There are many times when you’ll want to send a message to your developers, and there are (and should be) multiple possible venues for that message. There are some messages that are just for fun, there are some absolutely business-critical messages that will affect API implementations in production, and there are some messages that are targeted at gaining more developers. All these messages belong in different places, summarized here:
- Blog: New features, highlighted apps, relevant events - basically, feel good stuff.
- Notify List: Major bugs, new releases, heads up about upcoming changes.
- Twitter: Re-tweets of relevant tweets, tweets pointing to blog posts or other links, replies to developers.
- Discussion Forum: Re-posts of notify list/blog/twitter, if any of them require discussion.
- Newsletter: Summary or subset of all of the above, but in a nice, readable format.
It used to be that a blog was used for everything, from the mundane (bugs/outages/release notes) to the new and exciting features. Now, blogs have turned into such an art form and attracted such a wide audience from the hardcore developer to the curious pseudo-geek that it no longer makes sense to put the more mundane items in a blog. Blogs have become, it seems, a vehicle for marketing, and it looks a bit strange to market an outage (unless a massive apology is called for). So, on your blog, focus on the good stuff - the stuff that will get people exciteed.
When you have a new feature in the API, announce it with a blog post, and include a demo that shows off the feature. Even small features can have fun demos, if you get creative enough.
On the Maps API blog, I created a zombie shoot-them-up to announce GScreenOverlay, a feature that was actually not terribly exciting and was redundant with existing functionality, and I created a digital clock to show off GMarker.setImage(). You should always, of course, have a demo that shows off the standard usage of the new feature, but feel free to have some fun with the launch demo in the blog post.
When you know of upcoming events related to the API - whether they’re organized by you or an external developer - boost their attendance by posting about them on the blog. If there are a lot of events coming up (as often happens in “conference season”), you can do a summary blog post with the dates and registration links for each of them. Here’s an upcoming events blog post from May 2008, and another post highlighting just a hackathon in Seattle.
Some of the larger events will be relevant to all of your developers, as they’ll be big enough to warrant the cost of flying in, but even if the smaller events are nowhere near most of your developers, it’s still good to demonstrate that there is a worldwide developer presence. Often at Google, it can seem as if we only hold events in the bay area and only care about the developers there, but it’s not actually the case (anymore), and hopefully our recent international events blog posts demonstrate that.
After an event happens, consider posting a round-up of the event on the blog - particularly if there are slides or videos from the talks at the event. A lot of developers like to learn by watching videos or flipping through slides, so you can get more bang for your buck by making those resources available online and pointing to them.
We held a series of talks for a small audience of ~20 geo developers at our Google Mountain View campus, posted the videos online, and after linking to them from a summary blog post and a fewother places, the top videos have 15-20,000 views. It’s amazing that you can hold an event for 20 developers and reach 1000 times that amount. Never under-estimate the power of the viral internet.
Highlighted API Uses¶
Another way you can use your blog is to highlight different uses of your API. If you find a third party website that uses the API in an amazing way, or if you have a partner that you’ve been working with that you want to highlight, then ask them to do a blog post that explains their use of the API and gives some tips.
LonelyPlanet wrote an informational blog post for our blog about how they optimized their use of the Static Maps API for use on mobile phones, and Travellr wrote a blog post explaining their complex but highly effective clustering technique. Just make sure that a guest blog post isn’t -just- showing off that developer/company - it needs to be technically useful as well.
If you recently launched a new feature and you want to show off the different ways that developers are using it, then you can write a post that summarizes a couple different sites. Before writing this blog post about the use of the StreetView API, I solicited links in the forum and promised schwag for any links that I featured. It was a great way of making new connections and finding good, demo-able sites. I still show off half of those sites when I present on that API. Another example is this blog post summing up ways of using the Static Maps API, and framing it as a series of tips with links, in the hope that other developers would be inspired to emulate the techniques.
Finally, you can use your blog for seasonal fun. Yes, you should probably be spending your holidays with your family, but writing holiday demos has got to be the second best way to celebrate.
