How To Maximize Developer Adoption

Carlo Longino, VP of developer program services at the Wireless Industry Partnership (WIP), spoke at the API Strategies stream at Apps World in London on Thursday to share his seven steps for developer adoption. Many of these reflect the standard best practice thinking usually espoused for developer engagement. But across the day, API providers were sharing more unconventional and nuanced techniques that are effectively helping them build stronger developer relations.

Longino — who announced that WIP is the world’s first business-to-developer marketing agency — said that despite the widely acknowledged fundamentals of developer adoption strategies, many API providers are not using them when releasing an open API.

“Having an API is becoming a business prerequisite. It’s not a feature anymore,” Longino pointed out, showing estimates of the size of the international developer audience that pegs the industry’s workforce as somewhere between 18.5 million and 50 million developers. Longino argued that businesses need to connect with this developer market in order to foster the business value of APIs.

Businesses need to get better at targeting developers directly when trying to expand their API ecosystem, said Longino. “You need to convince developers to invest their currency — which is time — in your APIs.”

As had been discussed at several panels throughout the Apps World’s API Strategies stream that day, effectively building a developer ecosystem means identifying key developer personas and targeting those developers specifically. “First, you need to ask what types of developers are most important to you. Then you can have a better understanding of their needs and desires and how to service them.”

What Developers Are Looking for in an API Provider

Longino listed three fundamentals for API providers seeking to appeal to developers:

  • Credibility: “If a developer doesn’t believe you, then good luck getting them to use your product.”
  • Support: “Developers are looking for signs of support. Something at some point is going to go wrong, so developers want to know they can solve their problems quickly.”
  • Success: “Look to share details about how your API can help them achieve something. A lot of companies don’t have that understanding that providing an API is going to create a win for both of you.”

The 7 Core Developer Marketing Tools

Longino suggested seven key fundamentals for building developer community growth.

  1. First impression: “Make it easy for the right developers to understand what your product does in quickly understandable terms and explain what the developer will get out of it.”
  2. Product messaging: “Expand your value proposition to explain why a developer would use your product, why it is deserving of their time. Have a comparison chart to show how your API is different to your competitors.”
  3. Examples and case studies: “If another developer is using your API, that is a big statement. You want to illustrate how your API is working for other developers. Show the context of that API in action.”
  4. Registration: “This is something that seems really simple, but is by far the area we see providers screw things up the most. Amongst traditional businesses opening up APIs, this is often where the lawyers show up and want to ask for a whole heap of information before providing the access to the API.” Longino points to Stripe as a best-case example. Despite being in payment processing, Stripe allows developers to play around with the API in a sandbox environment with dummy data without registering.
  5. Getting started: “What is your time to first 'hello world'? How long does it take developers to start on your website, get credentials and create their first application? Test this yourself, as it is an illuminating exercise to really understand how this happens.”
  6. Docs and support: “We still see people putting documentation in PDFS.” Longino recommends including code samples and showing demos, an idea encouraged by Richard Mendis of mobile-back-end-as-a-service provider AnyPresence, who recommends including full source code for a sample application as part of the "operation delta" that makes developer uptake easier. Longino also recommends against setting up a developer forum (“an empty forum looks pathetic”), and instead to actively engage in existing forums where developers participate, such as Stack Overflow and GitHub.
  7. Libraries and SDKs: “Create the right ones for your users, but also signpost to open source projects and community-led libraries,” Longino said.

While these are all truisms in the B2D space, there are also limits to how much real strategic help they offer to newly minted API providers. The majority know they should do all these things, but which ones have the greatest impact on building relationships with the right types of developers that will help them quickly see their API integrated into new revenue channels or that facilitate developers using the API in new, innovative ways?

At recent conferences — including ProgrammableWeb’s APIcon and at AppsWorld, both in London in recent months — API providers with some experience in building developer communities successfully have shared some of the higher-value strategies they have used to create an ecosystem of applications, built by partners and third-party developers.

