Is there a more ubiquitous buzzed-about term than big data? Everywhere you look, it seems, someone’s talking about how the massive quantities of information we are now capable of obtaining, storing and analyzing will revolutionize every aspect of our lives. In health care, for example, big data will help identify risks, point out trends, and offer groups and individuals first-rate preventative care. In journalism, getting a bird’s-eye-view of things will lead to much clearer analyses than those gleaned from talking to a few sources at a time. Other sectors, from finance to defense, are also entering the game, hiring data scientists and preparing for the world of tomorrow.
But what about small business?
In our zeal to crown big data the new king of big business, we’ve forgotten that small businesses have much to gain from entering the data game. Believe it or not, small and medium-sized businesses may profit even more from the the big data trend, learning to better understand their target audiences and achieve their marketing goals.
The Small Business Advantage
It is, first and foremost, a question of size. When a major corporation scans reams of numbers and produces a report, it takes time for the insights to translate into action, and that’s a very bad thing. Data isn’t an abstraction; it’s the collected record of human behavior, which is an ever-shifting, mercurial thing, dependent on many variables. To be truly effective, companies have to execute on big data right away, while the behaviors recorded are still relevant. Corporations find that very hard to do, but small businesses are just agile enough to roll with the punches.
But if size matters, location matters even more. To large companies, geography is perceived as regions on a wide corporate map. To a small business, geography is everything: its home, its neighbors, and its clients, too. Being able to draw localization information from big data can help a small business tremendously at every stage of life.
Imagine, for example, a pair of buddies, both college dropouts, who are interested in setting up some sort of shop. They have their passions, but they decide to go the data route and see if they can gain any insights into what sort of business they ought to be in. They do, and they figure out that there’s a lot of commercial traffic in northeastern college towns. No surprise there. Then, they look at several location-specific reports, and they see that one Vermont college town in particular seems to lack that seminal college town institution, the ice cream parlor. They take a correspondence course in ice cream making and open their own shop. It becomes successful. Their names, as you may have guessed, are Ben and Jerry.
Today the Bens and Jerrys of the small-business world have even more data at their disposal to help make up-to-the-minute and spot-on business decisions. They also have another tremendous tool: social media.
A Comeback For Main Street
As the co-founder of Offerpop, I’ve learned that Twitter, Facebook and the other pillars of the social media universe are very different from billboards where you hang your advertisements. They are, first and foremost, data platforms. They enable both the collection of specific insights about consumers and the dissemination of content tailored to fit consumers’ preferences and needs. Rather than just fish for likes or followers, small businesses can use big data to build accurate consumer profiles and create a long-lasting relationship predicated on mutual interests—which is to say, the only sort of business relationship that’s truly long lasting.
Big data, far from killing small businesses, is likely to return to them some of their long-lost glory. If the story of America in the last four decades is that of mom-and-pop shops pushed out of business by big box chains, the story of America in the coming years may be the reverse. Small businesses can, thanks to the wonders of data, once again develop that close bond with customers we imagine when we think about small town Main Street stores.
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