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Webhooks vs API: Understanding the Key Differences

Confused about the difference between Webhooks and APIs? Learn about their unique features, applications, and how to choose the right one for your needs.

When you want to make a website or an app, there are two tools that you will hear a lot about: webhooks and APIs.

While clearly distinct, both of these tools are involved in digital communication. They help devices share data. They are essential for many app and website functions, and you can actually find tons of both that are already developed and ready to incorporate into a new web tool or local application.

Despite that strong similarity, they work on dramatically different principles, and understanding those differences can help you figure out if you should be using a webhook or an API for any particular function.

So, let’s take a deep dive into these two tools and compare them. When we’re done, you’ll have a much better idea of what you need, and you can use that data to make good decisions.

What is a webhook?

A webhook is a means of automating responses for software. They are called “event-based APIs.” What that means is that a new user or application will do something specific or an event occurs, and that specific action will trigger the webhook to respond as programmed.

Specifically, webhooks exist to help two devices communicate, but that communication is really one-sided. If you are using an app and it needs to download data for you to carry on with what you’re doing, then a webhook is likely running the show.

As a result, webhooks can be fairly complicated tools, but they always revolve around this unifying concept.

Webhooks are necessary to enable one device to talk to another device (unless you use a different communication tool, which might include an API). They connect your app to a server or device that has the data that you need.

How do webhooks work?

The easiest way to understand webhooks is to look into the mechanics of how they work.

With a webhook, there is a programmed trigger. That trigger could be a new user clicking on a button. It could be a time of day. It could be inputting a URL and hitting “enter.” It could be just about anything.

When that event occurs is seen by the webhook, it will then initiate and carry out its programming, performing any number of tasks that are assigned according to the specific event.

Keep in mind that these tasks revolve around communication. So, webhooks are great for downloading or uploading data updates to or from an external system when a trigger is met.

As an example, a webhook could be designed to load the weather. The application is in charge of displaying the weather and responding to things that you do.

But, when you open the app, it needs to download the most recent push data from a web service in order to make sure the data is up to date.

In this example, opening the app is the trigger. Following the specific event, webhooks then begin relaying data requests to connect your app to its web server and then download any and all needed data to update what you see on external applications.

In that way, you get real-time weather reports, even though your phone (or another device) doesn’t have thermometers and wind gauges built into it.

Advantages of using webhooks

The key to using webhooks is that they don’t do a lot of back and forth with real-time data. The direction really flows in one direction. That can simplify tasks that don’t depend on data-driven responses.

That makes webhooks faster and more efficient in terms of communication and data efficiency. They use less power and won’t consume as much data as metered devices.

That simplicity can help an entire application run faster and consume fewer resources. It can also make programming the webhook a lot easier. Basically, less is more. When you don’t need something beyond what the webhook can do, it’s probably streamlining your processes.

What is an application programming interface (API)?

API stands for application programming interface and is also something designed to carry out actions. While webhooks are built around triggers and one-way data streams, APIs are all about two-way communication.

The point of an API is that it maintains two-way communication in robust ways. So, the actions built around APIs can depend on specific bits of new data that are received from a source.

APIs can handle larger volumes of data, more intricate communication between devices, and more complicated functions. All of that stems from the communication design that is so fundamental to APIs and how they work.

How do APIs work?

APIs are like a layer of software between an application and a web server. Someone uses the application, and they do something that will request data from the server. That triggers the API, and it handles communication as needed for whatever you are doing.

Let’s say you’re playing a game of Battleship with someone else through a phone app. When you make a move, the app needs to tell the other player. The API triggers so that you can send and receive new data from the server, and that enables you and the other player to keep up with changes in the game.

Webhook vs API

With the basics covered, what are the primary similarities and differences between APIs and webhooks? You already know that they differ in direction of communication, but that simple difference leads to a whole lot more.


APIs and webhooks are both designed to send data between an application and a server. In either case, something starts up the communication tool and sends data as needed for any given function.

This can be uploading and/or downloading data. So any application can get necessary data from a website, as an example. The way they communicate is also very similar. They’re using the same protocols to establish connections and send data.

In fact, the similarities are so strong that there are plenty of scenarios where you might debate which is the proper tool for web-enabled communications. It’s not always clear.


Still, the differences are more potent. A webhook will primarily upload or download data for a given trigger, but not necessarily both. Meanwhile, an API is designed specifically to maintain communication.

As a result, webhooks can’t handle complicated data streams in the same way that APIs can. That limits some of the ways webhooks can function. For example, intense two-way encryption is very hard for webhooks, so they aren’t the best choice for secure communications or sending data that is sensitive.

Meanwhile, the ability of APIs to do complicated things is a two-edged sword. They typically consume more resources than webhooks and run slower, if doing comparable types of work.

Factors to consider when choosing between apis and webhooks

Now that you know more about the similarities and differences between webhooks and APIs, we can talk about which one is right for any given scenario. The truth is that they can do a fair amount of the same work, but you’ll get better results depending on certain circumstances.

For starters, APIs are more robust. For more complicated communication, they’re a clear winner.

Beyond that, three additional factors can help you think about the webhook vs API decision: the type of communication, latency requirements, and security.

Communication type

This is really what matters most when you’re comparing webhooks and APIs. What does the communication look like?

Webhooks can handle a little bit of two-way communication. For two devices to communicate, there has to be a little bit of a back-and-forth. But, webhooks aren’t good idle listeners, and they struggle with large two-way data shares.

They’re designed for lightweight communication. That’s the point.

APIs shine where webhooks struggle, and vice versa. When continuous communication is the goal, you need an API. It’s as simple as that.

Latency requirements

When you absolutely need to minimize latency, webhooks can help.

Whether or not they are faster than comparable APIs depends on several factors, but webhooks that are optimized around low latency will outperform APIs doing the same type of work. So, when the latency is paramount, webhooks demand consideration.

All of that said, modern APIs can still be very fast. The majority of communication applications won’t have such low latency requirements that a webhook is a clearly superior choice to an API. That type of scenario is uncommon. You’ll really want to focus on this component if you’re trying to optimize your site’s speed.

Security requirements

Because APIs have stronger multi-way communication, they enable more robust software programs and integrations. That’s a fancy way of saying that they can carry out more complicated tasks, in terms of communication.

As a result, they can support more advanced security protocols, so, in terms of raw communication security, APIs hold more potential.

This does not make webhooks inherently insecure. It also doesn’t mean that all APIs are very secure. The difference here is that APIs have a higher capability in terms of security. Designed properly, they are a more powerful tool for secure communications applications, and it’s why they are frequently used to handle online transactions.

Make the right choice for your business

The truth is that an application can use webhooks for some things and APIs for other things. It all depends on the design.

If you want access to every tool you will need for your apps, websites, and other digital resources, then you want to work with Mailchimp.

Mailchimp’s API resources are robust. You can contact us today to explore options and expand how you interact with online tools. You can look into Mailchimp’s free API course to take a deeper dive into these topics.

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