This content is sponsored by Iron Mountain

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This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.

Why big data is a big deal—even for small businesses

If you run a business, you’ve heard all the rage: Big Data is a big deal. But it only applies to big businesses, right? Target. Google. AT&T. Verizon. Apple. Comcast. Wal-Mart. They’re the ones who want our data so they can track our shopping, target us with Facebook ads, and understand our spending habits.

Wrong. If you run a small business—a non-profit, a law office, a medical supply company, a tech start-up—and you’re not thinking like a big one when it comes to data, you could be missing out on real growth opportunities. It’s never been easier or more affordable to learn which social media posting performed the highest, or what call-center interactions ended with the best outcome and why, or how to cross-reference your customers information with a government database to learn more about them.

“Companies who capture data that drives critical processes within their organization have an advantage over their competitors that don’t,” says Matt Booterbaugh, a senior operations head at the Boston-based records-management leader Iron Mountain, which helps companies of all sizes collect, manage, and protect data.

Big Data has a place in businesses of all sizes that are interested in learning more about their customers, but there is a reason it scares some businesses off: Every headline about a data breach, like the massive ones suffered by Yahoo, makes business owners wary of collecting and holding their customers information for fear that one day hackers will get it.

“I think the term Big Data intimidates many small businesses because they think it is only applicable to big businesses, but that is not the case,” says Susan Solovic, a small business expert and the author of It’s Your Biz

What exactly is Big Data? It refers to any information a business can gather and use to make strategic business decisions. Because of today’s digital tracking technology, the data that a business collects can come in large volumes, making it unwieldy to handle, store, and, most importantly, analyze. And the amount of information isn’t going to abate any time soon. According to DM News, a marketing analysis research and content site, the amount of information that we create doubles every 12 to 18 months.

So if Big Data isn’t going anywhere, how do you make it work for your small business?

It’s one thing to collect it, but it’s useless if you just let it sit there in a file on your laptop or in the cloud. The research firm Gartner estimates that more than 85 percent of Fortune 500 companies fail to use Big Data to gain an edge on their competition. “The data with no action is worth nothing,” says Solovic. “You need to drill down to glean information about your customer’s actions and habits so you can make well-informed decisions.”

For example, to learn how to engage your market, study your social media metrics or Google analytics and analyze which posts generated the most shares or visits to your site. That doesn’t cost a penny, but it’s invaluable information. What call-to-action received the biggest response: Promoting a sale? A new product line? A flash promotion? A store opening? If it worked once, do it again.

These are easy and affordable ways to delve into Big Data and learn more about what resonates with the market you serve as well as create more advertising, offers, and social media content that makes an impact with your customers.    

And something to remember: The data doesn’t only have to come from outside your organization. Collecting information from internal processes, such as managing your customer contracts, can prove just as valuable, according to Booterbaugh.

Using the management of customer contracts as one example—and securely storing the information you collect from a contract is critical—Booterbaugh says Iron Mountain helps clients analyze key data from these digital contracts. Pricing, negotiation timelines, contract execution dates, contract term, contract access, and renewal details are all key pieces of data Iron Mountain can help a business study and utilize.  

“By capturing these specific data points, organizations have their latest pricing trends at their fingertips, which leads to a better understanding of the average time to execution for contracts,” Booterbaugh says. “This, in turn, enhances financial forecasting and allows companies to set alerts for upcoming renewals well in advance and allocate time for account strategy sessions—all while knowing when customers are accessing and reviewing the contract.”

If you’re in a highly competitive industry, having any or all of these numbers on hand can give a business an edge to make informed critical decisions.

As valuable as it is to collect the data, it’s even more important to secure it. Really secure it.

Here are a few simple but key steps to help any business that wants to go big on Big Data:

  • Before you collect data from customers, consult with an attorney and a cyber-security expert.
  • Place a privacy policy agreement (written by an attorney) on your website that visitors can read before entering their email address or any other information.
  • Make it easy for customers to unsubscribe or opt-out.
  • Partner with a licensed, trusted company on securing the data.

Businesses that don’t uphold privacy standards can face federal or state fines—and it can tarnish your business’s reputation. Once you have the information that customers have trusted you with, make sure it’s protected. If Target or LinkedIn can have their data breached, so can your small business.

But once you start harnessing the power of both external and internal data and ensure it’s secure, you can begin to make more educated and deliberate decisions on the future of your business.

“Too often, we are guilty of throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks,” says Solovic.  “Big data helps make the decision-making process more precise.”

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.