One of the hottest trends in digital marketing – although it looks at this stage to be much larger than just a trend – is Big Data. McKinsey Global Institute defines Big Data (PDF) as “datasets whose size is beyond the ability of typical database software tools to capture, store, manage and analyze.” Data can greatly improve how your firm reaches people, and if you use it right, data-driven marketing can be incredibly cost-effective, too.

Organizations of all sizes are becoming aware of the value of Big Data analytics. IT research firm Gartner recently reported that analytics and business intelligence (BI) investments are the No. 1 priority for chief investment officers around the globe, and the Wall Street Journal reported last week that Big Data is even infiltrating companies’ HR departments.

So how can you get started with Big Data? Two years ago, we were asking ourselves this very question. We recognized Big Data’s potential, but we had no idea how to use it to improve our marketing processes.

When we began talking to service providers in the data-analysis space, we were shocked by the price tags that targeted impressions carried. (For those who don’t use marketing-speak every day: An impression is a “view” of an advertisement by an internet user. The targeted bit is where Big Data comes in – companies that provide advertising services use data analysis to determine customer demographics and browsing behavior.)

Despite the cost of targeted impressions, though, we knew we needed to be tapping into the insight that Big Data would provide. So we bit the bullet. Today, we’re glad we did.

Why? Because, quite simply, Big Data is giving us a much clearer picture of who our target audience is and how they think. Although it took time and energy for us to put in place a Big Data-dependent marketing strategy that works, we now know exactly how people are finding us online (and whether they’re just browsing or looking to make a purchase).

To any business owner who wants to utilize Big Data for marketing purposes, I would caution that it’s not a quick or easy process. Finding trusted technology partners is one challenge, while determining which targeting methods are most effective is another.

And I can’t emphasize enough the importance of using data-driven insights for testing purposes. Creative testing, for example, will help you determine which words (or combinations of words) inspire people to take action. Time of day testing is also useful, since it tells you when audiences are most responsive to your advertising.

Ultimately, Big Data is just a buzzword. On its own, Big Data is minimally useful; you need to use the data to test different marketing strategies and see what works best.

In my experience, the keys to developing an effective online marketing strategy – one that will have a measurable impact on your revenue – are patience and persistence. If you commit to using data intelligently, it will pay off. You just need to take the long view and be willing to iterate.