My first holiday blog post was an app to scratch a valentines day message in the earth (and I made it count double by having the default message a dedication to my boyfriend of the time). I then declared March to be the month of March Marker Madness and rolled out a series of marker-related posts, including an easter egg hunt. For Halloween, I wrote the zombie shoot-em-up, and for Christmas, I wrote up how we used the Maps API to power the Santa Tracker (we can track everything at Google). I celebrated the anniversary of my first holiday blog post with a Valentine’s Day `greeting card maker`_, but since I was single that year and a bit bitter, I also wrote a break-as-many-hearts-as-you-can game. Hey, if I was single, there’s a good chance that a portion of my developer audience was single and feeling the same urge.
As you can see, holidays can be a great opportunity to bring out the personality and fun in your blog, and give you an excuse to use your API in new and wacky ways.
Continuing on that note - an official API blog is still intended to be authored by individuals, and individuals should maintain their own personalities. Feel free to inject your individuality, emotions, and childhood stories into your posts, as that will make them more readable and bring your audience closer to you. Just don’t go as far as revealing something like your home address - there are creepy people in the world, and creepy people tend to use the internet.
Some developers don’t care about the “fluff” - they’re using your API in production, and they just want to know about the news that will affect their current code. They don’t have the time to sift through blog posts and forum discussions to find the relevant news. This is the purpose of the notify list - a read-only announcements list that contains all business, nothing frivolous: new releases, major bugs/outages, and heads ups on upcoming changes or upgrades.
For v2 of the Google Maps API, every new release is potentially relevant to all developers, as it is unfortunately the case that a new release may break any version of the API (not a good practice). If a developer is looking at their website and suddenly seeing some new or different behavior with their map, they know that they can check the notify list to see when a release happened and determine if it was related. In our release posts, we describe bugs fixed, link to a full changelog, and remind developers to post in the forum to discuss any changes they’re seeing. For example, ere’s an example post announcing release 2.171 of Maps API v2.
It is unfortunately the case that shit happens, and shit is even more likely to happen to an web API. When a major bug happens in your API, your goal as an API provider is to eliminate that bug or find a way to prevent your developers from experiencing it, and keep your developers informed along the way.
As soon as you discover a bug that affects the majority or a significantly large number of your developers (or users of their apps), you should post to the list acknowledging awareness of the bug, list any known workarounds, and promise that you are working on it. Once the bug is resolved (hopefully within a matter of hours if it’s a big one), post again to the list and inform developers that everything is working as expected again. Here’s the post I wrote when we discovered our HTTP Geocoder’s XML output was invalid for everyone, and here’s the follow-up when it was resolved.
You should develop some criteria for deciding what a critical bug is for your own API, so that you don’t spam the list for little issues that don’t affect many developers (those are serviced fine in the issue tracker).
There are times in the (infinite?) lifetime of an API when you will want to either change the behavior of some existing functionality, or perhaps even deprecate a piece of functionality. Now, usually, when you deprecate part of a Web API, you will almost always have to keep it around for a good while or forever, but atleast you do not have to make further fixes to it, and you can make sure new developers do not use it. The notify group is a great way to let developer know that these kind of API changes are coming.
When you’re quite certain that the change is coming (i.e. the launch is approved or the code is submitted), make a post to the list that describes the change and the expected nearest date it could happen. Try to do this post atleast a month in advance, in case any developers want to change their code. (You may think it’s an easy change to make, but you never know what sort of Q&A/release process a developer has to go through). Here’s a post I wrote about a change in the firing of an event, and here’s a post about a change in the look and feel to a control. As you can see, these are the kind of changes that may not necessarily warrant a change in the documentation, and don’t count as a breakage, but may easily break assumptions that a developer’s code makes. So, when in doubt, let developers know!
We use a Google Group for our notify list, as that means that it can be read online, subscribed to via RSS, or subscribed to via email, and that’s the kind of flexibility that developers need. To get developers to subscribe, we put a subscription box on the landing page of each API, and we link to it from the FAQ about support. It would be better if there was a consistent way to link to notify groups across Google developer products, but since it is a concept that we introduced only recently, each product has come up with their own scheme.
In an ideal world, when a developer signs up for your API (e.g. to get a key), they will be presented with the option to subscribe to the mailing list - that way you would get every developer on the list that cared.
Twitter is often described as “microblogging” - a mini blog post in 140 characters - and it turns out that people love to try and squeeze their thoughts and status into this small amount of text. I think that part of the reason for the success of microblogging is the high bar of actual blogging these days - blogs are now an art form, and people expect blog posts to be polished and of a decent length. So, it’s not easy to churn out many blog posts in a day - but hey, 140 characters, you can come up with that during your potty break.
