The Internet walks into a [karaoke] bar: “Every breath you take, every move you make...I’ll be watching you.

In today’s increasingly connected world, practically everything we do creates an electronic record. Every purchase, every status update, every Like becomes a part of the digital ether -- a tiny but permanent speck in the growing collective. And as organizations continue to amass this so-called Big Data, so grows the pressure to prove its intrinsic value. If you’re lost as to how, you’ve got a lot of company.

Here are three important rules to keep in mind:

1. Don’t Treat it Like it’s New

While being romanticized by a new/new-ish term is a pretty easy thing to fall victim to these days, when it comes to “Big Data” we really should know better. Companies have been analyzing large data sets for decades.

In other words: data have always been big.

Myriad social technologies -- blogs, geo-location, networking platforms, etc. -- have certainly sped up both the creation and collection of data, and our response has (naturally) been to speed up our analysis in return. But doing so hasn’t exactly yielded the results we’d hoped for.

In some ways, we are going in the wrong direction ... there used to be time to digest the information between data dumps. Companies would spend time thinking about the numbers, looking at benchmarks and making thoughtful decisions. But that idea of forecasting and diagnosing is getting lost today, because the data are coming so rapidly. In some ways we are processing the data less thoughtfully," Peter Fader, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

Tip: Don’t bet on a first analysis. We’ve been good at being thoughtful about data up until this point -- that practice shouldn’t change just because we’ve got more of it.

2. Know What You Know -- and What You Don’t

Let’s pretend you’ve been bitten by the Big Data bug and have decided, as a result, that a multi-faceted beast of an analyzation product is absolutely necessary for the future of your organization. You shell out the money for said product only to find that the information you really need to get ahold of is inconveniently dispersed, inaccessible or totally M.I.A. What then?

"Sure, if we could crack the code on big data, we'd all be swimming in game-changing insights. Sounds great. But in my day-to-day work with clients, I know better,” explained Deloitte director Greg Szwartz. “They're already waging a war to make sense of the growing pile of data that's right under their noses. Forget big data -- those more immediate insights alone could be game changers, and most companies still aren't even there yet.”

Tip: Move from small to big -- not the other way around. Before you go on a new mining adventure, do a simple gut check: how much of a hold do you have on the surface stuff? If it’s shaky, you’re probably not yet ready for a deep dive.

3. Have a Question (or Three)

Lastly, keep in mind that analyzing data just because everyone else is doing it isn’t the right attitude. Whether it’s one of customer retention, operational efficiency, or the general health of your business, you should have some question in mind. After all, if you can't define the goal of an effort, where’s the sense in pursuing it?

In an article from Forbes, Piyanka Jain outlines three basic starting points:

  • How am I doing?
  • What drives my business?
  • Who are my customers and what are their needs?

“Data doesn’t speak, it responds,” she writes.

Tip: Unless firms know which questions they seek answers to or what business objectives they hope to achieve, Big Data projects plain and simply won't bear fruit.

Stay Grounded

While social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are driving a lot of the hype around this topic, their lack of mention in this article has been purposeful. Paull Young, Director of Digital Engagement for charity: water, sums it up perfectly:

“Always remember that a Facebook fan or a Twitter follower is worth zero dollars -- it's what you do with them that counts.”

In addition to the three points above, it would do us all well to approach the importance of data analysis (whether it be big or small) without too much concern for the raw, public numbers -- alluring as they may be. Instead be thoughtful, and strategically consider the sort of customer behaviors that impact your business in a meaningful sense.

Editor's Note: To read more by Chelsi:

-- Word of Mouth: Content Marketers' New Best Friend