What is a webhook, anyway?

/ 6 min read
Kat Boogaard

Automation. It seems like everybody’s talking about it—and for good reason. For small business owners, learning how to automate different tasks and processes not only saves them time but also helps them stay competitive.

Data from Zapier found that workers can save anywhere from four ‌to 25 hours each week using automation. And in a different 2021 survey, 88% of small businesses said that automation enables their company to compete with larger businesses.

Pretty compelling stuff, right? But automation can also feel a little intimidating.

As you start to figure out how to automate workflows within your own business, you’re bound to come across this term: webhook.

Uhh…what is a webhook? Why does it matter? And how does it work? We’re explaining it all (as simply as possible) in this guide.

What is a webhook?

In a nutshell, a webhook is a way for one application to automatically send data to another application in real-time. Think of it like an automated notification system that lets one application know when something has happened in another application.

A webhook is triggered by a specific event (for example, a customer filling out a contact form on your website). When that happens, the webhook “catches” the data (this can be any type of information, but in this case would be the customer’s contact information and message) and sends it to the receiving app you’ve specified.

To do so, a webhook uses a unique URL. Think of this URL as the digital mailbox of your receiving app. It’s where all of the data from your other application lands so that you can do something with it.

Let’s revisit our contact form example. When someone submits a contact form (the event trigger), your webhook would send that information from your website (you might hear this called the “trigger application” or the “source application”) directly to your email marketing solution (often called the “action application” or the “destination application”).

Then you can automatically send a friendly message letting the customer know you’ll be in touch soon.

Looking for an easier way to send automatic emails?

Paperform supports automatic email notifications for you and your respondent.

What are the benefits of webhooks?

Particularly if you’re coming at them with little to no technical knowledge, webhooks can seem intimidating. However, taking the time to figure them out offers a few notable benefits.

  • Save time: The biggest advantage of webhooks is that they save you tonnes of time. By setting up a webhook to trigger a specific action in response to an event happening in another application, you automate tasks that could otherwise eat up plenty of hours.

  • Reduce errors: Technology isn’t perfect, but less manual work usually means greater consistency and fewer mistakes. With webhooks, routine things happen automatically without your input–and without your potential misjudgments.

  • Stay up to date: Webhooks automatically send data in real time. That means no operating with old information or being burdened by a pile of tasks that kept getting pushed to the back burner. Your webhook facilitates real-time notifications and communication between your two apps, so you aren’t stuck with a backlog of information to catch up on.

Finally, even if some of the webhook-related lingo and terminology might make your eyes glaze over, there’s another big advantage of webhooks: they’re‌ one of the simpler ways to automate workflows in your business.

Workflow builders like Zapier and Make have a tonne of integrations and are even more user-friendly than setting up your own webhooks, but they don’t necessarily connect with every app you might be using.

In those cases, you’ll need something else to facilitate that communication—and webhooks are one of the most accessible and user-friendly options for non-developers.

Webhooks vs. API: What’s the difference?

As you explore more automation options, there’s another term you’ll come across: Application Programming Interface (more commonly called an API).

This is another option that allows one application or system to access the data of another—just like a webhook. So what’s the difference? The biggest one comes back to the communication method.

A webhook facilitates one-way communication, where one app sends information to another app. However, the receiving app can’t send information back. You might hear developers refer to this as a publish-subscribe model (hey, if nothing else, that’s a useful piece of trivia to whip out at your next dinner party).

In contrast, an API facilitates two-way communication. When one application makes a request to another application, the receiving application sends back a response. Developers refer to this as a request-response model.

To put it super simply, think of it like this: a webhook is a megaphone and an API is a telephone.

Because APIs let the receiving application ‌“talk” back, they’re capable of automating a lot more complex processes and tasks. The catch? They’re a lot more complicated to set up.

How to use webhooks: 4 basic steps to get up and running

Exactly how you’ll set up and use webhooks can vary based on the applications you’re using. Many applications have existing webhook sections where you’ll find or paste your URL.

Regardless of those specifics, here are the super basic steps you’ll take when using a webhook:

  1. Identify the event that you want to trigger the webhook.
  • Example: Someone submits a contact form on your website.

2. Determine the action to be taken in response to that event.

  • Example: Send an automated “we’ll be in touch soon!” email to the customer.

3. Copy the webhook URL from the application you’re going to send data to. Applications should provide this URL somewhere within the platform. Try looking for an “integrations and webhooks” section or something similar.

  • Example: https://webhook.example.com/my-webhook/12345

4. Paste your webhook URL into the appropriate field of your action application (meaning, the application that'll send the data). Again, you might have to look around a little bit.

When you think you have your webhook all set up, it’s time to give it a quick test run.

Testing your webhooks (the super easy way)

You might find a “test” option in your webhook settings where you can click a button, trigger an event notification, and see your webhooks in action. Still, the easiest way to test your webhook is to just trigger the relevant event yourself.

Sticking with our example, submit a message through your website’s contact form. If your webhook is working correctly, you should receive the automatic “we’ll be in touch soon!” email you set up.

If things don’t go according to plan? Return to your webhook settings and see where things are falling apart. Retrace your steps to check every element of the set-up process and squash the bug giving you trouble.

How to use webhooks with Paperform

We’ve talked a lot about how to set up and use webhooks—and we’ve even touched on using them with your forms. Fortunately, Paperform makes it quick and painless to set up your webhooks. Here’s a quick rundown:

  1. Find and copy your URL from your destination application (remember, this is the application you want to automatically send data to).

  2. In your form editor in Paperform, navigate to After Submission → Integrations & Webhooks.

  3. Click the “Webhooks” section to open up the webhooks configuration.

  4. Select the input above the “Add Webhook” button and enter the URL you copied from your destination application.

  5. Click the “Add Webhook” button to add your webhook to the list.

When you’re all done, remember to test it—and you’re all set!

Save time and stress with webhooks

While you can do plenty of automations through direct integrations or other popular platforms like Zapier, there are certain applications or circumstances when you’ll need to use a webhook to get the job done.

If you previously wrote off webhooks as too complex for you, hopefully this guide shows you just how straightforward they can be. Set up your first one today, and stop wasting hours and energy on manual workflows and data transfers.

With Paperform’s 14-day free trial, you can try using webhooks with all your online forms. Now there’s only one question left to answer: What are you going to do with that extra time?

About the author
Kat Boogaard
Paperform Contributor
Kat is a freelance writer focused on our working world. When she’s not at her computer, you’ll find her spending time with her family—which includes two adorable sons and two rebellious rescue mutts.

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