To API or not to API, that shouldn’t be a marketing question

Crossposted at The TrendWatch

Yesterday, the quintessential online ad resource BannerBlog featured two ads for Smart. Both pulled dynamic data — weather and maps — to build a display ad unit. I could be wrong, but the data source was probably some sort of API. For those not so versed in acronyms, Wikipedia to the rescue:

An application programming interface (API) is an interface that a software program implements in order to allow other software to interact with it; much in the same way that software might implement a user interface in order to allow humans to interact with it.

Flickr Mosaic
Flickr Mosaic: Crayonbox, constructed with Flickr API. Released under a CCommons license by krazydad

Like digital bridges, API’s request standartized information from public (and sometimes private) web services. From USA Spending to Fedex tracking, from Flickr to Google Maps, the interest for APIs has been traditionally confined to B2B/ERP and the Social Web. But lately the concept is extending beyond these areas: with developers creating exciting and unexpected uses with the new data available, and with consumer brands and the ad industry starting to let go of their closed silos, in essence “letting one thousand flowers bloom“. A good consumer brand example of this trend is the UK grocery chain Tesco, who announced a new API at TechForTesco and invited developers to tinker with its data, search for nutrition facts or send ‘ideas’ to the customer’s ‘ideas inbox’.

Web development frameworks have long been using these large building blocks to enable rapid development by a larger interested audience. They not only ignite the engine of innovation, sometimes stalled by internal corporate politics, but also allow brands to have a comfortable degree of control. With new data sets available, we could start thinking of new kinds of mashups, such as business data built directly into communication solutions, CRM programs feeding custom content or display ads with real-time data, as mentioned in the beginning.

Before a brand dips into this space, it’s challenge is to question which data set respects legal and privacy issues, while at the same time being interesting enough for developers and consumers to act upon. What they shouldn’t be asking is if an API is useful (it’s useful when the data is right).

If you’d like to know more about what’s being done with such web services, I highly recommend checking out the website Programmable Web. It’s a useful resource with over 1500 APIs that have been used in thousands of mashups.