Unless you’re a web developer, you’ve probably never paid much attention to the term “API” — an acronym for “Application Programming Interface.” However, if you’re active on social media, you’ve most likely used a tool or service built by a developer who used an API to create it.

In fact, you might even be reading this article using a tool built through an API. In other words, APIs matter to you and are likely to become even more important to your business in the future, whether you’re a developer or not. In this article, we explain exactly what an API is, and why it matters to your business.

What Is an API?

What is an API?

In its simplest terms (for the non-developers among us), an API is a programming language that allows two different applications to communicate, or interface, with each other. An API is used to enhance features and add functionality to one or both applications. If you prefer a more technical definition, here’s how PC Magazine defines an API:

“API: A language and message format used by an application program to communicate with the operating system or some other control program such as a database management system (DBMS) or communications protocol. APIs are implemented by writing function calls in the program, which provide the linkage to the required subroutine for execution. Thus, an API implies that some program module is available in the computer to perform the operation or that it must be linked into the existing program to perform the tasks.” – PCmag.com

Thanks to APIs, social media marketing has become easier, more trackable, and more profitable. Many of the social tools that businesses and individuals use every day rely on APIs from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google, Flickr, LinkedIn, Foursquare, and more.

Why APIs Matter for Businesses

Why APIs matter for Business

Have you ever used a Twitter or Facebook app? How about a WordPress plugin? Do you use Google Analytics? Most of these tools rely on APIs. Without access to the code behind social media tools like Twitter and Facebook, developers (like ours) would not have been able to create our popular social media management tool Sprout Social. Without APIs, content providers like the Apple App Store and the Android Marketplace would be very small!

APIs matter to businesses because they enable tech-savvy innovators to develop amazing tools that help us do our jobs, market our companies better, and drive revenues. For example, the Facebook advertising API makes it possible for businesses to create ad campaigns on the most popular social networking site in the world.

Many companies have realized the opportunities that APIs offer and have launched their own tools and apps to provide added benefits to their customers. Email marketing companies have APIs that enable users to manage subscriber lists and campaigns in new ways. Similarly, rewards programs and location-based marketing have become increasingly popular as more and more apps are launched to make program creation, execution, management, and tracking simpler.

The popularity of APIs isn’t limited to social media. For example, the PayPal API is used to create donation services that non-profit organizations use on their websites. You can see for yourself just how extensive APIs are by perusing the API directory found at ProgrammableWeb.

What’s Next for APIs?

What's Next for APIs

The demand for tools and applications created from APIs isn’t slowing down. Companies that offer their APIs freely to developers benefit from increased use of their own services and reduced costs; companies don’t have to pay for developers to create or manage these tools in-house.

With APIs, developers can more quickly launch useful tools, while individuals and businesses benefit from the functionality that these tools provide. It’s really just the beginning of the story for APIs!

[Image credit: Dan Craggs, Odi Kosmatos, Steve Garfield, Brad Lewis]