For a corporate entity like an API, a tweet can be a great way to communicate the smaller things that don’t warrant a full blog post, but are still interesting to the developer world.
As noted in the keeping tabs section, you should be constantly monitoring Twitter for tweets relevant to your API. When you see something interesting (usually a website using the API), re-tweet it from your API account. If there’s space, try to add your own commentary to the re-tweet. Here’s an example re-tweet that does that:
RT @oschicago: On the Road with the Google Maps API: http://is.gd/1hJTo - Great article on using GDirections!
Twitter users love giving their opinion, and generally just love having something to say. Thus, they love responding to questions posted by other users. So, a great way of engaging your twitter audience is to ask questions in your tweets. For an API, the obvious questions are asking who uses what parts of the API, or who uses the API for what reasons. You can ask the questions as standalone tweets, or append them to other relevant tweets. Here’s an example link tweet with a question at the end:
Orbitz is now using the Street View API on its hotel listings! http://tr.im/wBIl - Are any of you
developers using it for hotel search?
On Twitter, you can reply to users by starting the tweet with their username. As an API account, you want to avoid having conversations on Twitter that should be taking place in the forum or issue tracker instead. So, when possible, use replies to direct conversations to the proper venue or to give final answers.
When you see a tweet about the API and it mentions a possible bug or complains about documentation, reply to the tweet and ask them to post it in the issue tracker. When you see a tweet about a current big outage in the API (as it will get tweeted about when it happens), point them to the notify list post about it. The basic idea here is to make sure Twitter users knows that you’re always listening to their feedback.
Sometimes, Twitter users will direct a message to your account, or mention it in a tweet, often asking a question or recommending that you check out a site. Answer their question using the same technique as above, and if it’s a nice site, consider re-tweeting it.
If you’ve put yourself in charge of twittering for your API, the chances are that you are already a Twitter user - meaning that you now have a personal Twitter account and a corporate Twitter account to maintain. This can be tricky to do, considering that each require their own login, and considering that Twitter is kind of an always-on experience.
The first option is to simply have two different browsers, one logged into each account. That’s not ideal if you’re a power Twitter user though, because the Twitter website itself is pretty basic and doesn’t wrap up all the functionality that you should be using.
The better option is to use a Twitter app or client that includes functionality like saved searches and also allows for logins from multiple accounts. For example, TweetDeck is an AIR app that works across Windows and Mac and supports both those features. It is a bit scary that both logins are saved into the same app - it means you need to be a bit more careful to make sure you don’t tweet a personal status from your corporate account.
A more secure option is to use two different Twitter apps, one for your personal account, and one for your corporate account. There are other TweetDeck-like apps like Seesmic, there are browser extensions like Chromed Bird, and there are webapps that specifically cater to the corporate tweeters, like HootSuite. For a small fee, HootSuite lets you share an account with another user, so if you share tweeting responsibilities with a colleague, you can both see the same view of saved searches, pending tweets, and statistics.
The discussion forum should primarily exist for discussion of API development, and that generally means that most posts will be from developers. But, since the forum has an active audience, and since developers like to discuss anything API-related, you can use it as a place to re-post items from the blog, notify list, or Twitter. The key is to use your discretion so that you don’t dominate the posts.
For the Maps API, I have a policy of always re-posting in the forum any message that is posted to the notify list. This does mean that the good developers get messages twice, but I like giving the developers a place to discuss the releases, bugs, or upcoming changes. If you don’t give them an obvious way to discuss those posts, then they will 1) assume that you don’t care about their voices, and 2) email you personally with their thoughts. Both of these outcomes are undesirable.
As for re-posting blog posts or links that I tweeted, I will do it every so often. Those posts make for a nice, happy change from the typical “my app doesn’t work posts”, and make the forums into a happier place that hopefully developers will want to be in. This is a particularly good idea for forums that still have small communities, as it motivates developers to pay attention to the forum posts so that they’ll see the inspirational or informational posts, and every so often, they may decide to respond to a forum post as well. As examples, this post links to a blog post made on our blog, this post announces a new demo and encourages developers to add their demos, and this post links to two cool uses of the API from non-Google developers.