How to Build a Great API Marketing Plan

8 minute read

I was recently approached by an API vendor at an API conference. While the encounter wasn’t horrific, I did find a few things related to their API marketing and sales process that left me less-than-excited to promote their product to my clients and other developers. To prevent you from making the same mistakes, I have captured some tactics to help you on your API marketing journey. First, let’s talk about marketing and selling APIs.

Selling an API is like selling a house

Selling an API is like selling a house. It requires the right marketing plan, the right level of preparation, and a focused effort. If you miss one or more of these steps, you will have great difficulty gaining customer traction.

Why should you care about your API marketing plan? Because it defines the communication strategies that you will implement to reach your potential customers. A great API marketing plan is focused toward guiding developers, partners, and businesses down the path of awareness, consumption, and purchase of your API. Without it, you will have difficulty selling your API and growing your business.

So, let’s look at a few of the common tactics that will help you develop a great API marketing plan.

Tactic #1: Show, Don’t Tell

When selling a house, you want the first impression when someone enters to be “Wow!”. Your API needs to accomplish the same “Wow!” moment. The difficulty lies in the fact that most APIs don’t  have a visual component to them. For those that do have some visualization, the API becomes a hidden feature that is often left to a single slide or bullet point in a slide deck.

How can you overcome this issue? Design a great demo.

When I attend conferences, I often bump into a developer evangelist or developer relations manager for an API vendor. Most tell me a bit about their API and perhaps hand me a flyer. The best ones give a demo. But not just any kind of demonstration.

They do what realtors do – they create a great first impression. They put me into the mindset that I already have the API. I feel like I am already productive in it, even if I have never used it. Then they show me between one and three ways to use the API.

Why does this work? It goes back to an old saying:

“If you can’t demonstrate it, it isn’t real”

Twilio is the master of the 5 min demo. In less than 5 minutes, a developer can build an application that costs less than $2.00 USD to execute. Take a few minutes and watch the video below from a recent IBM event to see how they do it:

Notice the format of the demo:

  1. Introduction of the company and product
  2. Who uses it and how they generate business value
  3. A live demonstration of building something with the API

If you can’t build a compelling demo, your API isn’t robust enough and likely isn’t ready yet. Your demo should involve either live coding, showing a nice application built on top, or both.


This is similar to the lean startup principle of the Minimal Viable Product (MVP), pictured below. An MVP is the minimum required to create a product that can be sold. Your API needs to provide at least this minimum value as well.

If you can’t build a “WOW” demo, you can’t demonstrate enough business value yet. So, go back and revisit your API, find a way to introduce business value, build that value, and incorporate it into a great demo that will engage your future customers.

Finally, remember that your goal is to reduce the “Time to First Hello World” (TTFHW) for your target developers. This is the time it takes to get from encountering your API to writing their first working application using your API. This is the ultimate “WOW” moment. Sendgrid wrote a short article titled “Three Ways to Decrease Time to First Hello World” that covers how they did it.

Tactic #2: First experiences are important

One of the most common recommendations for selling a house is to properly stage it. Staging a house involves highlighting its strengths, downplaying its weaknesses, and appealing to the greatest pool of prospective buyers as possible. This usually involves taking a house that has been lived in by someone else and making it look as though the prospect lives in the house already.

Once a developer learns more about your API and what it does, they will want to start using it. This requires that you offer a great first experience. From developer onboarding, to a great API design and documentation are crucial for developer adoption.

You want the developer to feel like this is their API. Your design and documentation will help them move beyond the “not invented here” (NIH) issues often faced by API providers to one of “What interesting things can I do with this API?”

These concepts are referred to as “developer experience” (DX) and is emerging as an important discipline within API programs. DX focuses on applying patterns and practices to API design and documentation to ensure that developers have a great experience with your API, from the very first time they see it. It often focuses on the following concerns:

  1. A great API design that follows expected patterns and principles of the web
  2. Complete API documentation that is always current and interactive for exploring your API before a single line of code is written
  3. The inclusion of low-level data access APIs and higher-level workflow APIs to support all aspects of API consumption

DX also improves your API traction by moving developers from being unfamiliar to becoming experts that deliver real value to their customers and their business. However, building a great developer experience for your API requires a careful approach to design.

We have written quite a bit about API design, so we won’t spend too much time on it here. If you are interested in learning more, pick up our book with co-author D. Keith Casey titled “A Practical Approach to API Design” to learn more.

Having a great set of helper libraries, also known as SDKs, is also important for developer adoption. Keith wrote a great article about this topic called “How to SPOIL Your Users with Great Helper Libraries”.

Tactic #3: Avoid the spray and pray tactic

Finding the right home buyer is important. The neighborhood and asking price for a house often indicate the kind of home buyer you are looking for.

It is important to remember that not everyone will be your customer. Your API may not be a fit for every developer you meet. This means that you need to focus your discussions based on what you learn about an individual developer. This requires listening to developers, not spraying out a single message to everyone you meet.

Get to know individual developers. Understand what they do, what their company is focused solving, and how your API may (or may not help). If you find that they aren’t a good fit, leave them with the information to make an informed decision at a later time. Their company may find that they need your services after all. Or, perhaps they have moved to a new company and find themselves in need of an API just like yours.

And one more thing. If you are capturing email addresses and/or phone numbers for follow-up, take the time to make them personal. There is nothing worse than a form letter that makes it obvious that you either don’t remember them or don’t really care about them. This requires that you listen and possibly take notes when you chat with developers at conferences and meetups. Keep in mind the context of the prospect (are they a service provider, a product company, or a solo developer) and communicate with them accordingly.

Tactic #4: It isn’t about you – share stories

When you are selling a house, you are really selling a story. The story isn’t about the seller. It is a story about the buyer. The way life will be different. Better.

Your API marketing plan should include stories. Capture stories of how your customers were able to do amazing things with your API. Tell stories that improve business value, provide a high return on investment (ROI), or solve really difficult problems.

By focusing on the business value, you will avoid coming across as simply trying to drum up more business. This means deeply understanding the needs of your customers. Avoid conversations that are nothing more than a “Hi, I have this API – will you please use it?”

Tactic #5: Make it easy to refer others

Not every house hunter will love your house. But every time someone walks through the door, you have another person that may be a sales person on your behalf: “I found this great house not far from here. It wasn’t for us, but it sounds like it might be a better fit for what you need.”

Referrals are huge in real estate and the same can be said for APIs as well. Help those not interested in buying today to sell it to those who might be. Help API consultants better understand your product, pricing model, and business value. Sometimes this might be a specific task or need, while other times it might be a specific indicator, such as a keyword or phrase.

Putting it all together

While building a marketing plan won’t guarantee success for your API, it will help you to provide a consistent and clear communication strategy for developers, partners, and companies interested in your API.

If you are unsure if you have the right API marketing strategy, we would be happy to help. Contact us and let’s schedule a conversation about how to design a marketing strategy that fits both your company and your customers.