SEO for Discoverability

At APIcon UK, for example, Noam Schwartz, head of business development at SimilarWeb, talked about the power of search engine optimization as a tactic for API discoverability, and suggested that this is an underutilized strategy.

A quick look at search results for weather APIs, for example, shows that of the top 10 results, five are for specific weather API products, and the rest — including ProgrammableWeb’s category listings — are for summaries or developer resources.

Weather API searches have grown in the past two years, as shown by Google Trends:

A look at stats for the Forecast API developer portal shows that 15% of its visits come from searches for terms such as “weather API.” That could equate to around 20,000 developers finding the website each month via search engine optimization.

Weather — like mapping and payments — is one of the more advanced API categories, so there is already a lot of competition and some established players. But API providers working in a newer data and service delivery verticals can embed opportunities for discoverability in their developer portals by targeting potentially popular search terms.

Content Marketing

One way to improve search engine optimization is to ensure that there is a high degree of valuable website content. Having blog posts and tutorials has often gotten lost in the move toward API documentation and developer resources, but it's still a tried-and-true tactic worth keeping central to a developer engagement and adoption strategy.

Large API providers, like Twilio, when reviewing their developer engagement metrics, have found that blog posts are still extremely high value.

At Apps World, Devin Rader from Twilio noted that in many cases, the types of strategies that work to build a developer audience may be connected to the API provider’s specific business model and vertical. But it is true that for Twilio, blog posts in particular have been an effective on boarding strategy, as Twilio developer evangelist Paul Hallett pointed out to ProgrammableWeb before Apps World:

Our blog content is some of the most trafficked content on our website, especially blog posts that show you how to build new products and cool things with Twilio. We tend to find new developers to the Twilio platform arrive at our blog content first.

80/20 Split: Commercial Developers and the Long Tail

With six years experience of reaching out to developers, Twilio has also seen the maturing of the API economy through a unique lens. Its approach of helping developers achieve a quick win on "time to first 'hello world' " — in this case, being able to successfully get developers using the API to send themselves a text message — has resulted in building a strong and dynamic developer audience that quickly moved on to creating innovative use cases for using Twilio’s API services beyond what even Twilio had imagined.

Nowadays, newer market entrants like Saxo Bank — which, according to Apps World presenter Benny Boye Johansen, is building an online trading API platform — are finding that their main focus is about identifying the top 100 or so highly potent partnerships first, and then reaching out to developers at those targets in order to build their developer ecosystem.

It is a technique that is being more commonly pursued by a number of API providers. Traitify, Philips Hue light bulbs and (again) SimilarWeb all have processes in place to quickly determine the potential commercial strength of their newly onboard developers and will devote more time to working with these partnerships, while also providing engaging, self-service resources to the long-tail developers who may be creating quirkier, more innovative products and services with the API (and therefore, may be less likely to be immediately revenue-generating).

Mapping API Integration Processes

At Apps World, Jamie Parkins from JustGiving shared several insights into the developer portal overhaul it is undertaking. Its audience often includes charities and not for profits that may have developers or highly skilled nontechnical leaders who need to learn how to integrate the JustGiving API into their mobile strategies. Parkins is developing a series of flow chart and process-based resources to help this important customer segment quickly get used to using the JustGiving API.

It is a strategy that has proved successful for WePay. In May, it updated its API developer resources and included a number of step-by-step resources to help their customers understand not just how to use the API but to create the whole business in the market that WePay’s API serves.

These tutorial workflow resources walk businesses through how to set up an online marketplace or a crowdfunding site, the types of platform businesses that WePay seeks to serve. The upswing in website visits can be attributed in part to these newly published resources that go beyond tutorials on how to use the API and reach into how to build a whole business that uses the API.

As the API economy grows up, the sophistication around which developer engagement strategies are most effective is also growing. The use of API key performance metrics is still in its infancy, but in the year ahead, if presentations from APIcon UK and Apps World are any indication, we can expect to see a more nuanced set of recommendations being made available to businesses and new API providers seeking to build their ecosystems quickly.

Mark Boyd is a ProgrammableWeb writer covering breaking news, API business strategies and models, open data, and smart cities.

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