Shutterstock

To the layperson, social media is a convenient way to keep in touch with friends and family. To businesses, it’s a powerful platform for building social graphs, launching promotions, and engaging with customers in exciting new ways. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, are just a handful of examples of apps that have created entire API-driven ecosystems around themselves, providing a hotbed of innovation and marketing opportunities. In an increasingly digital world, no organization can afford to ignore these massive networks that have become so intertwined with our daily lives.

So how can you make the most of social API development in your app? If you’ve already created accounts for your business or app and linked to them on your homepage, you’re on the right track. But there’s another way to take your social strategy to the next level — social APIs. Read on to learn more about social APIs and learn some tips and tricks on how you can use them to scale up your social strategy.

Why Develop with Social APIs?

Short for “application program interface,” an API is simply an interface for the back-end of one program to communicate with another. In essence, an API allows one app to access a subset of data or functionality from another app in a simple, secure way. For example, rather than forcing new users to fill out a profile, many apps allow users to sign in using their existing Facebook profile. From the user’s perspective, they get a smoother user experience and greater integration between their social apps. From the app developer’s perspective, APIs can lower the barrier for signups or conversions, or give them easy access to valuable features.

Below we’ve put together some best practices for developing with social APIs.

1. Pick the right APIs for your needs

There are a ton of social media platforms out there, but not all of them are likely to be relevant to your app. Before you devote dev resources to integrating an API into your app, ask yourself where your target user likes to spend their time online and what functionality you want an API to take care of. Many of the biggest social networks out there, like Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, and LinkedIn, have APIs to expedite the signup process as well as posting to their various social feeds. You might also be able to leverage users’ existing data, location, friends and followers, and more.

The next step is to understand where else your target market likes to spend their time online. You can use data from major general-purpose networks to gain insight into other social platforms that are better suited for your target market. If you’re looking to add communication or chat capabilities to your app, you might also tap into an API service like Twilio.

Finally, you’ll want to know what type of interactions make the most sense for your app. Integration with Flickr, for example, might make sense for a photography app that allows users to edit and slap filters on their photos, because many photographers use that social media platform, and you want to enable users to upload content to their favorite social media site. Or, the Twitter API could let you load tweets relevant to a particular hashtag related to your content.

Know what an API can and can’t do and what its limitations are before you start planning features around its services.

2. Be Creative

Allowing users to instantly log in to your app and piggybacking off of larger social media platforms’ data to give you a marketing edge are just the beginning of social API integrations. True digital maestros can take those new capabilities and combine them with larger marketing campaigns to craft multiplatform experiences for their users.

To take one example, consider the way sports have been transformed by social media. These days, mobile devices are nearly as important to the experience of watching sports as the TV itself. Fans use apps to keep tabs on scores, play against friends in fantasy leagues, chat in real time with other fans, and broadcast their play-by-play reactions across multiple social media platforms. Social APIs are the glue that allows all of these interactions to work in concert—and, say, allow a broadcaster to publish related tweets about a game on a ticker across the bottom of the screen.

These are just a few ways developers are using social APIs to power their engagement and content marketing strategies. Those same APIs can also be used to provide the back-end support for events, contests, and other marketing campaigns.

3. Good Documentation is Key

An API is only as useful as its documentation, so make sure you choose APIs that are well supported before you entrust them with critical functionality. Well documented APIs can also teach you about additional functionality you may not have considered. For example, we’ve already covered how Facebook’s API can be used to authenticate logins, but did you know you can also let your users to post their photos and videos on your app directly to their Facebook feeds? By heading to Facebook’s official Graph API documentation, you can quickly learn how to use this RESTful API.

When vetting lesser-known third-party APIs you wish to potentially integrate into your app, consider how polished and complete their documentation is, and whether the developer community around the API is mature enough for you to use it in your business. There’s nothing worse than struggling with an API with poor documentation, customer service, and little community backchatter to help you work through potential problems.

4. Pay attention to security

In a world of SQL/script injections, exploits, and other authentication vulnerabilities, it pays to be familiar with the security protocols and encryption used on any third-party API you integrate into your app. After all, APIs are all about granting access to an organization’s assets, so anything you don’t want accessed needs to be shielded at all times.

If you intend to use an API from a major social media platform to write an add-on version of your app for that platform, you’ll have access to higher level of authorization rights, and should take extra care to use security best practices like the Internet Engineering Task Force’s OAuth standard. Or, stay up to date on the latest threats using resources like the REST Security Cheat Sheet from OWASP (Open Web Application Security Project).

5. Be careful not to let throttling limit performance.

Throttling and rate limits are put in place by API creators to keep certain users from monopolizing traffic to the server. Your access tokens can limit use of an API to a number of calls, whether it’s per 15 minutes, per hour, per day, or per user. When a call limit is exceeded, any call to an API will return an error—something that can frustrate users and affect your revenue. Check the limits of your API key—whether it’s freemium, paid, or otherwise—against your expected traffic. It’s important to keep those limits in mind when planning how you’ll use an API to ensure that having that getting throttled won’t affect your app’s user experience.

A great way to discover bottlenecks like throttling before you launch your new app is through extensive unit testing. Some APIs even provide test users to make sandboxing your app even easier. The actual testing framework you use will, of course, depend on which language your back-end is built.

6. Get the most out of your social data with analytics APIs

If you’re utilizing different social channels for your business, each of these channels will present unique ways for users to interact with your content—and generate varied types of data from those interactions. APIs are an efficient way to gather that data and make sense of it all.

Analytics APIs like Google can help you extract meaningful metrics from all your social media sources. Tools like HootSuite, Zoho Social, Sysomos, and quintly can significantly streamline any social media campaign by giving you a single dashboard through which you can control and collect user analytics from across all your social media accounts. Some also give you a single portal through which you can post and curate content and keep your accounts active and engaged with users.

These are just a few things to keep in mind when integrating a social API into your application. To learn more about how to use APIs in today’s digital world, download The API Economy ebook.