How To Say You Might Charge For API Access In The Future Without Being A Jerk

I get it. It takes money to operate APIs. I’m a big advocate for making sure API providers, even public data API providers can sensibly charge for access to their valuable resources. I’m also painfully aware at how unrealistic a libertarian driven view of the web being open and free makes it very difficult to begin charging for data that has been historically free. However, I’m also a fan of helping API providers understand how they can communicate that they might / will be charging for access to data at some point in the future without being complete jerks about it.

I see API providers regularly make the statement that they will begin charging for API access at some point in the future, but this particular story is driven from hearing it out of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) making changes to their terms of service, where one of the bullet points was that they would begin charging for access at some point. Making the announcement that you intend to begin charging for something that has been free is challenging in any API ecosystem, but especially so within public data API ecosystems like WMATA. In any of these environments you can’t just shoot across your community’s bow with a statement like this, and expect a positive response. Doing so, just shows how out of touch with your community you are.

First rule of communicating around the business side of your road map is don’t just say you’ll be charging at some point and leave things there. Give details of what this means. Demonstrate your knowledge around how API management and service composition works. Will ALL developers be charged? Will it just be commercial developers? Will it be developers over a certain level of consumption? Do not leave it to the communities imagination regarding what will happen, because this is where the powers of Internet speculation will take hold, and begin working against your API efforts. This is where your entire community will begin talking about how these changes will impact their business, and begin to prepare for the worst, even if the changes won’t even impact them. Creating a ripple effect across your API platform, and potentially hurting business beyond what will actually be reality.

Next, share some thoughts behind the reasoning behind these changes. Craft a blog post. Hold some office hours. Talk to your API consumers about why you will need to start charging for access to ALL or some of your API resources. Back up the details you provied with some actual insight into what went into the decision making process. Prove to your API consumers that you have their best interest in mind, and aren’t just looking to screw everyone over. A lack of visibility into the decision making process will only push your API consumers to assume the worst. Ideally, this isn’t just a one time event, and you publish a series of blog posts sharing the story behind the process of needing to generate more revenue, to cover rising costs, or whatever else might be the reason behind the need to charge for access at some point in the future. Don’t make this just a sudden thing, build up to it, and ease your community into the concept that APIs will move from free to paid.

After providing details on the API monetization strategy and plan, and sharing the story behind this shift in platform operations, lean on your API feedback loop as part of your shift in strategy. You have a strong feedback loop in place directly with your strongest API consumers, and at scale across the rest of your API consumers, right? You actively understand what your strongest platform consumers are thinking, and how the introduction of fees might impact their operations, right? I’m guessing if you are making vague statements about charging for access in the future and just walking away, that there is NO feedback loop, or the feedback loop is pernicious to say the least. You don’t really have much interest in what your API consumers are thinking, and how the shifts in a fee structure and monetization strategy will impact them. Otherwise, you’d fully understand the impacts of making statements about charging for API consumption at some date down the road.

Being an API provider isn’t easy. Balancing your platform concerns with those of your API consumers isn’t easy. Time and time again I see providers enter into the game without having put much thought into a monetization strategy, and have no coherent plan in place. Making changes down the road painful for everyone. Do yourself a favor, and spend the time learning about modern API management practices, and how API service composition works. Visit the API portals of leading API providers to see how they have structured their plans, and composed their service access tiers. Talk to people like me who study this stuff for a living, before you ever go public with your API. However, once you do, know that communication is essential, and that you won’t get away with being a jerk on this stuff, and just randomly telling people that at some point in the future you will be charging for access doesn’t fly in API-land, things don’t work like that.