A Marketer's Guide to APIs

describe the image The past few years have been a sea of change for marketers: as an industry we have experienced the shift from outbound to inbound marketing. Many have dropped their old roles of content interrupters for new ones as content creators. To keep up with the future of marketing, you need to understand APIs and how they may integrate with your strategies. APIs bring the knowledge of the social web directly to your marketing campaign or corporate website.

In order to build effective marketing strategies, marketers need to understand some of the technical aspects of how the Web works. While APIs seem complicated, this post will break down the information marketers need to understand.

What is an API and How Does It Work?

An API is nothing more than a series of rules. To be even clearer, it is an information middleman. APIs allow for an application to extract information from a service and use that information in their own application or sometimes for data analysis. In the plainest terms, an API is what enables "your stuff” to talk to "their stuff.” 

Why Do APIs Exist?

One of the first questions many marketers may ask is: Why do all of these businesses share their data openly, for free? The answer is normally, scale. As software companies like Twitter , Flickr , Facebook  grow, the staff within that company quickly realizes that it has more ideas than it has development time and resources. By creating APIs, companies let third-party developers create applications that can improve usage and adoption of the main platform. In that way, they are building a business ecosystem that becomes dependent on the data from their API, a dynamic that often leads to additional revenue opportunities.

APIs As a Marketing Platform

Marketing in an inbound world is about companies developing useful applications and services to sustain customer retention. Brands will need to move away from intermittently dropping in advertisements to become conduits that facilitate consumer communications. In that process, APIs facilitate the data needed to provide solutions to customer problems.

Understanding API Documentation

Understanding the value of a particular API is essentially about understanding what information is available through an API and how it can be accessed. To find this out, you can do one of two things. The first one is to ask a web developer to look at an API and discuss it with you. If you don’t have access or budget to use a web developer to do the initial research, you will have the second option—to do the research yourself.

Don’t panic. Many online services have good API documentation. Let's take a quick look at the Twitter API documentation as an example.

Twitter API resized 600

Much of Twitter's growth has been because of outside developers. The Twitter API started as a basic wiki but has now evolved into a detailed developer site that a savvy marketer can read through and use to determine what information might be available for a developer to use on a future marketing project. Looking at the screenshot above you can see all of the different categories of information available to outside developers. Once you select an area you are interested in, the page clearly tells you what information is available through the API. Understanding what information is available will help your determine if it is worth working with a developer to pursue the project further.

You can also check out the HubSpot API documention to see how you can build applications and integrations using data from HubSpot.

For Example:
If you wanted to show tweets on your website that included mentions on Twitter to articles from your blog, then you would need to understand if you could request tweets with only specific URLs from the Twitter API.

Check the Terms of Service

No matter the project, it is critical that you actually read and understand the terms of service for an API that you are considering using. Most APIs have certain limits and restrictions. If you don’t take the time to understand the restrictions of an API early in the process, you could invest time and money in developing a marketing asset that will be useless once the API provider determines that you are violating their terms of service and revokes your access to their data. Most APIs have "call limits", this is the number of times you can request information from a web service within a given time period. Again, please read the terms of use for any APIs you are thinking about using. These documents should clearly detail any limitations as well as appropriate use.

Reverse It

Developing on the APIs of existing web services is only the beginning. We live in a world that now has expectations of open and available content. The natural extension of this is for companies themselves to release their own APIs to allow their customers to develop applications. This approach applies to all businesses—not only those that are web-based but anyone who has a web-based tool or component of their organization. Obviously, this concept could cause hurdles for some organizations, especially from the legal department.

How have you seen companies using APIs for marketing?

Photo Credit: Robert S. Donovan