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The holidays are underway and 'tis the season of flowing eggnog, overgenerous meals, and contemplation of both the year gone by and the year to come. Reflecting on 2009, it's obvious that there has been phenomenal growth in the business of APIs with recognized sites Best Buy, Netflix, Etsy, New York Times, CBS Interactive, PayPal, LinkedIn, and others keeping busy ramping up their API platforms to extend their businesses in new directions.
What's not so obvious is that cool, compelling API offerings are only part of the equation. The true key to a successful API platform is successful developers. Launching an open API platform requires a holistic strategy that includes a value proposition for developers as well as your company, plus an actionable plan for cultivating a community inspired by economic opportunity.
Here we present you with some thought-starters to help you with your 2010 developer community resolutions:
Give the gift of self-help documentation and support
Developers are smart. They are motivated to find the answers themselves. Establish your developer portal as the face for your API platform. Supply effective tools and the latest information about your API to give developers the answers that they are seeking. Always start with a value statement about your platform that answers the question: "Why would a developer want to build an application on this API?"
Consider both new and experienced developers and cater the value proposition so you can provide a reason for developers to build once... twice... and keep on building in order to grow your application portfolio. Your portal is the knowledge gateway to your community, whether they are new to your API offer or seasoned partners who want to get the latest status and release information -"Gee, I wonder when that bug fix will be taken care of so I can pick up development?"
Achieve this by applying a three-pronged approach to your developer portal and community tools:
- Developers go to your forums to search for answers, not to ask basic questions and wait days for the answers. Optimize search and prune your threads so that your discussion boards are a living knowledge base of accurate FAQs for your API platform.
- Always add a status dimension to your discussion boards. Badges, exposing number of posts, and user ratings are a simple way to provide your most knowledgeable and active community members with a stamp of expertise. Offer small incentives to your experienced posters who are willing to handle the newbie questions. Their help will free up your resources to focus on the more complex issues. So keep 'em happy.
- Include an open source dimension to your tools and documentation. Solicit input and suggestions, verify and proof the activity, publish or deny the post, and alert the contributors of the action. Open sourcing allows your API platform to support a greater breadth in coding languages and get updates updated more frequently.
Above all, if you launch an API platform, support it. By establishing the developer portal you are making a commitment that someone on your team will be there to respond to the developer community you are attempting to grow. Always continue to monitor and contribute to the discussions, and provide updates when and where relevant. Stay factual, be helpful, and don't hit send if you're feeling defensive. Moderators should be strong listeners because lessons from your community are the best feedback for successful growth.
Marketing is not a bad word
Don't be afraid of marketing. Bad marketing is a used car salesman trying to sell you something you don't need. Good marketing is information you need to make the best decision. Developers may say otherwise but they do respond to marketing that gives them useful information. Elevate and showcase the voices of developers who find information about your API useful. In many cases all you have to do is add a dimension of developer participation in marketing you are already doing.
- Feeds, Feeds, Feeds. Customizable, automated, real-time feeds. Blogs, Twitter, and RSS status alerts are simple to implement and create a stream of multi-channel activity that can be maintained with a lean team. Additionally, comments, re-tweets, and @replies are easy ways to track community interest, opinions, and trends.
- Be sure to list your API on ProgrammableWeb, a high-traffic directory and news source for the world of APIs. ProgrammableWeb is a prime resource for developers looking for new APIs.
- Look into adding a customer-centric Net Promoter Score (or NPS) metric to measure your program success. Knowing if your developer community would recommend your service to others adds an important satisfaction metric to gauge adoption and activation.
- Join the events bandwagon. No need to earmark non-existent funds for massive, impersonal developers conferences. Aim for an intimate, well-organized, and focused event to activate dormant developers into friendly evangelists.
- Recognize, celebrate, and reward good behavior. The more positive interactions you can create enables and grows ambassadors who do the job for you. Build a team of evangelists and allow developers to reap the rewards from their hard work.
Provide developers with compelling incentives and data sets to create value
Yes, of course, the business comes first. The decision of what data to expose with your API platform needs to support and align with your corporate and product strategy. But don't develop an API platform ecosystem built only to maximize value for your company positioning developers as the contributors. All stakeholders both contribute and extract value from a sustainable, healthy ecosystem. Don't forget to consider the value that your platform will provide to developers. Who are the customers of your platform and what are their needs? What monetization models would create the best incentives? What is the economic appeal of participation to developers? A popular API provides a compelling value proposition to the platform provider, the platform participants, and end users.
Know what to measure and why you're measuring it
A community for community's sake is a beautiful idea. But when backed by company resources, the community should exist to create value and opportunity around your API. Have the foresight to build in the right measurement tools to validate the effort. Consider your budget decision makers and track for success.
Start with straightforward quantitative numbers: live applications, developers that signed up for the program, API keys distributed; then calculate the activation rate percentage (number of live applications / total developers).
Identify any revenue figures attributable to your API. Depending on your API monetization strategy this could be through direct sales, revenue-share, advertising, affiliate programs, or another creative model.
Look into positive qualitative feedback and voices of members of your community - posts, tweets, comments - items that can showcase developer appreciation, interest, and evangelism. This feedback should be monitored year-round and shared with the platform team and executives on a regular basis. It's a human reminder of the intrinsic value the community work brings to the brand and business.
Would you host a holiday soiree and forget to prepare for your guests?
So there it is. Don't fall into the "build it and they will come" mentality. It's no fun to stand on the sidelines watching other communities have all the fun; you need to invite them to your developer party! Whether you are newly launching or extending your community efforts, try some of these approaches to propel your API platform strategy in the direction of growth in 2010 and beyond.