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Open your data to the world

Neil Savage | April 17, 2013
Public APIs let customers connect to you in new ways.

When Best Buy first launched its API, BBYOpen, in 2009, it gave developers access only to the chain's products catalog, with descriptions and prices for all the items it had on sale, in the hopes that doing so would bring in more customers. That was part of a deliberate strategy to start slowly, says Steve Bendt, director of emerging platforms at Best Buy. "We had to prove these things over time," he says. "We started to prove out that this is a very vibrant and viable area to pursue."

Key takeaways

What you need to know about creating open APIs to your data:

Make it easy. Outside developers -- those at your customers' shops -- may have great ideas for how to use the data you make available, but the API itself needs to be understandable and easy to work with. Clear documentation and tools to help are must-haves.

Make sure your licensing terms are clear and fair. Successful APIs tend to have MIT-style open-source software licenses.

Use REST unless you absolutely need SOAP. About three quarters of all APIs are REST-based, according to ProgrammableWeb, with SOAP a distant second.

Be prepared for cultural resistance. Some of the data 'owners' may be reluctant at first to share the jewels. You might explain how the World Bank, Best Buy, Bloomberg and others have used the technique to reach customers in new ways and/or further their organization's mission.

But external developers wanted more, so the company added the ability to access reviews and ratings for products, find a nearby store and check whether a product is available there, and purchase the item through the website or mobile app in question, perhaps with a single click if the user has linked a credit card to the app.

It's been a hit. The mobile apps ShopSavvy, RedLaser and Milo all use BBYOpen as part of their apps. The makers of the app get a commission on sales through Best Buy's affiliate program. Shoppers can search for an item, or scan a bar code, and get information on pricing from various sellers.

Of course, that might mean a customer using the app might wind up buying from a competitor instead, but Bendt says that since websites and mobile apps have changed how people shop, what's important for Best Buy is to be in the mix. "If we're not in the consideration set, that's a missed opportunity." And the fact that the API makes it possible for customers to find out if a product is available for pickup at a nearby store once they've purchased it helps provide a competitive edge over online-only retailers, he says. "Now you can search for, buy and pick up within a matter or 20 to 40 minutes."

 

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