Why Every Single Small Business Needs to Understand APIs
by Jonathan Taylor
The term API (application programming interface) has entered into business vernacular. It’s here to stay, too. Small and medium businesses have a lot to gain from understanding APIs. How you ask?
- APIs can help you automate many aspects of your business (saving countless hours)
- APIs can help you set up integrations between two services (adding value to already valuable software)
- APIs can help you create power reports and automated dashboards (helping you become more data driven)
Let's demystify APIs so you can start using them to grow business in new and creative ways.
What are APIs?
The acronym API stands for application programming interface. I'll allow that the name implies a degree of red tape and that APIs are for developer's eyes only, but this isn't true. In fact, the best analogy for understanding APIs is to think of them as a language or means of communication.
APIs are used to allow two (or more) programs, applications, and computers to talk to each. Just as in human speech, these communications serve a number of different purposes. Typically, APIs use a call and response mechanism. For instance, you make an API request such as "Please pass the salt," and the recipient API would process that request and (if you have good manners) fulfill your request by passing the salt.
We don't have to look very far to find a great example of APIs in use: check out the social media sharing icons on this blog.
When I click the Facebook icon, I'm given a prepopulated update with a link to this blog that I can share with my network. You guessed it: this is possible because of an API integration between Facebook.com and Infusionsoft.com. Pretty nifty!
3 valuable use cases for APIs
The best way to understand APIs is to study examples of them in action. I've found three cases that you will find valuable.
1. Automating your business with APIs
APIs allow you to automate processes and workflows to save you countless hours of manual effort. One of the most powerful tools on the market to help you harness the potential of APIs is Zapier. Zapier provides a user-friendly interface to set up automation points between two services.
Zapier is elegantly simple. You set up “Zaps” that perform automated actions based on “triggers” and “actions.” A trigger is an event like a new calendar invite or email received, while an action is the event that is completed once a trigger is detected. For example, you add an event to your Google calendar and it’s posted on a specific channel in your Slack account.
Everything Zapier does (which is about as much as you can imagine) is done through APIs. I recommend checking out Zapier, even if it’s just to get an idea what is possible with APIs. Here are some cool Zap ideas to get the ball rolling:
- Anytime a customer makes purchase from you in Infusionsoft send them a personal email from your Gmail account
- Anytime a new calendar event is added to a Basecamp project create a Google Calendar entry for it
- Anytime you get a mention on Twitter send a message to your social media team's Slack channel
2. Creating rich integrations between multiple services
Next time you're talking to your marketing team, ask them about how many cloud services they are using. Chances are, they'll be able to produce an impressive list of services—everything from web analytics tools like Google Analytics to marketing automation and CRM tools like Infusionsoft. There's also a good chance they will share this list with a mix of excitement and exasperation.
As a digital marketer, I can relate to this mixed reaction. Marketers have more tools at their disposal than ever before, and this is creating tons of new and intriguing opportunities. At the same time, this explosion of tools has also created many silos. A digital marketing campaign results in activity and behaviors on multiple platforms at once. For example, you create a digital advertising campaign to generate leads for your business. To effectively track this campaign, you need an understanding of your advertising platform (eg: AdWords), your website and landing page performance (eg: Google Analytics), and your lead generation and sales follow up (eg: Infusionsoft).
Thankfully, APIs allow you to create integrations between multiple services to close loops like the one I just outlined. When setting up integrations, most of the API work is done behind the scenes—you get a friendly interface that lets you point and click your way to integration success. The Infusionsoft Marketplace is a great example of these types of integrations.
One really important thing to know about these types of integrations is that they will use API calls to create the integration. There is definitely an economy for API calls. Most services will give you a base amount of API calls with your subscription, however some will charge extra for additional calls. It's important that when you set up any integration, you consider how often you will be processing API requests and how many API requests you will need. The more you know!
3. Creating automated reports and dashboards using APIs
Got the weekly/monthly/quarterly reporting blues? Tired of manually building spreadsheets to then create a PowerPoint to share with your management? There is a better way. And if you guessed APIs, you're right.
Just as many services provide you with access to their API to establish integrations, these services often provide a reporting API to allow you to extract information and reports. At first glance, this may not seem significant. I mean, you already know how to open up the reporting tool of a service like Infusionsoft or Google Analytics or QuickBooks, jot down a few numbers, and stuff them into a spreadsheet.
The value for you (and why it's worth learning how to work with APIs) is that you can do two things with reporting APIs: 1. Use that raw data to create the same reports and dashboards you already create regularly; and 2. Automate data updates to those reports and dashboards. This means you can set up a report once, and it will always show the most current data set eliminating the need for manual reporting. Of course, you will always need to do some manual reporting, but with APIs you will have way more time to perform deeper analysis.
Setting up the initial report may require a teeny-bit of development effort (but pay off big time). Alternatively, you can use a tool like Klipfolio to build and manage your dashboards and reports. Here's an example of an automated dashboard that Infusionsoft customers have created with Klipfolio.
APIs are the currency of data-driven businesses
For scrappy, lean, data-driven small and medium businesses, APIs represent a huge opportunity. APIs can help you automate parts of your business that you never thought possible, create seamless integrations between all your cloud services, and develop automated reports and dashboards. APIs aren't just for developers anymore—APIs are the currency of the data-driven. How do you plan on spending this currency?
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