All online businesses need to be looking for faster, wider and deeper distribution of their content or services. Think about your own strategy. Does your online product or service already have an API? Should it?
Your business is a platform.
In order for this model to work, you will need to attract top independent developers to apply their magical brains and coding chops to your business and to encourage a developer community to grow within the heart, mind, soul and body of your business.
You can call it a developer program, but do not mark it as a technical or support task, put it down as a primary business development strategy because that’s what it is, it’s rainmaking.
What you’ll want to do is to create the conditions for a community to form, thrive, produce and grow.
Think gardening, not engineering. Don’t manage, cultivate.
The goal is to populate your ecosystem with energetic, creative and technically gifted individuals, groups and companies that are highly motivated to invest their own time and money by building new businesses on your platform. As the successful services built on your API’s become important distribution channels for your business they will probably, in the aggregate, grow larger and faster than your own branded distribution.
Let’s get practical. I see five basic phases that must be addressed in order to benefit from a developer program (assuming, of course, that your API actually solves a problem that merits solving): creation, activation, retention, productivity and growth.
Creation: In more traditional business lingo this would be called lead generation or customer acquisition, but here we are concerned with preparing the fertile, accessible and attractive top soil in which to grow a developer community. You will need to:
+ clearly define the value proposition to developers;
+ identify a developer profile likely to understand and to be excited by your business and figure out the best channels in which to strut your stuff: niche blogs, social media channels, industry events, personal networking and SEO for starters;
+ plan self-hosted events and contests; and
+ provide great tools so that developers can kick the tires!
You must have someone in your organization that is fluent in the social skills of a tummler, AKA someone that knows how to guide, encourage/reprimand, engage/ignore, shout/whisper, cajole and generally spark online conversations and communities. You won’t get past this first stage without a tummler!
You are creating the culture in which the community will define and nourish itself. Read: Communities of Yes.
Activation: Once you have the attention and interest of a community, your focus ought to shift — make the community aware of its own existence by offering online and real world opportunities for members to get to know you and each other.
This is the most delicate and difficult phase. The quality of your business proposition and the awesomeness of your technology must be amplified as you make individual developers feel like they are part of an active community, that they have a real opportunity to create a viable business, are important to your company, are respected for their creativity, technical abilities and feedback.
Your program should:
+ allow for fast and easy registration;
+ permit cost-free to access to experiment, no obligation;
+ require payment only for deployed apps with no lockin;
+ offer quick start guides, examples, implementation ideas;
+ have a wide variety of devices available for testing at your hacker events;
+ provide support and direct channels to your team; and
+ be built on a reliable, robust and standards-compliant technological platform.
Sponsor developer pitch contests, hackdays and participation in industry events. Keep in close touch with your developers throughout their participation in order to suss out hiccups before they become problems, turn crazy ideas into tangible products and discover use patterns.
Retention: If you can achieve all this, you will have also built the loyalty necessary to retain the attention of developers that have become part of the community! This is an incredibly valuable driver of the entire program because these developers will begin to spread the word to others in their social and professional networks. The developer community itself can be great generator of buzz and organic marketing.
Productivity: Some developers will innately understand the market, their product ideas and the value of the API as good or better than you do. They will ship successful products and provide incredibly valuable suggestions, improvements and feedback. They will also inspire other developers and create healthy coopetition.
For these developers your job is to make sure that they know you are listening. Respond quickly and positively to their requests and questions and proactively add features that you know they will appreciate.
There will be other developers just as keen to work with you, but who’ll need more guidance and support. This can be very time consuming, so you must make sure to have tools such as wikis, forums or knowledge bases that allow these interactions to be as public and searchable as possible to reach the maximum number of similarly situated developers.
In the beginning is much better to have a lower number of high value success stories than many low value ones. The high value successes, over and above their direct business value, will bring in many more new developers just by word of mouth.
Track the statistics of your developer community based on the metrics that make most sense for your business. At a minimum you should be able to analyze the number of registrations, number of apps and projects, apps per developer, developer churn, support activities, most effective marketing channels and word of mouth growth. Look for bottlenecks and figure out how to improve your performance. Don’t forget to also keep tabs on your brand’s online buzz and reputation in the world outside of your own community.
Growth: If you’re firing on all cylinders, your organic growth numbers should already be happily trending upward. You can encourage further growth by getting better at the activities that I already described and by thinking about new ways that you can make your developers be more successful.
Here’s a list of other things you could consider doing to up your game:
+ promote top developer projects in your company’s marketing campaigns;
+ provide help with app store submissions when needed;
+ open doors to industrial partners that developers may not have access to — mobile operators, handset manufacturers or media companies;
+ provide expert sessions at your hackdays; and
+ provide a place for non-developers (B2B customers and end-users) to post job requests and product ideas. Then help put them in touch with the best developers in the community.
Want to see how it’s done? The most recent Music Hack Day in NYC is a great example. Check out the list of sponsors and the API’s that were hacked. And you don’t need to be in NYC or Silicon Valley to have a successful event, hackers can be found everywhere! Look what Max Ciociola e Stefano Bernardi did in Milano: HackItaly was a mega-successful event.
The beauty of this kind of program is that the direct economic benefit is just the start. Your developer community is also resource for market and technological research, recruiting new talent and strengthening your place in the larger ecosystem. And it’s fun