Let’s start with the definition. When the term “big data” is used, what does it really mean? Jon Miller, co-founder and CEO of Marketo, calls big data a catch-all term for very large and complex data sets that exceed the processing capabilities of the typical available computer software. In general, big data refers to the compilation of everything that takes place over the internet: transcripts from Twitter comments or call center conversations, online videos, podcast uploads and visits, webinar broadcasts, all blog postings, all website visits, all credit card transactions, all ATM activity, all online purchases, online advertisements, music downloads and photo uploads.

As regards marketing, big data refers to all information that details retail sales, online sales, market share, website visits, blog and newsletter reads from your website, responses to online customer surveys, online responses to special offers and online advertising, plus all marketplace and industry data about global, national and regional business conditions.

Whatever you need to know about your customers, the industry and the business conditions in which you operate is buried within big data. But in the avalanche of information, deciding which data to access and deciding how to interpret it is the marketer’s challenge. Determining the right questions to ask is the primary imperative, as the late management guru Peter Drucker pointed out.

If you want to use big data in your marketing plan, then propose questions that will elicit the answers you need to fine-tune your marketing mix. Maybe you’d like to become more effective in converting website visitors into customers? A list of the names of prospects who visited your website, spent more than one minute reading your blog or newsletter, forwarded your post to someone and then tweeted some content about what s/he discovered would indicate a serious shopper for your products or services. Big data can help predict which marketing activities are most likely to convert a prospect who has reached that level of engagement.

Google Analytics can reveal part of the game plan, but only big data can get seriously granular. For example, algorithm-based predictions can forecast the expected impact of marketing campaign activity on those who surf your website and suggest who should receive special offers via email or who should be invited to join a focus group. Algorithm-based predictions can also forecast the likely impact of marketing activity on revenue that will be generated in upcoming quarters.

Based on what is learned through big data, marketers can make highly specific and informed decisions about customer groups that have the most sales potential, strategies intended to build brand awareness and loyalty, advertising choices and budgets, social media choices that are likely to create the most buzz, the ROI of that buzz and the marketing message that drives sales.

Who will become your best customers, why will they become your best customers and what will be the average amount of money they will spend in your business? What amount of brand loyalty can you expect from those customers, what types of advertising will resonate with them, which social media platforms do they prefer and will those customers create good word of mouth for your products and services (still the best form of advertising)?

So how can small businesses and Solopreneurs access big data? It can be done by hiring a marketing firm that we most likely cannot afford, I’m sorry to say. At this time, big data is the playground of big businesses. If it’s any consolation, marketing firms are still trying to get arms around big data themselves. For now, traditional marketing analytics will have to suffice for the 99%.

Traditional marketing analytics remain useful and certain data we already own: sales data from our basic financial records, customer zip codes, popular service packages, pricing data and the number of Facebook and Twitter followers, for example.

Market testing is expected to remain a vital part of developing a marketing strategy, even when big data is used. Business owners and marketers will continue to measure the impact of their promotional strategies. Finally, whether big data or marketing analytics are used when devising a marketing plan, proposing the right questions is the starting point.