Here is the situation: You have an API – or a set of them – and you want third-party developers to run wild with it in new and unexpected ways. The words “innovation”, “ecosystem”, “community” and “crowdsourcing” are being thrown around liberally. Sponsoring hackathons has started some fantastic conversations, but the software created during these 24-48 hour sprints never seems to make it to market. Now you’re considering running a longer virtual software competition, or challenge, to spur a higher level of engagement.
Great idea…if done correctly.
Having seen more than our share of software challenges here at ChallengePost, we’ve learned what makes them successful. Our CEO, Brandon Kessler details his top three tips in the embedded video from SXSW in 2011, and I added a couple of my own.
Few web platforms are as simple as they seem at first glance, and slapping together a site worthy of representing your challenge to the global developer community requires more than drag-and-drop front-end wizardry. Throwing up a registration form on a paltry blog post or landing page won’t cut it. As the hub of your software competition – and a major bet within your platform marketing program – your challenge site must equally serve community managers, judges and entrants. This means providing fluid access to rules, tools (APIs, SDKs, data sets), discussion forums, FAQs, update notifications, submission forms, event schedules and judging criteria. Once the hoopla is over, the site should transition into a showcase where winners get permanent, public recognition shedding a positive light both their contribution to your ecosystem and your willingness to reward them for doing so. If you don’t have the resources to build such a site, there are competition management platforms that can be customized for your brand and mission. And please, set it up on a domain that’s easy for humans and search engines to actually find.
We all tend to over-commit ourselves, especially when excited about a new project. But running a successful app competition commands specialized, consistent attention beyond putting up the aforementioned website and hoping it goes viral on the back of a few tweets. Rules need to be written in line with aggravatingly complex (and often restrictive) competition law. Questions, suggestions and complaints require swift reply. Submissions need to be tested on the appropriate platform (iOS, Android, Windows Mobile, etc.), frequently requiring workarounds for verifying that unreleased technology works as stated on appropriate devices. Promotion demands tailored messaging for the unique audiences of hackthons, meetups, computer science departments, and independent developers of all shapes and sizes. It’s at least 1.5 full-time jobs making one of these babies all it can be. Plan accordingly.
Entering challenges tends to be a side project, so don’t expect a high level of engagement unless you make participation a breeze. Besides making it easy to understand the rules and expectations for choosing winners, this mostly means preparing your APIs for primetime. Be sure to provide:
• Access: It should be simple to request an API key, sign up, sign in, and request basic support from your team.
• Documentation: Provide clear, accurate and thorough information for how to utilize the API (e.g. Schema, Authentication, Callbacks, Limitations). GitHub is a good example: http://develop.github.com/p/general.html,
• Communication: Reply quickly and personally (no templates) to all API support inquiries, social media recognition (@ or #), and discussion forum posts.
• Support: Offer ongoing education and networking opportunities, such as webcasts, hackathons and meetups.
• Recognition: Celebrate community success stories publicly via case studies, blog posts, press releases and social media.
• Feedback: Seek constant feedback and proactively address suggestions for improvement.
Issuing a public cry for API-centric innovation should strengthen your developer community both by rewarding existing stalwarts and expanding reach to new ones. There is no such thing as too much marketing, and the tech world will not just descend on your challenge because of a snazzy title and prize money. Chances are your outreach team has already hit a plateau ‘evangelizing’ the power of your technology to their network, so you’ve got to tap into as many communities as possible. Co-sponsors are a great start, but be sure they’re lending promotional support beyond slapping their brand on your project. A Twitter campaign – done right with a unique hashtag – is crucial. So are unobtrusive notifications to relevant Facebook pages, LinkedIn groups and popular message boards like HackerNews, along with tailored messages to the growing slew of tech news outlets. Beyond these top-of-mind channels, there are organizations (like ChallengePost ☺) that specialize in running competitions, and have already built a community of technically proficient solvers accustomed to competing in a central place towards a rotated common goal. Access comes at a high price, so the quantity and quality of eyeballs brought to the table requires sincere consideration. Some members are mercenaries craving the next battle. Others are wanderers seeking a home. All add value whether they choose to stay or leave once the dust settles and victors are announced. Invite the right people, treat them well, and your community will prosper. Don’t expect them to find you.
Software developers are a well-paid, highly sought-after and somewhat quirky bunch that prefers working on projects that speak equally to their intellect, wallet and passions. The going rate for their time is around $150 per hour, and a market-ready software application can easily take 100+ hours (i.e. $15,000) to build. Given that we’re talking about a well-publicized contest amongst skilled peers and not a guaranteed contract, the prize value for winners (perhaps 1st, 2nd and 3rd overall, Best Green, Local Talent or Student-Made App, Best Game and an all-important Popular Choice Award for maximum viral sharing) can, and often should, exceed $100,000. For many organizations this is simply more cash than they have on hand. In that case, they are wise to consider how else they can reward participants, perhaps by offering ego-stroking public recognition (e.g. stage time at a conference or a featured profile on your blog), access (e.g. acceptance to a prestigious incubator or private meetings with executives), or desirable in-kind services (e.g. marketing dollars or hosting). If none of this is doable, your only option for grabbing attention is tugging at heartstrings by making the challenge meaningful (e.g. relating to health, environmental and other charitable causes). Offering an iPad (unless it’s an exclusive prototype) and some pocket change (unless you have very big pockets) won’t due.
Building a flourishing developer community to reap the rewards of a healthy app ecosystem requires the right mix of tools, friends, rewards, technology and good old-fashioned manpower. After all, if a challenge happens and nobody participates, was there ever really a challenge in the first place?