The true API meaning and potential for your business

Because I’m API… Clap along if you feel like application programming interfaces are going to be the new weapons in your ecommerce arsenal.

API stands for…

…“application programming interface” or “application program interface”. Right. what’s that then?

In the context of business in the modern data economy, APIs are the glue that binds web-based applications together. They are the pipes that connect one data source to software that can use it, for instance Transport for London provides APIs stuffed with info about train and bus times to app-makers like Citymapper to build functionality around.

Instead of a one-off transfer, an API includes a set of rules that governs the “exposure” and ongoing use of the data – what, how much, who has access and how it is allowed to be used.

“If you’re talking about the power of computing in the modern era, you’re really talking about networks and connectivity – the ability to connect things and share that data. Services, devices and apps run on APIs which ‘expose’ their data in consistent, clear and secure ways. APIs glue these things together.” – Rob Zazueta, Director of Digital Strategy at TIBCO Mashery

A picture of traintracks

Why your company might want to develop an API

Although they seem to be ahead of the curve, APIs are not merely the preserve of tech giants like Twitter or Google and plucky tech startups. They also don’t have to be public-facing. An internal API could provide the marketing department with customer data stored and managed by IT, for instance. Or it could be externally accessible but only privately available to a partner organisation.

Our sister site TFM interviewed API management expert Rob Zazueta of TIBCO Mashery, who also offered some general insight into APIs.

Companies might start down the API road not because of partners, but as part of a mobile strategy, Zazueta explains: “They want to build a mobile application – for example for customers or salespeople – and what we really mean by mobile is not just phones and tablets, but the mobility of the data. Making sure that data is free and can travel where it needs to go.”

Further, “they’ve made a start and when other opportunities crop up, for instance to build an affiliate programme like the one Amazon pioneered, they can expand.”

What are the benefits of offering an API?

Companies typically own lots of data – reams of the stuff. Rather than store it somewhere safe (hopefully!) to gather dust, businesses are now being encouraged to make data work harder to benefit the company.

It seems that pundits talking about the potential of APIs in the Internet-enabled business world can’t resist using some variation of the phrase: “unleashing creativity and innovation”.

The point being that making certain data available to a community of developers ideally leads to the creation of fascinating things – apps and business models – that the owner of the data couldn’t have imagined themselves, let alone have the resources to build.

New business opportunities are perhaps the most enticing benefits.

Examples of APIs

APIs can be directly monetised, for instance providing up-to-the-minute currency conversion rates, meaning online retailers can services international customers better.

Partner companies might enjoy a two-way street of customer interaction data through an API, for instance an email marketing provider teaming up with an events admin service (ticketing, invites/RSVPs) to offer cross-functionality.

The Amazon affiliate programme has become a big part of its distribution strategy – a major API success story.

A picture of a woman on a sofa with text about the Amazon affiliates programme

Nordic APIs, as well as busting some myths about APIs, offers some examples including Marvel Entertainment (Avengers, X-Men etc.) which, through a public API, provides data on its comics including cover art and character info.

APIs don’t have to involve coding

TIBCO Mashery’s Rob Zazueta reminds us that APIs are not necessarily generated by code alone. “There are systems that may already be in place or that companies may adopt that tie their existing databases and systems together and allow them to more freely communicate.”

These are individually known as an enterprise services bus (ESB). Some ESBs, such as TIBCO’s ActiveMatrix BusinessWorks, also allow you to take those various sources of data and generate APIs directly from them, with no code required.


The science of APIs: Take a look for yourself

If your company doesn’t already offer an API, it’s worth taking a look at the APIs of companies that excite you.

Zazueta recommends looking into and maybe having a go with Twitter, Facebook or Edmunds (a car retail site with simple API documentation).

What you’re looking for is how approachable they are for semi-technical people (someone adept at Excel but who can’t code). This will give you a good idea of what data it might be possible to provide and how the ease of implementation can be critical to an API’s uptake.

Placing API meaning in context of the customer journey

As APIs have so many applications (boom-tish), they can be used to improve the customer journey across a huge number of touchpoints.

A marketing team armed with a developer and an appropriate API might create a public-facing app that brings a brand to a potential customer’s attention.

An internal API might help a sales agent better segment their existing customer data, leading to better personalised marketing emails.

The Shopify API may help you extend the functionality of your store, storing customer contact data to cut down time filling in forms at the checkout.

MasterCard partners might use its Customer Service API to help resolve consumer queries about payment accounts.

Thomas Quillfeldt

Thomas Quillfeldt

Editor, eCommerce Insights

February 11, 2016

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