6 Strategies for SMBs Using Data Visualization Tools

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Data digital flowHyperlocal marketing platforms are producing mountains of data for small business owners, but many local merchants aren’t quite sure of what to do with all the information they collect. Data visualization tools give businesses a way to explore the business intelligence information they generate, breaking down large tables of numbers and data points into recognizable shapes and graphs.

Although big box retailers have been using data visualization tools to make strategic business decisions for years — thanks in part to their large budgets and dedicated IT teams — small businesses have traditionally by stymied by the high cost and complexity of data visualization software. As those barriers come tumbling down, it’s finally becoming realistic for SMBs to access the same sets of tools that their larger competitors have been using for years. Here are six strategies for local merchants who are thinking about using data visualization tools for the first time.

1. Start slow before jumping in. “Traditionally, [business intelligence] implementations have a large failure rate, mostly due to not having clear requirements and expectations. The first step is [for SMBs] to understand what questions they are trying to answer from their data. Second, what data in their environment is needed to answer those questions, where is it located, and how can it be accessed? Before buying software, try to prototype a scenario in Microsoft Excel with a subset of data to see if the data you have can actually answer the questions. If you can do this on a small scale manually, then you can find the right BI solution to do it on a larger scale.” (David Ferguson, Yurbi)

2. Shop around. “I highly recommend speaking to the solution providers. If it’s a salesperson, tell them up front that you’re new to data visualization and want to know what it can do. Challenge them on how this would happen — they should be able to show you step-by-step how you would get some kind of insight, what you could do about it, and then how you could track the change. I wouldn’t stop with one company. Demo a few solutions — since you’re a small business owner, this isn’t about having the Rolls Royce. This is about getting something done simply.” (William Merrick, SOLOMO Technology)

3. Choose the right data sets. “Businesses should identify relevant datasets and make sure they are in good enough shape to be used. Data visualizations are only as good as the data they are derived from. Before pulling data into a visualization platform, businesses should make sure it is accurate and clean so they can get the best results possible.” (Troy Anderson, Qlik)

4. Look for real-time insights. “To many small businesses, measuring the effectiveness of a marketing campaign is a daunting prospect. Local merchants should look for data visualization tools that will give them quick and easy insight in real-time. The tool should integrate with their current data mining system and be accessible on their mobile devices. This way, they can focus on what they do best: running their businesses.” (Quinton Alsbury, Roambi)

5. Find vendors that offer merchant education. “If it’s not being used, it’s not working. Data analytics projects can only make an impact if they are well received by the business user. Education services can help get users up to speed on the platform so they are ready — and willing — to use it effectively. It is also important for users to have access to training materials on demand and have a community where they can ask questions to other users to further enhance their experience and extend their learning.” (Troy Anderson, Qlik)

6. Set aside time to make it happen. “I can relate to how many directions business leaders are pulled in, and generally they’re unable to just dedicate a resource and say ‘go do this.’ It’s generally one of the many hats that someone in the business wears. Since it does take some effort to do data visualization properly, without a strong focus it stalls. What we try to do with Yurbi is make the software piece easy. But, time still needs to be spent in order to get the type of results that can help a local merchant achieve.” (David Ferguson, Yurbi)

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Stephanie Miles is an associate editor at Street Fight.

Find out more about how big data can be used in local context at Street Fight’s Local Data Summit, taking place on February 25th, in Denver. Learn from and network with some of the top local data experts in the country. Reserve your ticket today!

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.