What is an API? A straightforward answer

Matt Geary in Growth hacking on 5th of Dec 2018
What is an API

What is an API?

If you've worked in the tech space for any period of time, you'll be familiar with the mess of confusing jargon floating around the industry.

I still have plenty of painful memories of sitting in meeting rooms while my coworkers talked at me with all sorts of confusing terms, acronyms and abbreviations. To the untrained ear, CTR, UX, CX and API don't make much sense. At the time, I just I did what I needed to do.

I smiled, I nodded and I Googled it all later.

API was one of the big ones thrown around the office — at least in the world of digital marketing software. So what is it?

API is short for Application Programming Interface. It's a set of functions and procedures (read: code) that allow applications, operating systems or websites to interact with each other. That's it. It's simply a pathway for digital entities to exchange information.

The internet is just a network of computers

Understanding the underpinnings of the internet helps API us breakdown what an API does.

Every page on the internet is stored on a remote server somewhere in the world. A server is just a computer that's optimized to process requests from browsers. So when you type www.autopilothq.com into the address bar, your browser makes a request to the remote server. The remote server sends a response back to your browser as code. Your browser then interprets this code and displays the web page.

To your browser (also known as the client) the Autopilot server is an API. So, every time you visit a page on the internet, you're telling your browser to interact with the API of a remote server.

In this way, an API is the part of the server that receives requests from browsers and sends responses back as data.

APIs allow services to communicate with each other

A clear example of API in action is embedded content. Think about if you’ve ever seen a Google Map embedded on a website's "Find a store" page or similar. That website's developers haven't coded this map from scratch — they've used the Google Maps API to embed that map into their website.

Google exposes APIs like this to web developers, who can then use the APIs to incorporate complex features directly onto their web pages. If the Google Maps API didn’t exist, developers would likely have to create their own interactive map, including providing their own map data. This would be a mammoth task for almost any team.

The “embedding” example applies to other popular internet services, like embedding YouTube videos or requesting text translations from Google Translate. The API in each of these services provides an avenue for data to be easily exchanged across servers.

Using API to connect products and data

You've probably seen an API as a product or offering from tech companies. APIs like this makes life easier for developers by providing a “'path”' to exchanging information between products, apps and databases.

We actually have a product that's a great example of this — the Autopilot API integration. The way it works is the same as other APIs, but it's specific to sending and receiving information to and from Autopilot. It allows you to sync information from products or apps that are bespoke or aren't in our integrations list.

This is extremely useful if your product or service is an app itself, or if you have data siloed in an application like MySQL, Snowflake, Google BigQuery or Amazon Redshift.

Using the Autopilot API, you can:

  • Send contacts from Autopilot to your app
  • Send contacts from your app to Autopilot
  • Trigger customer journeys in Autopilot from your app
  • Keep dynamic conditions like customer unsubscribes in sync
  • Improve contact profiles with custom fields and data from your app
  • Sync data from your app and into Salesforce using Autopilot's native Salesforce integration

Using APIs as a marketer: a use case

Imagine you send your customers an invitation to register for a webinar. You use your marketing automation tool to send customers the direct invite via email with a direct sign-up link powered by your online meeting tool (like join.me or GoToMeeting).

In this scenario, you now have a problem — you have customer engagement data spread across two separate systems.

If you're familiar with the way API works, you'll know how you can use it to fix data confliction or duplication in this situation:

1. Generate an API script that sends the customer registration data from your online meeting tool to your marketing automation software

2. Now the two systems are connected via API, you can see the registration activity tied to the metrics from your initial email (such as click-through data)

3. The registration data sent through your API can be used to automate follow-up and reminder emails based on engagement to your webinar

In the end, most marketers won't need to have hands-on experience with APIs. It's a  developer-centric thing, and will definitely stay that way. But that's not to say that an API isn't an important thing to know about — marketing stacks are becoming bigger and more complex than ever before.

Knowing the basics about how APIs work will give you a huge advantage in a tech-heavy marketing world. Especially so over colleagues and competitors that haven't done their homework.

In addition to Autopilot’s API you can also sync your apps and customer data through software like PieSync. Autopilot now integrates with PieSync to provide a two-way sync between a variety of apps — so customer data is always kept up-to-date.

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