How to Build a Successful API Partner Program

Many of us are guilty of, even if only subconsciously, thinking about what we can get out a partnership. To convince partners to consume our APIs, we often consider great API design and quick developer onboarding. However, we may not be giving enough thought to the relation itself. Why would your partners want to build something with your API in the first place?

Sidney Maestre, lead developer evangelist at Xero, spoke at length about how to structure a great partner program at our 2018 Platform Summit. He kicked things off with the statement that “partnerships are really a two-way street: there are both ways that you can win, and your partners can win… That’s how we should structure our partner programs.”

Sidney outlines four different types of partnerships:

  • Alliance or Channel: involves your product(s) being resold
  • Marketing: shared go-to-market strategy and marketing activities
  • Referral: more transactional, with a bounty paid upon conversion
  • Technology: integrations, products built using one or more APIs

To Sidney, successful technology partnerships are more than just tech, they combine elements of referral and marketing as well. Therefore, the are many possible avenues for a partnership strategy.

So, how can we build a successful partnership program? And, which kind of partner strategy is the right one for the type of business relationships you have? Let’s dive a little further…

How, Why, Where?

In Maestre’s mind, there are (at least) two very different kinds of APIs:

  • Products that have an API, e.g. Xero, Amazon
  • APIs that are the product, e.g. Twilio, SendGrid

Whichever applies, he suggests that a smart first move is to “start with your why. Why do you have a partner program?” In the case of the latter, that’s probably direct revenue. It might be facilitating the creation of products you’d like to build yourself but don’t have the resources.

In the case of the former, integrations make your product stickier and improve customer retention. The truth is that, whichever type of API you’re developing, there could be a number of different (but potentially overlapping) reasons why you want partners.

Now, let’s focus on why other companies might want to partner with you: “The number one reason should be that a partner working with you makes their customers happier,” Sidney says, whether that’s “by enhancing their products or what they’re offering to their clients.”

Offering functionality so that consumers don’t have to reinvent the wheel sounds simple enough, but it’s not always the whole story. Some partner programs involve a payout to developers. As Sidney describes, “they also might want to have some return on investment as well; they might want to earn some kind of revenue.”

APIs should, in some way, make life easier for the people using them. In many cases, that means facilitating the creation of a product without having to build all of its constituent parts from the ground up.

Making API Partnerships Attractive

As we’ve said about APIs so many times before, it isn’t enough to build an API and expect people to start using it. Even if your API is absolutely cutting edge, offers great features, and has excellent documentation, you need to find ways to promote it.

In the case of creating a compelling partnership program, Sidney suggests the following:

  • Special showcases: Feature products using the API in a marketplace
  • Discounts: Offer a discount for partners if they bring in lots of users
  • Bonus: Give a referral bonus for bringing clients on to your APIs
  • Sneak peeks: Offer early access to APIs or new tech
  • Advanced support: Have a higher-tier VIP support

Sidney describes how Xero focuses on recognizing outstanding talent with their Developer of the Year award and monthly app partner features, as well as more technical ways to improve relationships.

For example, granting access to your roadmap and prioritizing bug fixes requested by partners on that roadmap could be a beneficial move. Going back to how partner relationships should be a two-way street, you can then use feedback on your roadmap from your partners before you devote engineering resources to it.

Optimizing The Partnership Process

Making your partner program attractive is all well and good but, if you oversell, you may find yourself inundated with unsuitable candidates who have been drawn in by the benefits you promise.

That’s why it’s so important to identify your audience and figure out who exactly you want to partner with. “You want to make sure you’re attracting self-qualified developers and partners,” Maestre says. “If you cast a really wide net…you’re going to spend a lot of time qualifying them.”

The best way to do this is to share the benefits of your product succinctly and directly. Maestre provides the example of Shopify, which offers the following headlines on their Partners page:

  • Earn revenue (highlighting that they paid out $430 million to their partners in 2016)
  • Build your portfolio
  • Attract new clients
  • Priority support

Those headlines might look a little different if your API IS your product, with Sidney offering up SendGrid as an example:

  • Expand and enhance your offerings
  • Attract new customers
  • Improve efficiency and cost structure

In terms of the actual onboarding process, Maestre suggests reducing the number of fields to sign up or get more information as much as you can: “Make it as minimal as possible to reduce friction, but have a few qualifying questions in there.”

Are you planning, for example, to call up applicants? If not, omit the phone number field. Do you know to know their job title? If not, ditch it. Sidney presents an interesting example of Stripe’s partner program, which requires logging in using your Stripe account to apply.

It’s a bold move that has pros and cons associated with it. While it means that Stripe can see a great deal of information about applicants and pre-populate fields, it means that “someone who’s curious but hasn’t created an account yet might see a login form and leave immediately.”

Maintaining Partnerships

As we’re sure you already know, the work doesn’t stop when you’ve successfully attracted partners who are using your API to build cool products. Maestre implies that a marketplace, directory, or gallery featuring partners is all but essential for ongoing success:

“Showcasing your partners is your way of driving engagement for being part of your program. Make sure it’s easy to find, categorized and searchable… As your offerings and partnerships grow, it gets harder and harder [for your customers] to find the right solution.”

That means creating something that:

  • Is visually appealing and laid out in a way that makes browsing straightforward
  • Has Calls To Action leading to products or landing pages with more information
  • Uses rich SEO-friendly content that explains the benefits of products using your API
  • Features honest customer reviews that talk about the ups (and downs) of usage

If it’s done right, your marketplace can be a great marketing tool for keeping existing partners happy and attracting new would be partners who want to be a part of your program.

Final Thoughts

“Here’s the really tough question,” asks Sidney. “Who’s going to run it? You need potentially someone to do marketing, someone to do the onboarding and qualifying of new partners, someone to build your marketplace and directory, and so on.”

It’s a great point and underlines why the process of building and maintaining a successful partner program requires C-level buy-in. Without that support, there’s a significant risk that partner programs become an afterthought that only receive attention when people have spare time.

One final takeaway for a successful partner program? Scalable onboarding, Sidney says, is a must. Again, that makes perfect sense. While it’s easy enough to keep on top of things when your partner program is just starting out, rapid growth can actually be hazardous unless you’ve built your program in a way that can handle it.

For us, what really rang true about this presentation was how little of it was focused on the technology being used. Obviously, API consumers want to be able to use your product without any major bugs or headaches, but they also want to form a relationship with you that’s built on trust, transparency and mutual benefits.