By Carl Davis, Chief Information Officer, Verus360

If you think big data’s purely a concern for big business, then think again. It’s not just for corporations with teams of data analysts, and sky-high IT budgets to match. It’s also invaluable for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) — and not as daunting to master as you may expect.

So what exactly is ‘big data’?

According to Gartner Research, it comprises “high-volume, high-velocity and high-variety information that demands innovative forms of processing for enhanced insight and decision making.”

The data itself can be anything from ‘digital footprints’ (left on websites, via apps and through social media) to transaction figures, public or governmental data and GPS records. In an era of instant communications, there’s a massive volume of data being generated globally every second.

What does this mean for business?

In a business sense, the term ‘big data’ tends to refer to not only the data itself, but also collating and analysing this information — from accounts and sales figures to statistics on client and customer.

According to a study by Research And Markets, the global SME big data market is set to grow at a rate of 42.9% in the five years leading up to 2018. It’s now seen as such a key factor for business that the European Union has even funded a multi-million pound project, aimed at enabling SMEs to analyse data via cloud computing technology.

How can SMEs benefit?

Data crunching is essential for boosting efficiency and productivity, tracking trends, engaging with customers, increasing sales or reaching new markets - and it’s surprising how much insight can be gained by digging deep into just a few data sets.

So how do you get started with big data?

A simple starting point is to look at the data you already hold in-house, which could be from spreadsheets, customer database, invoices, emails or call sheets.

Collating this via a simple cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) system will give you a clear picture of your customers and business.

Understanding exactly what people buy and when can help you control your stock and delivery costs, and offer well-timed discounts.

If you don’t have much in-house data, check out the Office of National Statistics and Data.Gov.UK. These government resources contain a wealth of professionally gathered data about every subject imaginable, from baby names to road safety stats. The insights, which are free, could help you plan and time your next sales campaign to maximum effect.

There are also a host of free online resources available to help you expand that in-house data, analyse it and gain valuable insights. Top tools include Google Analytics (for analysing your website’s performance and social media presence) and Similar Web - a user-friendly tool allowing you to compare your site’s performance against that of your competitors.

Hootsuite and Tweetdeck are the go-to resources for successfully managing social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook. By ‘listening’ to what your customers are saying online, you can maximise customer engagement and meet changing demands.

Google Adword Keyword Planner tracks online search trends, so you can build targeted advertising campaigns to drive traffic to your website. In contrast, Google Trends will allow you to analyse the latest data, to help you gauge consumer demand for potential new products or services.