5 Tips to Spark Engagement Around Your API-as-a-Product

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Engagement is a core metric for almost any Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) owner. The desire to have your API released, appreciated, and utilized is the entire driving force behind most development in the public API space. Accordingly, figuring out ways to spark this engagement is key to having a successful offering.

Below, we’re going to look at several tips that can help spark engagement around the concept of APIs-as-a-Product. Though these tips can be applied to other scenarios, when considering an API from a product mindset, they can specifically be leveraged to even greater heights.

1. Know Your Audience

One of the first and most important aspects of developer marketing (or really any type of marketing) is the process of figuring out who your consumer is and what they want. It’s important to remember that the API is fundamentally a product. As with any product, there is both an appropriate audience and an appropriate method to reach that audience. The marketing channel and strategy will be as important as what is being promoted.

Consider what categories your API consumer falls into. Is the API being promoted a simple API that retrieves literature data and presents it to users simply? In such a case, the consumer may be less concerned about why you chose GraphQL or why Golang was the most appropriate language. They will be more concerned with what specific value your API delivers and how it compares to other digital services in the same category or class. The function is more important than the form or the underpinning systems, and as such, promoting such an API would fall firmly into the “show value” rather than “explain the details.”

Now consider the inverse. What if the API is designed to ingest data from other APIs, taking complex interactions and enabling mutation, combination, and transformation? In such a case, you DO want to focus on the technical aspects, as the end user will likely need to understand the choices made, how they impact the data flow of the API, and how secondary implementations might best leverage this choice. Clearly, understanding your userbase will dictate how to market an API.

2. Ensure High-Quality Developer Experience

When looking at how to spark engagement, it’s not just enough to build a world-class API — you also need to create a world-class experience. Products can go through cycles of hype and adoption, but if that product doesn’t match the user’s expectations, it seldom results in long-term retention and usage.

Accordingly, it’s incredibly important to understand the developer experience and ensure it’s complete and effective. There’s a handful of ways that API owners can provide a quality developer experience. First and foremost, developers must create a clear and digestible onboarding experience. This experience should have readable and up-to-date documentation for developers to peruse.

Secondly, developers should aim for an experience that models a question-and-answer flow. Users should arrive at the platform with a question, find the answer to that question, and know where to find additional information. Additionally, users should be able to understand why their solution works and how the underlying systems work.

Finally, iteration and experimentation should be supported whenever possible. This can be as simple as making your endpoints clearly defined and labeled or as complicated as directly providing detailed schema, specifications, in-line commentary, and help on-demand for developers to understand the intricate layout of your API.

3. Build Self-Service Capabilities

Related to the previous point, ensuring that you provide a self-service system is one of the best things you can do to spark engagement.

All services have barriers to first-time users. Whether the system is simple or complex, a barrier will always exist and will naturally reduce the total number of users who can effectively use your API. How large this barrier is, and, more pointedly, what you do to minimize this barrier, will drastically impact both the developer experience and the adoption rate of the product offering.

Creating a system to automatically provision services and credentials is a good start, assuming you can create a secure enough environment. Further self-service value can be leveraged by providing self-serve guidance, tutorials, documentation, and other materials to help streamline the user experience. One suitable method of accomplishing a streamlined educational pattern is by showcasing example code chunks and use case documentation examples.

One should note, however, that simply providing a self-service option is just the beginning. The self-service option must be engaging, direct, and reduce the overhead of engaging with the API. Be careful that the self-service is also paired with evergreen documentation so that users feel they’re not left to fend for themselves. Providing a support contact, or at the very least a way to submit bugs and other errors can also reduce the perceived barrier of use.

4. Ensure Discoverability

One major area to focus on generally is to ensure that your API is made as discoverable as possible. APIs are often released in a vacuum — that is, the API is developed with the best of intentions by its developers, but then is simply pushed to GitHub under a general name when the developers feel it’s complete enough for release.

The reality, however, is that you can’t simply put the API out there and hope for the best. Doing that is asking for a miracle, especially in the modern space where attention is at a premium. Thankfully, there are some simple steps to ensure that your API is discoverable.

A big first step is to ensure that all of your materials reference your API’s core function and intent. This can be as simple as starting with the API name. Calling the API something like “Awesome API” or “APIfactor” might feel trendy, but it doesn’t clearly express what the API does and its intent. This is true of all materials, including branding and marketing initiatives. The API should be referred to by what it does and why it exists. Instead of calling it “Awesome API,” something more pointed like”Sonic Isolation API” can better describe its function.

An excellent example of this done well is Mockoon (which we’ve reviewed before. The theme of the developer materials is a Racoon, which helps give the service recognizability and aesthetically pleasing marketing options. Still, the name does more than just provide a good foundation for marketing. Anyone who has built an API knows what “mocking” is, as in, building a mock environment for testing. Looking at the Mockoon offering, you may not know exactly what it does, but you can surmise the intent.

More than that, you can actually find Mockoon. A simple search for “API mocking” reveals that Mockoon ranks highly because its name and its summary are clear and easily understandable at first glance. The branding is clear in context, and the aesthetics are pleasing.

This discoverability is arguably even more important at the technical level. When creating an API, the endpoints should be well-named, well-documented, and discoverable. Is the endpoint something like sonicisolation.com/api/vxisoch1? To the average end-user, that looks like gibberish, and even to someone who may use your API extensively, this will be frustrating to repeatedly type out. Instead, choosing something like sonicisolation.com/api/1channelvocalisolation is clearer, albeit slightly longer (in which case the shorter version may be appropriate to also resolve to the same endpoint).

The API should also make it very clear what endpoints are for what. This can be achieved using documentation, but you can also serve error codes and summaries that inform the user, such as for invalid actions, asking the user, “did you mean this endpoint?” would go a long way to helping the user in their initial usage of the API.

This also goes back to the previous point about the barrier of entry — the easier it is for someone to get in your API to discover and understand functions, the more likely they will be to continue their exploration and utilization pattern.

5. Build A Developer Community

Users will almost always gravitate towards a solution with a lot of community activity. Even moreso, developers will almost always shy away from a solution that appears abandoned. For many users, the line between “is this abandoned” and “this looks abandoned” is so thin that any reduction in the quality or quantity of options for community relations could seriously harm adoption.

Accordingly, API owners should enter the community and engage actively. This can take a wide variety of forms. Simple solutions like having a forum where the developer can talk to users and provide answers to their questions can do wonders to establish a sense of community. It can also help surface bugs and concerns while helping to guide and drive new development.

More complex options like releasing parts of the API into the public domain or releasing supportive libraries and frameworks can help build brand and product awareness, community goodwill, and engagement. This can help the developers benefit from broader adoption and increased feedback, and can secure a secondary line of development (and in some cases, revenue) to help support the principle offering.

Whatever form this interaction takes, the prioritization of community support will pay dividends long-term in engagement and utilization.

Spark Your API-as-a-Product Engagement

While these five tips are by no means an exhaustive list of ways to spark API-as-a-Product engagement, adoption of any can lead to greater adoption, utilization, and engagement through multiple channels. Combining these points can surely help turn a good API offering into an excellent one. In addition, balancing the availability and ease of access with security is an important part of this entire conversation as well.

What do you think about these tips? Do you have thoughts about promoting API products? Let us know in the comments below!