implementing the data they collect for you.
Quantcast, too, has a free tool that taps into big analytics data to give you some interesting information about your userbase.
According to NewVantage Partners founder John Barth, “there’s a phase of analytics that’s exploration and discovery…The phase in which you don’t understand it, the discovery phase, is where Big Data is useful.”
There are plenty more options, and I encourage you to spend some more time exploring and investigating them on your own. You’ll find it’s worth your time: according to MGI, a retailer using Big Data to its current potential could increase their operating margin by up to 60%.
It always helps to study how the big guys are going about things, then take inspiration from their approaches. For instance, you might want to read Fast Company’s case study on Amazon’s unique relationship with Big Data to gain further insights.
Big Data even has an entire range of fascinating applications outside the spectrum of what you may have believed possible. In politics, for example, some believe that presidential elections can be decided by analyzing Big Data. And just recently, news broke that a service called FiscalNote Prophecy can predict with 95% accuracy the outcome of bills in congress.
Overall, it’s easier to learn from the past than ever before. Big Data is the future, and you would be wise to start investigating and adopting it as soon as possible.
Now over to you. Do you have any more advice on using Big Data? Further developments in it that have you excited? Stories about how you’ve used it for your own online business? Tell me all about it in the comments.