The Big Mac is a sandwich. Sure, it's big, but when you get a Big Mac, you know what it is and you know what to do with it: Eat it.
Big data is not as nice. You might not be quite sure what it is. You more than likely have no idea what to do with it.
Don't feel bad. If there's consensus on one thing about big data it's that it really doesn't have a specific definition. One of the best definitions I've heard is from Josh Dreller, analytics genius and the Director of Market Research at Kenshoo. He describes big data as anything too big to deal with in an Excel spreadsheet.
The scope of data being collected by companies today is mind-boggling. According to IBM, we now create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per year. That looks like this: 2,500,000,000,000,000,000. The amount of data we are generating is increasing at such an astounding rate that 90 percent of the world’s data has been created in just the last two years.
Now, what in the world are you going to do with that? Data is great, but most of us aren't actuaries and we've got businesses to run. What we really need is insight.
Luckily, there are tools out there that wrestle all this data to the ground and let you make some sense of it.
Here are five small things you can do with big data:
1. Explore trends on Google.
Google is one of the 800 pound gorillas in the big data space. It's their mission to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and usable. We all know we can use Google for search, but Google offers other free tools that can transform data into insight.
Let's say I sell bananas. I can log into Google Trends and explore related terms by searching on a keyword (in this case "bananas"). Google will instantly scour its data banks and serve up results of the top related search terms. I discover that "bananas in pajamas" is being search on a lot.
This is a business opportunity. I could use this insight, create fun content with pictures of bananas in pajamas, and attract new visitors to my website.
2. Monitor social media.
Keep tabs on what folks are saying about your brand, your competitor or other relevant terms for your business. Every one of them can be an opportunity to engage, respond, show you care, solve a problem or even turn a detractor into an advocate for your brand.
Last year, I posted a negative tweet when I had a problem with GoToMeeting. Within 10 minutes, they had seen my tweet, responded to it, diagnosed my problem, sent me a link to an FAQ to fix it and turned an angry customer into a brand evangelist. That's the power of monitoring social media.
There are many tools you can use to do this. If you work for a big company, you might have access to a professional tool like Adobe Marketing Cloud or Radian6. If not, a free tool like SocialMention.com is less comprehensive in terms of the results, but does a decent job and gives you a single view across all the places you might want to engage -- blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter, comments, images and videos. My personal preference is to go right to the source and use the "Saved Search" feature on Twitter.
3. Monitor your social graph.
Your personal social graph -- the people you are connected to on social networks -- is a powerful asset. If you're smart about social, you probably have connections on LinkedIn and maybe, Facebook, who you want to build relationships with. Perhaps they are potential clients, press contacts, bloggers or other influential people who could be a benefit to your business.
One of my favorite tools to keep tabs on the most influential people in my network is Newsle. It's a service that scours the web for content and matches it to people in your social graph on LinkedIn and Facebook. Then they send you a daily email with a list of what those people have written.
Why would you care? People invest time and energy developing content. Most will appreciate if you engage with it, comment on it or share it. This is an opportunity to strengthen connections. It also helps you understand how they think when you're pitching them.
4. Get your website quantified.
Do you ever look at your website traffic reports and wonder, "Who are these people, anyway?" Well, Big data can help you answer that.
Quantcast has a free tool that allows you to type in your website URL and get a free report that shows you all kinds of juicy stuff about your visitors. You can see the number of unique visitors to your site, how often they come, their gender, age, income, education, ethnicity, how many of them are on mobile, what cities they are coming from and what other categories they are likely to be interested in.
To get accurate info, you'll need to register to "get quantified" and put a snippet of code on your website, but it's worth the small effort. Once you understand who your site visitors are, you can target them better and be more relevant when you talk to them. You might even find a new market opportunity to pursue.
5. Don't just target. Retarget.
Cookies are everywhere. Their ubiquity has led to a complete overhaul of how most online advertising is purchased. We used to buy sites, or groups of sites that we anticipated our target was likely to be hanging out on based on their demographic or psychographic profile. Today, more and more, we buy groups of individuals based on cookie data on a broad range of sites across the internet. There are dozens of companies that collect data on hundreds of millions of people and then sell it so you can enhance the targeting of your display advertising.
One of the great techniques you can use is called retargeting. You can work with a company like RocketFuel to cookie people when they visit your site and then serve them ads to remind them to come back later on. It's a great technique to maximize your close rates on people who have "raised their hand" by visiting your website.
Of course, they haven't actually raised their hand, so you'll want to be careful not to overexpose them to your ads in the days and weeks to follow. There's a fine line between serving up highly relevant ads and being a creepy stalker. The last thing you want to do is annoy potential customers, but adding retargeting to your marketing mix if you're not already is a sure way to lift conversion rates for your online ad buys.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.