The monolithic brands of the industrial age are giving way to the distributed, participative and democratized brands of the digital age.

In this post, I’ll explain how APIs can take your brand in promising new directions by harnessing the power of the community…

Here in Silicon Valley, open APIs have long been a staple of how tech companies do business. Twitter has an API. Facebook and Yahoo! have APIs. Google kick-started the API phenomenon with the Google Maps API. EBay and, up the road, pioneered APIs as a lucrative business model.

Now an increasing number of brands are getting in on the action: Tesco, MasterCard, Best Buy, Sears, MTV and Rhapsody now sport APIs alongside upstarts like HotUKDeals, Zappos and

At last week’s Content Marketing Strategies conference in Berkeley, California, Lori H. Schwartz, chief technology catalyst for McCann WorldGroup, said that smart brands are increasingly turning to APIs.

This is a way to entice would-be partners to take your datastream and reuse it in the burgeoning number of different media environments: mobile, internet-enabled TV, the real-time web and other places where customers are increasingly hanging out.

A quick primer for readers who aren’t familiar with APIs. An API, short for application programming interface, is simply a set of rules and protocols that allow websites and apps to work with each other.

A typical API pulls data from a source, such as pricing data or inventory, and performs a function such as parsing the content and displaying it in a new way. This could be a nicely formatted row of Flickr photos, or text that appears larger for the vision-impaired.

You’ve used APIs before, perhaps without knowing it. See that Twitter widget in the right sidebar? It pulls tweets from the Twitter API, filters the ones relevant to this page, displays them on Econsultancy and lets you add your own tweet to this specific stream.

If you’ve ever used a Facebook app on your mobile device, you’re using an API. Or, for a good visual, head to MIBAZAAR to see a mashup of YouTube videos about the World Cup plotted on a global map using geotagging. (See photo below.) Get it?

Word Cup url

Businesses large and small are now catching on, as brands are evolving into social media platforms rather than stand-alone destination sites.

Four examples:

• Skiers and hikers love the approach that The North Face has taken in fashioning a Trailhead app for hikers using an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad by pulling data from REI offers a free Snow and Ski Report iPhone app that displays snow conditions at dozens of resorts along with forecasts, trail maps and more. Real-time weather data is pulled into the apps through APIs.

Etsy, an online retailer of handmade merchandise, has cultivated a distributed network of developers carrying the Etsy banner. As Advertising Age writes: “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”.

• I just took part in an automated phone and SMS campaign from Sony Music promoting a new album for the heavy metal band Lamb of God. Powered by Twilio‘s API, the campaign lets fans send a text message to 41411 with the text “LOGJAM [Your phone number]” and seconds later you’ll receive a recorded phone call from drummer Chris Adler along with a clip a from the album Wrath (currently available only to users in the States and Canada).

Best Buy, long a fan of APIs, has just released a new one that not only lets you browse its vast catalog of merchandise but lets you take part in an end-to-end transaction on a third party site. Instead of forcing people to leave a social site or website and trudge over to, buyers can now complete the sale in a single seamless experience.

As brand strategist Brian Phipps writes: “The monolithic brands of the industrial age are giving way to the distributed, participative and democratized brands of the digital age. The forward strength of brands will be free-flowing from the bottom-up, rather than dictated and manipulated from the top down”.

Here are six reasons why your social business should be using APIs:

1. Increased sales

Depending on what you’re selling on your destination website, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to drive additional sales by deputizing bloggers, affiliate retailers and boutique online shops into becoming part of the sales process.

Make it easy for ecommerce allies to grab relevant data and present it to the world using their interface but adhering to your standards. If you’re lucky, a web service developed by a third party could generate new sources of revenue.

2. Increased innovation

What if the community built new products and services on top of your brand’s foundation? The magic of APIs is that your development team and contractors don’t have to create solutions for every possible use of your product or service in the marketplace.

You do know that you can’t possibly handle every imaginable use case and build for every platform and media format, don’t you? In a sense, APIs are the ultimate form of crowdsourcing.

By releasing an open API with specific terms of use, you turn the community into developers and co-collaborators for your brand – at almost zero cost. By building out an external developer ecosystem, you’re essentially adding outside expertise and novel insights to your R&D process.

3. Synergy with new partners

Chances are that the marketplace holds potential partners for your brand that you’re not even aware of. APIs enable business-to-business interactions by opening data and processes to partners, either freely or through a commercial license. 

APIs can target specific communities or networks. For example, Johnson & Johnson created an API offering discounted baby merchandise to mommy bloggers on BlogHer.

4. Increased customer satisfaction

We live in a social media world now. Customers are increasingly expecting brands to be social, to listen to conversations and embrace community input instead of just pushing out marketing messages.

APIs let clever outsiders experiment with finding out what customers want, and giving it to them. If your name is BevMo, chances are that your customers don’t just want to know which wines Wilfred Wong recommends, they’d like suggestions from their own favorite experts, or perhaps from fellow wine lovers.

And here are two reasons your brand should be using someone else’s APIs:

5. Authentication and curation

More and more companies are turning to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn as third-party authentication services – say, for websites, blogs or forums where it adds value to know people’s real names or identities (yes, believe it or not, people don’t want to register on your brand’s site just to leave a comment).

6. Increased reach

APIs are the rocket fuel powering Facebook’s batch of social plug-ins, which let you add Like or Recommend buttons to items for sale on your site.

The average Facebook user, nearly 600m of us, now spends 55 minutes a day on Facebook, and the average Like or Recommend may be seen by a few dozen of your customer’s friends on Facebook (Facebook has said that the average status update is seen by 40 people). Consider how Twisted Oak winery is smartly using Share and Like for all of its wines:

The Spaniard wine

There are dozens of other open APIs your brand might plug into. Geo-aware APIs, like those from SimpleGeo and Foursquare, hold particular promise. Your brand should be innovating to connect with customer-friendly Internet features and, where possible, create something insanely great that a large number of people want to plug into. So start exploring!

Have a question about APIs? Want to discuss how your brand might use this approach? Please share your insights below.