B2D Strategies Part 2: The Power of the Private Beta Release

In Part 1 of our four-part look at the developer experience and business-to-developer (B2D) marketing strategies, we reviewed the toe-dipping exercise of gauging developer interest in an API and how to use a landing page signup to better define potential developer segments — or personas — who may need access to a business' data assets via an API. In Part 2, we look at how two web services businesses, Unbounce and Wordtracker, have managed a private beta release of their APIs.

Unbounce — which is a landing page service — used the "coming soon" landing page approach to identify potential developers as part of a private beta release version of its API.

Working with Early Adopters

"We got a lot of feedback that gave us some ideas about how developers wanted to work with Unbounce, but not really the 'these are the clear endpoints I need' comments," say Aaron Osman (Lead Developer) and Carl Schmidt (CTO) of Unbounce.

"There's no super-clear ideas about what capabilities are needed," Osman and Schmidt share. They acknowledge that this could leave them stuck in a process where, without a minimum viable product, they are not able to gather the feedback that could help them pivot their API product to a clear audience. Instead, they have used the private beta to work with developers with specific Integration needs.

"Where we work with partners, we have been able to be clear about our integrations. With 123ContactForm, for example, they are a forms product that is very complementary to what we do at Unbounce, so they need stats and leads integration via our API," say Osman and Schmidt.

"Where it will get more interesting is then approaching developers where there is no direct tie-in. For example, could our API be used with Dropbox so that it is delivering a leads report as a download or drawing on image assets stored in Dropbox?"

Despite the early phase lack of clarity, Osman and Schmidt are confident of the process: "Getting any feedback will help us build our releases properly," they say.

The Wordtracker API Case Study

Wordtracker has recently just moved out of the private beta release phase to a general availability offering of its API. The Wordtracker API is designed for commercial use and allows businesses to access the search engine optimization service's 350 million unique keywords, and data on the average 3.5 billion searches conducted each month. Time and location data are also available by API for each keyword in the Wordtracker database.

"We decided to use a private beta model where a number of customers were invited to try it. We offered hands-on support as well as a generous allowance on a free plan," says Owen Powis, Senior Product Manager with Wordtracker. Powis has been with the keyword and SEO tool company for more than two years, and previously worked with a number of international brands to help them improve their online visibility.

"We're more used to working with customers on our console, the Keyword Tool. With the API, we could assume a much more technical user and higher level of knowledge around the basics," says Powis. "We geared the Documentation to this and it worked well."

Powis encourages other businesses to follow Wordtracker's three-phase model to releasing an API:

"We've found that an effective way to launch products is through a three phase plan, beginning with a private beta.

"The next phase is then to make our existing customers and partners aware of the product, so we had a blog post foreshadowing the launch, then one to announce its availability. As the private beta continued, we wanted to make sure we kept our customers aware of what we were working on and what was on the horizon. After the private beta, we then opened up availability to our existing audience. This is the internal launch, it helped to build buzz in the community as well as gather more feedback.

"Phase 3 has been the external launch. At this point, Wordtracker enlisted external marketing and started proactively pushing the messaging out to a wider audience. We know we have a rock-solid product and want to let the world know about it. As there is already a user base, it helps to give us a bigger footprint as there are already people talking about it. If you try and launch something from cold trying to spark conversation around the product, that can be really difficult. This way, there is already an audience there, talking about and using it," Powis says.

"For phase 3, we are commissioning some mashups of the Wordtracker API with other services to see what useful and new insights people can get out of the data. This one is still in progress but having something like this to base your outreach around is key. Just telling people you've got a new API isn't in reality that likely to gather attention, especially if they are not that familiar with your brand. Creating some data mash ups and really cool insights generated from it will be much more likely to get passed around and gather interest. Don't expect everyone else to be able to immediately see the potential you can, you need to demonstrate it to them."

This approach has been successful, with "lots of developers on board already, making thousands of calls every day to the API between our and our partners' applications," Powis confirms.

"One of things that's made our launch smooth and our first customers happy, is the documentation. We found Apiary was a great service for this and made an otherwise arduous task relatively easy," says Powis. (Apiary and developer documentation are covered next in Part 3 of our B2D series.)

"We also updated our API management Platform to something that gave customers better reporting and control over their usage. We chose 3scale for this task and it's proved to be a robust choice which is also very cost effective," Powis says. "Having these two things in place has made things go a lot smoother. We also use Ducksboard for monitoring and set up some widgets to track API usage so we get a real time view of our customers usage. That's been a great office motivator as it's up there on the wall for everyone to see."

In Part 3 of our B2D Strategies series, we will look at API documentation with Apiary.io and APIhub.

Be sure to read the next API Management article: Runscope's Sheehan: SDKs Add Unnecessary Layers of Abstraction