5 Ways to Increase API Adoption

Is your API an extra feature that you’re offering or is it the true added value of your product or service? Does it help develop a strategic partnership or attract new customers? What problem does your API solve?

When looking to increase the adoption rate of your Application Programming Interface, or API, these are certainly a few of the questions you should be asking. While APIs and the developers who use them may be working in a unique and different language from the rest of the business world, there’s no doubt that the formula used to grow the popularity, fan base and brand advocates behind a consumer product is the same when applied to the API economy.

Inspired by the talk given by ex-ProgrammableWeb editor and CenturyLink Cloud developer content lead Adam DuVander at the 2014 APIcon UK, this piece looks to offer you the tried-and-true principles of marketing, sales, customer service and brand advocacy that come together as a sure-fire way to increase your API adoption.

How to Partner Your API

Why do all the work yourself? Creating strategic business development partnerships is a logical way to grow your API adoption. As with all steps for building stellar API attraction, start by thinking about your customers. What do they need? Where does your API fall into their workflow? What languages are they using? Your objective is to find potential partnerships where your customers are, but where your competitors aren’t. Or in cases like Salesforce.com, perhaps where both your customers and your competitors are.

The objective is to find strategic business partners with a similar customer base that can add value to your current customers while you add value to theirs. Everything in the software-as-a-service (SaaS) and mobile app space is moving toward the streamlined, build-your-own experience. The API must be the driving force in that seamless world.

According to FreshBooks small-business accounting software, “We find that if our customers use any single Integration, they are three times as likely to convert to paid” from the freemium account. With customers reticent to let go of that seamless experience once they have it, it’s no wonder that creating a partner ecosystem exponentially increases product stickiness.

FreshBooks has taken this concept even further as a founding member of the Small Business Web. This is essentially a consortium of software businesses with a shared target audience and an agreement to work together toward a customer-service-oriented open Web.

The Small Business Web looks to create interoperability among its members as much as possible, but, like many clever strategic partnerships, it doesn’t stop there. While constantly thinking about the customers they have in common, they can work on co-marketing, co-branding and even partner sales campaigns that pull together their search engine optimization and financial resources.

DuVander also points to the AccuWeather website as a great example in API partnerships: “AccuWeather.com said that their approach to API is partner-first, not ecosystem-first. [Asking] who can benefit from the API they have, instead of being widely available and hoping that bubbles up.” He said a partner strategy is about targeting key players, not casting your net wide in an expensive and risky manner.

How to Sell Your API

Whether you want to or not, you have to pimp that API to your target developer audience. But don’t worry, sales hasn’t changed in two millennia. Always start your sales process — and your design process, for that matter — by asking what your user needs. This is commonly known as selling benefits over features. Then you tailor your sales pitch to position your benefits as a solution to those needs. This is particularly challenging when you have so many great new features you’re dying to show off. But developers don’t care about those shiny new baubles unless they’re presented as a solution to something they or their businesses are lacking.

But sales doesn’t stop there. In API sales it certainly works to offer a test drive. DuVander recommends mimicking the SaaS marketplace with one of its three pricing models:

  • Pay as you go, pay as you grow
  • A tiered payment structure based on volume
  • Freemium

The freemium model is a great way to offer a taste of your product without giving away all the milk for free. When done right, with full customer service, giving users a peek with freemium opens the window for an upsell.

In the IT world, sales is really customer support and customer support is sales. No matter which API sales model you choose, the first couple days of use are essential. From fantastic Documentation to responsive tech support online and on social media to intuitive tutorials, onboarding during those first few days should be your utmost priority to close a long-term customer relationship.

How to Market Your API

AdWords is definitely one way to go about promoting your API. With its measurable focus on analytics, it certainly attracts the developer who doesn’t fancy himself or herself a marketeer. But API marketing has to be much more than that. API marketing is building your authority through thought leadership.

Again, you want to help your target audience to understand a problem by focusing on marketing benefits instead of features. “As API providers, we don’t have to go with the boring announcement, but we can go with an approach that actually solves the problem, sharing knowledge, not sharing features,” DuVander said. “Don’t tell someone that this particular thing is announced. Instead, explain what it means to them. Explain how they can use it.”

Of course, in the API world, documentation is actually part of the marketing to developers because that’s where they’re going see how to integrate.

In fact, a survey that ranked what developers thought were the most important factors in choosing an API unveiled these top priorities:

  1. Complete and accurate documentation
  2. Service availability and uptime
  3. Service responsiveness and performance
  4. API or documentation changelog

Graph of important factors when choosing an API

Slide from Adam DuVander's presentation Top 5 Ways to Increase API Adoption

Making your documentation accurate, public and easily found on your website is a good way to market your API as reliable and conscientious from first click.

Similarly, augment that solid documentation with tutorials and sample apps to help steer developers in the right direction. “Not only show them what’s possible, but show them how to do it using your API,” recommended DuVander, with client libraries and software development kits “built and language-ready in a popular language that the developer already uses,” empowering them to plug right in to your API.

“You can also help your marketing department to speak ‘developer,’ and part of that is making sure your documentation is great and accessible,” DuVander said.

How to Build a Community Around Your API

Don’t forget that your company culture can sell your API just as much as the code behind it. Lure customers in by creating a culture of utter transparency like Buffer, blogging about not only what you’re trying to sell but the sense of community you’re trying to build.

Of course, building a community online and offline is often the most fulfilling step toward increasing your API adoption. This doesn’t mean vomiting everywhere how awesome your API is; it means talking about the problems your API looks to solve on multiple platforms. It means participating in existing online communities like Stack Overflow and Hacker News and creating your own like with a topical LinkedIn group.

And building a community around your API, of course, means still going to events, MeetUps and hackathons — you know, actually being a visible part of the developer community. And while you’re there, make sure your presence is known by constantly taking photos, tagging the people you meet and using the event hashtag or handle to show your support and be memorable. Plus, it’s simply the best way to grow that social following and influence.

How to Open Your API Up

You don’t need to make your API open source on GitHub. That is one way of getting some free press and certainly to appeal to open source zealots, but it’s not a business model that works for everyone.

DuVander advised “open sourcing all you can without your own service.” He said definitely open source your client libraries and probably your documentation. If you are so bold as to go the open source route, he said that if you “open source your secret sauce” then make sure you explain how to use it. It’s important that if you’re going open source that you’re still driving the narrative around your API.

You can also take the route of integrating with other open source services like WordPress and e-commerce plug-ins and add-ons.

No matter what you do, keep in mind that you are working to do good for your current customer base. “You want to be helping those that already use your service, helping them solve a specific problem,” DuVander concluded.

What’s the Right Formula to Increase API Adoption?

Most API teams have the principle of building an API audience ecosystem first. This means being active at hackathons and maybe posting on Hacker News and paying for some AdWords campaigns. We’re not saying you should reinvent the wheel. These go-to resources are also good places to be, but they’ll only get you so far.

By combining your usual API ecosystem tactics with the ones we’ve just offered, you not only attract the right developer audience, you attract brand advocates and long-term customer relationships.

So what is the perfect formula for success? If you’re focusing on how your API is a solution to your target audience’s need, you really can’t go wrong. Then, by finding the right combination of your own ecosystem, your partner ecosystem, marketing, sales, open source and contribution to the greater developer community as a whole, you will find the right combination for your own API adoption success.

Do you have your own API adoption grabbers to add? Tell us below!

Be sure to read the next Developer Relations article: 19 Secrets to a Kick-ass Hackathon