How APIs Are Changing the Way Brands Connect With Consumers

Brands and Retailers Doing It Right? Best Buy, Sears, Etsy and North Face

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Garrick Schmitt
Garrick Schmitt
What ever happened to the mashup?

It seems like it was only a few years ago that we were breathlessly talking about mashing up Flickr photos with Google Maps to create something entirely new. But now when we talk of mashups it's seemingly only to describe music, like DJ Gregg Gillis of Girl Talk whom mixes-and-matches hundreds of pop songs at a staggering rate.

The answer, simply enough, is that the mashup has become woven into the fabric of the modern web. Now, instead of talking about mashups, we talk about APIs, apps and cloud computing, all of which are rewiring the internet and have the potential to dramatically change the way brands connect with consumers.

At this point, most of us have at least a passing familiarity with APIs. Popularized by developers for platforms like Facebook, Flickr, Google Maps, Twitter and their ilk, APIs are a set of rules that allow applications to interface with services -- essentially allowing these applications and services to "talk." But more importantly, APIs allow publishers -- and brands -- to reach far beyond their own web properties to distribute data, content or services. For example, Google's robust Maps APIs have been widely credited in helping that service become the top mapping utility on the web.

While the popularity of APIs have blossomed squarely in the realm of developers, the sheer size and growth of their success is making the savviest marketers take notice. In 2010 there were 2,647 publically accessible APIs according to the Programmable Web. In fact, more than a thousand APIs were created last year -- more than double the number of APIs that were added to the Programmable Web in 2009. More impressively, total APIs are up 20-times since 2005. No wonder mainstream brand like Tesco and MTV are getting in the on the action, with their own APIs.

Here's a look at some of the most promising players and marketers tapping into APIs today:

Etsy: For retailers, creating and maintaining an API translates into growing their virtual storefront far beyond the dotcom. Amazon has done a masterful job at this, as has eBay. But Etsy, a new ecommerce upstart that specializes in vintage or handmade items, has made the most of this strategy to grow rapidly thanks in part to its robust developer outreach program. The payoff has been huge – an astounding number of Etsy applications are now in wide circulation, with some like Etsy On Sale and SoopSee, a personal website creator, winning raves.

Best Buy & Sears: In a similar vein, Best Buy and Sears made early efforts around APIs with interesting results. Best Buy recently made news by creating an in-app API that allows for fully functional commerce. Sears, the oldest retailer in the U.S., released a range of APIs that expose the company's ecommerce catalog, highlight most popular items and showcase deals.

The North Face & Oakley: The North Face and Oakley have taken a different tack by employing partner-driven APIs to reach consumers in interesting ways. The Northface created the Trailhead iPhone app for hikers by utilizing data from and the Snow Report for skiers. Similarly, Oakley created its Surf Report utilizing data from Surfline to provide surfers with weather forecasts, swell directions and more.

Twilio: One of the most popular APIs of the past year is from Twilio, a company that uses cloud services to enable companies to create voice and SMS applications. Marketers like Sony Music are starting to find innovative ways to put the technology to use. The company ran a unique phone and SMS campaign to promote the new album for its heavy metal band Lamb of God. Tapping into Twilio, the company enabled consumers to access phone calls with recordings from band members providing samples of their music.

As one might expect, a robust ecosystem has sprouted up to support the development, deployment and documentation of APIs.

The Programmable Web boasts an excellent repository of APIs. It catalogs all publically available APIs charts popularity, and publishes news around performance -- it even has a home for the "mash-up." Other companies have also risen up to aid in the deployment of APIs. Joyent, for example, provides the infrastructure and services for marketers like Gilt Groupe as does apigee. 3Scale is another player that powers APIs from and Skype, while MindTouch helps companies document their APIs for easy developer adoption – and to better reach end consumers.

In the not too distant future, most marketers will find that to thrive in our new application-driven world that the "killer app" just may be the API itself.

Garrick Schmitt is managing director of experience and platforms at Razorfish, whose clients include Microsoft, Best Buy, Intel, Mattel and Mercedes. He publishes FEED, Razorfish's annual digital brand experience report and in his spare time flails about on Twitter @gschmitt.
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