If you think you don’t know much about your small business customers, consider this. “Every time we perform a search, tweet, send an email, post a blog, comment on one, use a cell phone, shop online, update our profile on a social networking site, use a credit card, or even go to the gym, we leave behind a mountain of data, a digital footprint, that provides a treasure trove of information about our lifestyles, financial activities, health habits, social interactions, and much more.”

That’s Frank Moss, entrepreneur and former director of MIT Media Labs commenting on the explosion of structured and unstructured data about people – with no end in sight to its growth – that companies are mining to make business decisions. Big data is helping companies decide what products to bring to market and when, how to market them and at what price in order to increase revenue and competitiveness. Big data also can help you identify your most profitable customers, boost cross selling and improve customer satisfaction and retention.

Get started with big data

Before you invest in tools to help you retrieve and interpret data,  there are free tools and resources you may already have to get your small business started on the road to big data.  Here are several:

Social Media

If you have a page on Facebook – and as a small business you should – you have access to Facebook Insights.  It tells you about your followers and how much they like your content by virtue of liking it, answering a question, and sharing and recommending it. You also can find out who has unsubscribed from you page. Use Facebook Insights to improve you Facebook page with content that expands your follower base. Apply that knowledge to your marketing campaigns.

You also can mine Twitter for trends and to find out how your brand is perceived, how often your small business is mentioned and its exposure, that is, how many people are seeing the mentions. You can track the data over a set period – a few hours (something you might want to do after an announcement), a week, a month or longer. The data also can tell you what messages are resonating with your customers and prospects and what content gets the most response.

Magnifying optical glass with words idea on digital backgroundWeb Analytics

Google Analytics:  A powerful and free tool that tells you where your web visitors are coming from (direct by typing in your URL or referred from other sites, including your social media networks or online ads), what pages they like, where they spend the most time and how they move through your site from one page to another.  Google Analytics also tells you how effectively your site is at getting visitors to do what you want, e.g., download this video, click her for a demonstration.

Bing Webmaster Tools is another free analytical tool to help you understand what leads people to your website and what to change to increase traffic.

Use web analytic tools to make more effective use of your website for marketing. They tell you what content is of interest to your targets and what influences their conversion and engagement.

CRM Systems and other business software

You already may be using a Customer Relationship Management (CRM system) to help you manage leads, maintain up-to-date contact information and track sales and other customer interactions. All this becomes valuable data to help you identify your most profitable customers or what products are the most popular with a certain demographic. Apply the information to your marketing as well as new product development or service enhancement efforts.

Some cloud-based programs also offer integrated big data tools. Intuit’s QuickBooks Online is one, enabling you to compare the performance of your small business with similar ones.

Your business generates a lot of data. Use it to better meet the needs of your customers and improve your marketing efforts. In this way big data can help your small business grow in a big way.