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Marketing Cloud APIs for Marketers

Altaf Shaikh | February 1, 2016 

WARNING: while the author tried to make the following topic understandable by those less technical, there may be some rather nerdy talk ahead. We hope you find it informative. May the Force be with you.

An API, or Application Program Interface, can be used to greatly enhance the functionality and interoperability of software like the Salesforce Marketing Cloud. But what exactly is an API and how can it benefit you?

Used in computer programming, an API is a set of routines, protocols and tools for building applications. In plain language, a routine is a sequence of computer code that performs a function action. It can be a single line of code or many lines. A protocol is simply a set of rules that exists for any system. A simple example might be updating a value in a database using an email address as a key, or lookup value, for a record.

An API can be used with:

  • a computer operating system (like Windows, OS X or UNIX)
  • a database (i.e. Oracle, MSSQL, etc.) or
  • a web based system (such as the Marketing Cloud)

Marketing Cloud APIs

The Marketing Cloud offers two types of APIs which enable customers to integrate with existing systems, extend functionality, or remotely control it. These are:

  • SOAP API – the oldest and most comprehensive, but limited to the email application only. It is fairly heavy, which means it is quite verbose. It is limited to XML for data format.
  • REST API – newer and slightly less comprehensive, but more comprehensive across the Marketing Cloud, easier to use and more lightweight.

Both APIs share a common authentication method based on OAuth 2.

The difference between SOAP and REST is that SOAP initiates an operation and with REST, you are accessing a resource (data). In other words, SOAP sends a complete command, including attributes, whereas REST is more like a simple request. Both use HTTP (standard web protocol) over standard ports but only REST can be cached. Both support SSL, but only SOAP also supports WS-Security, WS-AtomicTransaction, and WS-ReliableMessaging – all three of which are required for high security applications like banking.

Which API is Best?

The general consensus is that REST is superior to SOAP in almost every way. REST has better performance and scalability. The REST API has better performance and support for browser clients due to its support of JSON (JavaScript Object Notation), which is a lightweight data interchange format.

Google used to provide only SOAP for all of their services, but in 2006 they switched to REST, and their Search and Maps APIs now only support REST. Yahoo, Flickr, and del.ici.ous use REST but Amazon and eBay provide both.

Which API you use depends on what you need to accomplish. In most cases, REST is the way to go. It’s more scalable, easier to use and more flexible. There may be some functions that SOAP can execute that REST cannot, but the ListEngage team can almost always find a workaround in those rare instances. Of course, we can and have built applications with SOAP. If you are transferring sensitive financial information or need an even higher level of security, SOAP may be a better fit.

API Examples

Here are a few examples of what you can do with an API. These are very simple, common examples. APIs are extremely powerful and flexible. They can be used to solve countless business problems and are only limited by your imagination.

  • Abandoned Carts. Send an email to a user who added a product to their shopping cart but ended up not making a purchase after a certain amount of time.
  • Add to Your Subscriber List. Using APIs, you can add users to your lists or data extensions directly instead of using the FTP method.
  • Integrate with Partners. For example, a travel web site that books a flight for you might send a follow up email with exclusive offers from hospitality partners.
  • Reset Password. Your web server triggers an email with a reset link that a user clicks on to reset their password.
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Altaf Shaikh

Altaf Shaikh | Founder, CEO

Altaf Shaikh is ListEngage’s Founder and CEO. Altaf has been in software development and digital marketing for more than 25 years. He started ListEngage in 2003 to help businesses transform their email and digital marketing. ListEngage has supported the Salesforce Marketing Cloud since 2003 when it was ExactTarget. As a dedicated Salesforce Partner, ListEngage has served 900+ customers and earned multiple awards, such as: 2013 ExactTarget Global Services Award, the Inc. 5000 three consecutive years, and the Boston Business Journal's FAST 50 two years in a row. Contact Altaf at