Five Great API Ecosystem Lessons from Evernote

Mark Boyd
Feb. 19 2014, 12:00PM EST

APIs are creating opportunities for businesses to enter new markets, extend their customer reach, and create innovative products based on their data assets and core functionalities. As they progress along this path, businesses often start redefining themselves as a platform: They see themselves as allowing customers to couple with a business' data assets and services via an API in whatever configuration makes sense to the customer's value chain.

The "platformification" of a business via APIs is a natural progression for those who have embraced an API strategy and have restructured themselves into the "composable enterprise." This language of becoming a platform has been taken up by API innovators from large enterprises (like AT&T) to indie startups (like Twobo Technologies).

Members of the team behind note-taking app Evernote have conceptualized themselves as a platform since they started. This has led them to a strong focus on using APIs to drive an ecosystem that ensures their app has a place in multiple-industry verticals, for multiple types of users. Platformification has been a central theme in how Evernote has approached the market and is obvious from the way the business has activated a global developer community via the Evernote API.

As DeveloperWeek continues in San Francisco, participation in hackathon sponsorship and speaker panels has given Evernote an opportunity to share some of their successes involving APIs to build a platform. Here are five lessons on building an API ecosystem into a platform, as shared by Evernote.

1. An API ecosystem can increase sales by 50%

Chris Traganos, head of Developer Outreach at Evernote, is clear about the business value of third-party apps that integrate with Evernote via an API. "We are seeing a trend where a person who uses another app with Evernote is 50% more likely to move on to our premium (paid) service," he told ProgrammableWeb. "So we are looking for apps that are complementary to Evernote and that create app pairings that let you do more in particular verticals: travel, education, and fitness, for example. Thus, Postach.io, Pocket, and Evernote make a really good workplace setup."

2. APIs can drive user engagement across the ecosystem

What seems to excite Traganos is that Evernote is not the only one that benefits from a vibrant ecosystem when Evernote is used as a platform that connects an app collection. "An engaged user is incredibly beneficial to both companies," he said. "It's like, if you cut cable, you are more likely to subscribe to Netflix and Hulu, and maybe you even spend 20% more on iTunes. We are seeing that with our app pairings. Apps that have an API integration with Evernote are seeing much more usage: Pocket readers normally read 15% of what they save, but Evernote users read 80% of what they save in Pocket."

3. Use analytics to guide interface design priorities

As businesses embrace a platform approach and extend their reach into multiple customer markets, there comes a point where they quickly need to resource multiple devices. The proliferation of devices is creating havoc for API developers who need to create different API services for each device that they want to target. Although there are those people like Daniel Jacobsen (from Netflix) who argue for an API orchestration layer that could speak to multiple devices via the one API, that is not the industry norm yet. "We are on every platform you can think of," says Jamie Hull, VP of Web and Commerce Products at Evernote. "So we are constantly looking at our analytics and looking at what screen resolution configurations and what devices we need to test on." Hull sees it as essential to make sure that the Evernote API is enabling a strong user experience, no matter what the device or screen configuration. "We are also working with some of the automated solutions; we do use a lot of virtual environments for desktop configurations."

4. Use your own APIs

Leaders in the API space all eat their own dog food, when it comes to their API. "Evernote was always intended to be a platform," Hull said. "We wanted a very healthy third-party developer environment. So we build with our APIs and make sure that they are the same APIs our third-party developers get."

5. Think platform first, user experience second, data storage third

"We really do think about platform first," says Hull. "We come up with the UX first. The Reminders project is a good example. We wanted to let users set reminders attached to their notes in Evernote for themselves. So we first thought through the user experience on different devices: How will push notifications work? Are we going to use alarms? Then we take those features, and we consider how we design the data storage piece; our platform team builds that, and then we build the client side."

Hull feels that this approach is essential when working with the increasing number of wearable devices, for example, where integration with Evernote will be possible. "Where we come down is that the use case has to make sense. We spent a lot of time thinking about what you want to do with Google Glass: Capturing notes and recalling notes are always our two primary use cases. But is that also true for a watch or for looking at it in your glasses? So we took a step back and thought, you are never going to use a full client on your watch, but what is useful? For example, say you were to get a reminder on your watch that prompts you to go and look up a note on a better device for user interface.

"[With wearables], we aren't there yet as far as getting that use case that will revolutionize use. What is the magic use case? What is the problem you are solving for them? The [wearable technology] industry isn't there yet.

"It's thinking about the form factor and wanting to make the experience great. If you are trying to take one application and take it to every platform without thinking what that platform could do for you, you will never get what will make it magic for people."

To read more about Evernote, see our coverage of their RESTless approach to APIs.

DeveloperWeek continues until February 21. ProgrammableWeb will be live-blogging throughout the event.

By Mark Boyd. Mark is a freelance writer focusing on how we use technology to connect and interact. He writes regularly about API business models, open data, smart cities, Quantified Self, and e-commerce. He can be contacted via e-mail, on Twitter, or on Google+.

Mark Boyd is a ProgrammableWeb writer covering breaking news, API business strategies and models, open data, and smart cities. I can be contacted via email, on Twitter, or on Google+.

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