Attack of the APIs

Two years ago, I wrote a column that quoted Amazon’s Jeff Barr saying “I think we are still on day one of a long journey with Web services.” Little did I know what was ahead.

What I called Web services then are now more commonly known by other names. People know them as APIs, or application program interfaces. They’re also called “mashups,” when one or more of these services are mashed together with other content to often-amazing results.

Over the past few months, we’ve seen some compelling uses of these APIs for marketing-related mashups. ClickZ columnist Ian Schafer‘s agency put together a mash-up with Google Maps that let fans of HBO’s The Sopranos re-visit some of the places and events in the gangster show’s past seasons. Nike put together a Google Maps app to plot running routes for its Run London community. And more recently, General Mills’ Nature Valley granola bar brand asked nature-lovers “Where’s Yours?” on a site that uses a mapping interface similar to Google’s. I’m sure there are plenty more I’m failing to mention here. (Feel free to drop me a line if you have some great examples.)

These services have become popular because marketers and advertisers — in search of that elusive “engagement” — have figured out there are two paths to winning consumers’ attention. One is to entertain them. Hence the viral video, long-form advertisement-on-demand trend. The other is to give them something useful with a practical application. APIs can help marketers do both, but they probably lean toward the “useful” realm.

What do all the above examples have in common? Maps. In most cases, Google Maps. While we’ve seen some really cool things done with mapping applications, they may not work for your brand, or your clients’ brands. This week, thankfully, things have gotten a lot more interesting, API-wise.

On Monday, AOL took the wraps off its “open AIM” strategy. It lets people create sites and services that tap into the instant messaging client’s functionality and its 63 million active worldwide user base. The next day, the company continued its streak by releasing an API for its MapQuest property. Not to be outdone, Yahoo Tuesday announced plans to deliver four new APIs in the coming months that will allow developers, and the marketers that work with them, to tap into Yahoo Photos, Calendar, MyWeb and Shopping. This on top of the company’s existing APIs, including those for its Web 2.0 properties Flickr, del.icio.us, Webjay and upcoming.org.

AOL’s AIM news is particularly exciting as it enables marketers to both facilitate communication and to engage in communication with users themselves. Under the new AOL program, marketers can do everything from build a custom AIM client with a branded skin and unique user experience, to stick an AIM presence indicator on a Web site for customer service purposes. Marketers might also embrace the mash-up concept by embedding brand-specific functionality, such as an MTV-branded music player or a Wall Street Journal branded stock ticker.

“I think it’s as creative as the human imagination at this point,” Krista Thomas, an AOL spokesperson, told me.

Online publishers, too, can take advantage of all this gadgety goodness on their sites. Some, like Rollyo, a “personalized search engine,” are built entirely on other platforms (Yahoo Search, in this instance), and could potentially carry pretty darned targeted advertising (from Google AdSense or Yahoo Publisher Network, perhaps?).

It’s all a little overwhelming. With all these different services, there are probably as many potential applications as there are brands. Yahoo has provided some ideas to spark your imagination at gallery.yahoo.com. Some of the more interesting ones combine mapping applications (Yahoo Maps’ API was released a while back) with Flickr photos or user-generated videos. AOL says it has a plug-ins gallery in the works, too. Definitely check them out and keep an eye on the blogosphere (and to ClickZ News and News Blog) to see what other marketers dream up.

Speaking of which, if you’ve created an innovative mashup or API usage for your brand or client, drop me a line and we consider it for coverage and linkage on our blog.

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