Small Business, Big Data, and the Myth of Self-Service Analytics

Successful SME marketers thoroughly understand what it takes to compete: a strong website, content strategy, CRM, and multichannel engagement plan. But as all the tactics stack up, so does the data. It’s harder and harder to know what works and which steps in the customer journey are most important.

This is not a new problem, but it is one that large enterprises have largely solved by investing in big data strategy and analytics platforms. According to IDG, 78 percent of large businesses see data strategy as central to changing how they do business — and getting a competitive advantage.

Maggie Chan Jones, CMO at software behemoth SAP, couldn’t have summarized the SME analytics challenge better:

“Small businesses, despite an increasing use of software resources, are not reaping the same benefits of being digitally interconnected, in real time… There’s a perception that only large organizations can afford analytics platforms, and that the ROI simply doesn’t warrant the cost. While this may have been true in the early days of big data, it simply isn’t true today.” — AdAge, March 8, 2017, “It’s Time for Small Business to Embrace Big Data

So how can small businesses compete?

Ms. Jones believes the solution is self-service analytics (like SAP’s own offering). Now platforms like Domo, ClearStory, and Tableau with lower cost base and more flexibility than legacy analytics systems open up the possibility of “democratized data.” Gartner is also on board with this trend, projecting that 80 percent of enterprise reporting will be self-service by 2020. The market is gaining so much traction that PC Magazine has a ratings table of the top self-service systems. The vast number of new software solutions gives the impression that there must be one just right for every use case.

But is self-service analytics a panacea for SME marketing?

My colleagues and I at Deducive don’t think so, and neither does the Brent Dykes, Director of Data Strategy at Domo, one of the biggest self-service players:

“Self-service analytics is not going to magically transform all of your employees into “citizen” data scientists.” — Forbes, November 15, 2016 “Self-Service Analytics And The Illusion Of Self-Sufficiency

And Bernard Marr, author of Data Strategy, agrees:

“Self-service analytics should be a complement to a data science team, not a replacement.” — Forbes, October 25, 2016 “Why We Must Rethink Self-Service BI, Analytics And Reporting

In our view, for SME marketers to get a competitive advantage — and justify the ROI of big data — analytics must be approached with laser focus to answer specific questions. Also, rather than building generalized analytics capability, SMEs should look to industry-specific tools. What moves the needle in the beverage industry will matter little to an insurance business. And the most important competitive advantages, such as predictive modeling driven by machine learning algorithms, need to be even more purpose-built than baseline analytics applications.

To date, there aren’t many industry-specific tools out there. We need to build them.

(This essay was adapted from a recent post on