I've written in the past that big data is a big deal, and in the words of marketing technology specialist Robert Cole, "too bad the vast majority of business leaders have no clue what it is, how to use it, or why it's important to their businesses."

So what is it, exactly, besides this year's hottest marketing buzzword? I conducted some "little data" brain-picking with Cole.

Why is the concept of big data so ignored or misunderstood by business leaders?  What's the No. 1 frequently asked question about big data you hear?

Cole:  The concept of big data is simple when put in the context of three "V's:" volume, velocity or variety. That's  information that is too big, too fast, or too weird to fit in a conventional database. IBM, which knows a lot about big data, has added a fourth (and most important) "V:" veracity. With research indicating one-third of business leaders don't trust the information they use to make decisions, the most important aspect of big data is how it is used to gain greater insight and make better decisions.

What should small- and medium-sized businesses look for in big data tools they can embrace right now?

RC:  While the tools within reach of small businesses now may not be as sophisticated as those accessible to big business, they all capture and organize a vast amount of valuable data, often in real time. In many cases, they create value by aggregating data from a variety of data sources and translate it into actionable information. Without such tools, most businesses would have no way to capture, let alone store, organize or provide analytics on data sourced from websites, promotional campaigns, loyalty programs, sales teams, store traffic or revenue transactions. Adding the ability to track this data over time and against competitive benchmarks represents an even greater challenge.

Can you give me some examples of big data tools that are accessible, relevant, and useful for small and medium-sized businesses?

RC:  Sure, here are some great tools that provide access to extensive insights without outta-sight prices.

  • Google Analytics (Free) Your website can tell you more than you probably think if you know what to look for.
  • SumAll (Free/Beta)--For online businesses that rely on customer engagement and shopping carts and which need to pull the information together into a dashboard to benchmark and compare data for sales, discounts/promotions, site visits, fans & followers, customer revenue mix and charges across platforms like Amazon, PayPal, eBay and Shopify.
  • SizeUp (Free)--Competitive benchmarking that even the U.S. Small Business Administration taps to provide comparison information on customers, competitors and suppliers, plus where to advertise.
  •  Yurbi ($300/year)--Business intelligence that creates real-time reports, dashboards, and metrics connecting together customer, inventory, support and transaction data sources without the need for custom programming.
  • FiveStars ($65/month & up)--Provides businesses with a customized loyalty program with access to customer profiles, targeted messaging and point of sale integration.
  • InsightSquared ($99/month & up)--Sales analytics for B2B businesses seeking to increase sales team productivity, understand activity ratios and sales cycle length and improve opportunity conversion.
  • Euclid Analytics ($200/month per sensor/24,000 sq ft)--Through the use of sensors tracking smartphone wi-fi signals in brick and mortar locations, this solution records foot traffic, captures new versus repeat store visits, frequency rates and visit duration.

What's the biggest pitfall to avoid when utilizing big data?

RC:  These tools all provide great value, however, like any tool, they are designed for a purpose and may prove to be useless if applied to the wrong task. Start with the questions that if answered, increase engagement, grow sales, improve efficiency or reduce costs.  Then use the available data to look for relationships between various metrics and performance.

The goal is to gain insights and make better decisions that are based on information derived from reliable data sources.  Big data is only a tool--it's not an objective.