Six Great Ways to Increase API Adoption

Adam DuVander
Mar. 19 2014, 09:00AM EDT

For a public API, adoption is key. Finding the right developers can be resource-intensive. Few can afford to blanket the web and every conference in advertising. Even if you could, the results might not be nearly as good as the methods covered below. In this post, I’ll provide an overview of five or six ways to increase API adoption, along with specific tactics within each strategy.

1. Create a popular product

There’s really no better catnip for developers than a product that is popular with end users. A successful site or mobile app means that anything a developer builds with that API will have a greater chance at being seen by those users.

The breakout social APIs are also popular social networks. Twitter, Facebook and even LinkedIn get a lot of developer interest. That’s because hundreds of millions of users maintain profiles and engage with the networks. Therefore, it’s worth noting that a popular product is the absolute best way to increase API adoption. Since creating something so many want to use is easier said than done, perhaps consider the other methods below.

2. Find your community

No matter your API, there is likely a community that wants to use it. If you find this community, you can determine what it loves and give it more of that. Even better, you can identify prototypical members of the community and find more of them, growing your numbers.

Here are some places to look for your community of developers:

  • Hackathons: These events, usually over a weekend, bring coders together to make something new in a short period of time. Often, API providers will sponsor the events in trade for the opportunity to show their API. The best companies take this opportunity to learn where developers get stuck and also what they love about each API.
  • Conferences: You have knowledge to share about your industry. Offer to speak at conferences to share this knowledge. This is an opportunity to reach new developers who have never heard of your API. To get the most out of a conference talk, be sure to not just sell your API, but help the audience understand an issue or solve a problem.
  • Meetups: If you’ve never spoken at a conference before, it can be easier to get a speaking slot at a developer meetup. Also, where you often will have to travel for a hackathon or conference, there are likely meetups nearer to your home town. Many times this will also be the fewest number of people, but the upside there is it’s easier for you to figure out what the audience wants.

These are just a few of the places where you’ll find your community in person. This method involves travel, it’s time-intensive and difficult to track. It can also pay the highest dividends, because once a community it built, it’s incredibly loyal.

3. Develop your business

APIs are partnership lubricant. Business development involves making relationships with other companies and creating a win-win situation. With an API on one or both sides, the end game can be executed quickly.

Two common places for biz dev opportunities:

  • Customers-in-common: If a type of customer is likely going to use the products of both companies, a partnership makes a lot of sense. The Small Business Web is a trade association founded on this exact opportunity. There are many small businesses using SaaS products, and APIs go hand-in-hand with SaaS.
  • App stores: It’s not just for mobile anymore. There are app stores galore and these are a common way to expose integrations to end users. Again, connecting two APIs is often not the difficult part. It’s the agreement between the companies and the promotion that can be hard. App stores make both of these easier.

Like community, there’s a lot more to business development than is listed above. Get creative and you’ll find potential partners everywhere you look.

4. Share knowledge

Content marketing is the buzzword for this method to increase API adoption. For a technical audience, it goes further than whitepapers and blogging, although both can be incredibly effective.

Some other ways to share knowledge:

  • Documentation: Your docs are the most important content you can create. Complete and accurate documentation is the most important factor in evaluating an API, according to a developer survey. Give it the attention it deserves.
  • Tutorials: Developers are creative people. Still, it helps to be shown the possibilities. Tutorials can show off common or unique use cases. This is also a great opportunity to show off your partners or potential partners by writing integration tutorials. And there’s no need to only share tutorials on your own site—submit them to other publications and spread your knowledge.
  • Guest posts: Along the lines of writing tutorials for publication on someone else’s website, you can do the same with guest blog posts. Once a link-building method that’s now discouraged, guest posts are still great ways to share your message to a new audience. Also, publishers are always looking for great content from new sources.

Perhaps I’m biased because this is what I do, but from my perspective, content is the best way to scale your message. Do it in a way that teaches developers and respects their time, and it will pay long-term dividends.

5. Sell your API

For some types of APIs, traditional sales is an option. This usually works best if there’s truly an API you’re selling—that is, you charge money for it. While developers don’t like the hard sell, the best salespeople know that solving a problem is the best way to earn a sale.

Consider looking here for sales leads:

  • Your signups: Do you run a freemium API, or do you at least have an free trial for your API? These could be your best sales leads, because they’ve already qualified themselves as interested in your exact service. The next step is to find out whether your pricing tiers are enticing enough to pay up. A salesperson can help answer questions and show why it makes sense to go paid.
  • Your content: Give developers a chance to self-select while they explore your content. You can be as explicit as a “contact sales” form, or offer other ways to stay in touch, such as a newsletter. If your content is fully explaining what you offer and speaking from a technical perspective, developers will want more of it.
  • Your community: That group of loyal developers could be potential leads. Beware of tapping this group too heavily, as the non-sales-y actions of community development can run counter to the sales process.

In addition to the above, you can experiment with many paid channels, such as advertisements and sponsorships. These can get you a lot of awareness quickly, but if you aren’t sure exactly what type of developer is your customer, you could spend more money than necessary to find out.

6. Contribute to open source

This final method to increase API adoption may seem counter-intuitive, because in some cases APIs are juxtaposed to open source. However, the two share an ethos and can be complementary.

Some ways open source can help your API:

  • Give back and get back: There’s a good chance that you use open source software in your product. By contributing back to the project, you’re making better software available to all. You could also make your company known as an expert in the project. If it’s related to your product, you’ll find the open source community may become your API community.
  • Incorporate your API into projects: If your product can be used in tandem with a piece of open source software, it may make sense to add support for your API directly into the open source project. Beware of being self-serving. Your aim is to help the greater community while increasing your API adoption.
  • Make your product open source: It’s becoming less radical, but making your software open source can increase adoption of those willing to pay for your product. Sometimes what developers pay for changes when a product is open source. For example, support is a common lever for open source companies. But in many cases, developers may discover an open source project but then realize that paying an expert to host the software makes more sense than hiring their own experts.

If you want to take the open source route, you need to have developers on staff who understand the open source community.

All of these ways to increase API adoption hinge on the same principal. If you understand a developer’s problem, you’re much more likely to be able to solve it. Helping a developer is the key to API adoption. These five or six ways to approach developers should get you on your way toward that end goal.

Adam DuVander is Developer Communications Director for SendGrid and Contributing Editor at ProgrammableWeb. Previously he edited this site and wrote for Wired. You can follow him on Twitter.

Adam DuVander Hi! I'm Developer Communications Director for SendGrid and former Executive Editor of ProgrammableWeb. I currently serve as a Contributing Editor. If you have API news, or are interested in writing for ProgrammableWeb, please contact editor@programmableweb.com Though I'm a fan of anything API-related, my particular interest is in mapping. I've published a how-to book, Map Scripting 101, to get anyone started making maps on websites. In a not-so-distant past life I wrote for Wired and Webmonkey.

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