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Marketing an API to a non-technical audience

Apr 23, 20135 mins
APIsEnterprise ApplicationsOpen Source

How one company's API-first marketing campaign trusts line-of-business customers' knowledge of software.

This guest post was submitted by Lorinda Brandon, Director of Strategy at Smartbear Software

One of the things I am enjoying about the current API buzz is watching the various ways APIs are wiggling their way into product marketing. I recently wrote about a company’s pitch that included a little braggadocio about their inclusion in the API Billionaires club, and I am often on the lookout for other technology-marketing crossovers. So imagine my joy when a colleague poked me during a meeting to see the splash screen on his laptop.

We’re all used to seeing splash screens pop up inside our favorite applications, promoting new features or products, making announcements about upcoming events, providing a pro tip or two, touting an API… wait. What? Touting an API? On a splash screen? That’s what collaboration innovator Smartsheet did with their latest release, in a move that surprised even an API lover like myself.

Smartsheet had put a lot of thought and energy into their new API, treating it very much like a major feature – even going so far as to run a beta program with it before launching it officially. Brent Frei, Founder and VP of marketing of Smartsheet, admits that the business side of the house very much drove the creation and requirements for this API. “You don’t have to spend much time talking to customers before you realize the opportunity within their market is pretty big if you can more elegantly talk with a lot of different systems,” according to Frei. “What the API does for us is put a lot more product creation directly into the hands of marketing. We don’t necessarily have to rely on our own dev schedule – we can go out to a partner and develop a go-to-market plan that is completely unhinged from our core dev.”

That’s becoming more of the norm lately, so, while I find that exciting, I don’t find it surprising. What did surprise me was Smartsheet’s decision to highlight their API as the main feature of their release, even to an audience that is not primarily comprised of developers.

“While our users aren’t typically highly technical, most are savvy business users who know enough about what an API is and what it can do. We wanted to capitalize on this growing trend of awareness. Even if they don’t know how to use an API (most don’t), they do recognize the need and are starting to ask their IT groups to ‘Make my Smartsheet talk to this tool,’ or ‘I need my Smartsheet to push/pull data here.’ We wanted to encourage these conversations,” says Jodi Sorenson, Smartsheet director of marketing.

What’s interesting about this is the inherent assumption that everyone knows what an API is and what it does. That says something about the state of the software industry overall. For those of us who grew up building software applications, we can remember when APIs were obscure even to development organizations. Now they are not only driven by the business and promoted by marketing, they are also understood well enough by the average business user that they can understand what to do when presented with an API promotion.

Being my usual skeptical self, I asked Jodi and Brent how successful this splash screen positioning actually was for them. Turns out…very. Since its release on March 30, the Smartsheet API has had over 60 organizations try it out, long with this splash screen I was so dubious of. In the first 48 hours, there were 4,100 page views from the “learn more” link. Considering that they were only hoping for about 1,300 page views (5% of their 26,000 paying companies), they’re off to a fantastic start and they have proven that you can market your APIs just as you would any other feature.

But here’s the really fun part. Having spent enough time trying to be creative with my own marketing team, I really get this. You can do so many things with an API that you can’t with another feature. The goal of a traditional product feature is to add enough differentiation and robustness to your application that potential customers choose you over the competition. Traditional marketing of traditional features is to convince the buying public that they need that feature and they need it the way you designed it. The joy of an API is that it is infinitely pliable, like Silly Putty. And, like Silly Putty, people like to play with it. Marketing becomes more about planning competitions and driving innovation than about spinning features. And the more API calls you add, the more fun you can have.

But don’t take my word for it – spend just 15 minutes on Twitter with @SmartsheetAPI and look at all the competitions they are hosting, along with their partner CloudSpokes. It’s obvious both Frei and Sorenson are enthusiastic and excited about their API. My hat is off to them for their courage in marketing it so unabashedly to a non-technical audience.

About Lorinda Brandon, Director of Solutions Strategy at SmartBear

For more than 25 years, Lorinda Brandonhas worked in various management roles in the high-tech industry, including customer service, quality assurance and engineering. She is currently Director of Solutions Strategy at SmartBear Software, a leading supplier of software quality tools. She has built and led numerous successful technical teams at various companies, including RR Donnelley, EMC, Kayak Software, Exit41 and Intuit, among others. She specializes in rejuvenating product management, quality assurance and engineering teams by re-organizing and expanding staff and refining processes used within organizations. She has a bachelor’s degree in art history from Arizona State University. Follow her on Twitter @lindybrandon.