How to drive API adoption through hackathons

Studies show that hackathons seem to be the most effective method to acquire and engage developer talent for open APIs.

Introduction

The star working behind the scenes, connecting devices, databases, and applications, application programming interfaces (APIs) are super-efficient “messengers” vital to organizations across sectors; for reuse in useful, interesting apps (tools and widgets), APIs allow these organizations to open their databases, backend systems, and information assets.

A simple definition of an API could be this: “An API is the messenger that delivers your request to the provider that you’re requesting it from and then delivers the response back to you.” For example, say you order an anorak from an e-retailer such as Amazon. The website will send your credit card details to PayPal, a payment processor, your shipping information to FedEx, a delivery partner, and then, validate your address using another API. Did you notice that all you needed to know was what to click and how to send a “request” and wait for the “response,” which could be payment status, shipping charges, etc.? (If you think about it, the function of an API closely mirrors that of a waiter at a restaurant.)

Programmers communicate with an application, such as Accuweather or Candy Crush, use this common interface, which acts like a go-between. “API is a precise specification written by providers of a service that programmers must follow when using that service. It describes what functionality is available, how it must be used and what formats it will accept as input or return as output. In recent years, the term API colloquially is used to describe both the specification and service itself, e.g., the Facebook Graph API,” says API Chapter Manager at Sprout Social, Kevin Stanton.

Uses of APIs

According to John Musser, co-founder of Programmable Web, an API can be used to create value in several ways, including the following:

  • APIs as product
  • Marketing/Distribution channel
  • User/Content acquisition
  • Drive innovation/traffic
  • Accelerate internal projects
  • Partner/Upsell opportunities
  • Lead generation/ Business development/Increase footprint
  • Extend product/Device and Mobile support
  • Increase stickiness
  • New line of business

Three P’s of an API program

Developing an API program comprises three stages1 — Plan, Productize, and Promote.

From the snapshot below, you can see that attracting and engaging developers are core activities for a successful API strategy. With a well-designed API program with skilled developers and open APIs, companies can extend their reach significantly by enabling market adoption, accelerating innovation by crowdsourcing, and maintaining a constant revenue cycle.

For an organization, its value chain will have its assets, the APIs that open up these assets, developers who use these assets through APIs to create value, apps the developers build and end users.

The 3 Ps of API - how to drive API adoption using hackathons
Source: Software AG

Promoting your API

Once a product is good to go, it is ready to enter the marketing cycle. This is true for APIs as well.

  • Just like you would design any marketing strategy, segment your audience, target accessible, differentiable, and substantial developer segments to enter, and position the API to effectively address specific challenges of the target segments.
  • Indulge in influencer marketing; create advocates and get buy-in from great developers. Instead of talking at the developer community, listen to their feedback and advice.
  • Give the influencers leeway; let them work for you.

You need a great demo that talks about your company and the product, how it generates business value, and a live demo showing some code or what you can build on top of the API.

With a scalable, practical, and reliable API, developers can innovate, happily too if rewards and recognition are assured. Remember that developers target different environments, platforms, operating systems, languages, services, etc. Companies work with developer evangelists, support developer events, and launch an outstanding developer portal to better position the interface.

Call it marketing or call it raising awareness. Either way, your developers need to know this API exists. Public Relations managers can ensure that the information that is disseminated about your API is accurate while highlighting its unique features. You can reach developers through social channels, at events, and through other developer communities.

Remember to define your metrics. (Go here for a good post on API metrics.)

API funnel 0- how to drive API adoption using hackathons

*The first two steps—acquisition and activation, come under the marketing umbrella.

**The other three—retention, revenue, and referral depend on many factors such as the quality of your API.

Provide forums and interactive, up-to-date documentation to engage and educate the developers

In his talk on API adoption, marketing expert Adam DuVander presented results from a survey on API adoption, where developers rated these factors as most important on a scale of 1–4. Complete and accurate documentation tops the list with a rating of 3.5. DuVander says, “You can also help your marketing department to speak ‘developer,’ and part of that is making sure your documentation is great and accessible.” To plug into the API, “Not only show them what’s possible, but show them how to do it using your API.” (With sample apps or tutorials). Forums allow developers to have stimulating and informative discussions on code examples, best practices, etc.

Create an all-encompassing API portal

This portal will be the go-to place for developers to “register, explore, and learn” about your API. A registration process that’s easy to use should give them an API key for example. An API console or ready code will help developers test the functionality without having to write any code; make sure it is impressive. Offer the right devkits or SDKs, with installation and packaging standards. Ensure you offer adequate support services; a little hand holding is always appreciated. Present developers with great uses cases with sample code and your SDKs. Your links to external resources must include announcements/updates and any information that will be useful (e.g. standards). Tools such as APIfy will help to build and manage such a central repository.

Driving API adoption through hackathons

A well-marketed and well-executed hackathon can get you 1500 developers and 3000+ for big names such as IBM. And you can get anywhere between 20–40 decent applications. All this can be done over a course of 4 weeks. “From a marketing standpoint, the developer acquisition is cost is very low.” Hackathons are an excellent example of viral marketing.

Specifically, a hackathon:

  • Gives you maximum air time to pitch your API to the developers
  • Gives you the opportunity to put your product (API) in the hands of passionate developers and get them to use it
  • Gets you valuable feedback from the developers to improve your product

*Hackathons are different from developer conferences and meetups. “A simple analogy would be that a hackathon is an internship, while a developer conference is a classroom.”

Points to remember for API providers hosting hackathons for marketing

  • Online hackathons are better suited
    Note that online hackathons could be a better bet as you get rid of all constraints related to venue selection and logistics. They also allow you to reach out to developers around the world. Keep the submission phase of the hackathon open for a longer duration, ideally for about two months.
  • Support at the hackathon
    Provide support and know-how via webinars, walkthrough, videos, tutorials, and examples of similar applications built using the API.
  • Post-hackathon engagement
    Support developers who could support only half-built applications as well; invite the developers for a symposium, follow up with them via emails and social channels for their feedback, and engage with them regularly. These people will form your talent pipeline.

**For all the finer details about how to organize a hackathon, download this ebook.

Conclusion

According to Philipp Schöne, Product Manager at Axway, “hackathons are a great way to learn what external people think about your offering… start with smaller groups and go bigger if you get more confident with your offering.”

You don’t always need to host a hackathon. You could participate or be a partner for smaller events. “Too often people think building a community means running a hack event, we found that running our own hack events didn’t fit our API, however attending and participating (as a team vs API vendor) in hack events was invaluable for building out a community. The best thing you can do is roll up your sleeves and get involved,” says Keran McKenzie, a platform evangelist at MYOB.

If companies find it hard reaching out to the developer community, then they can partner with vendors such as HackerEarth to leverage its 1.5 million+ developer community and use its hackathon management software.

About the Author

Vivek Siva
Learned what not to do as an entrepreneur. An optimist with a love for business, the outdoors, and movies. Superpower: Ability to smile even when all hell breaks loose. Affiliation: World of witchcraft & wizardry
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