The social networking scene is constantly in flux. The big 3 (Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn) are at the top of the heap right now. But challengers are springing up all the time, hoping to leverage the next big wave into a lucrative IPO.
Actually there are two giant waves in the sea of social networking - mobility and games.
As people move from desktops and laptops to iPads and smartphones, everything is moving to mobile apps, says Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg. "People have their phones with them all the time, not their laptops. When they communicate, whether it's verbal, text, or a social app, they use their phones."
And since people are on the move, the savvy social media companies are adding location into the mix, either by having people check-in wherever they are (foursquare), or by using GPS to connect people who are in close proximity (Color).
The second major trend is what Altimeter Group's Jeremiah Owyang calls "gamification." People don't just want to post updates and read updates from others, they want to play games.
"Social gaming opportunities are huge," Owyang says. "These new gaming products that incorporate competitive opportunities into a social gaming environment will drastically impact consumers, and the opportunities for brands (and threats for other vendors) are enormous.
Products like Empire Avenue are a highly addictive experience that's similar to stock market gaming of your own social network. It is, in fact, the Farmville for social media."
In other words, social networking apps that raise the bar to a competitive level, in the form of a game on a smartphone, are not only the future, but the payload of the future.
Here are 5 social media sites that are creating a buzz:
1. Empire Avenue
a. Founders and date founded: Duleepa Wijayawardhana (aka Dups), Dr. Michael Mannion, and Niall Brown; 2009
b. What it does: Empire Avenue is a social media exchange network and, according to Tom Ohle, vice president of Marketing/Media Relations at Empire Avenue, is the world's first and only social network of its kind.
Members invest virtual currency in people and brands that interest them. Share prices are based on the individual or the brand's activity, engagement, and reach across other social media networks including Empire Avenue, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, and others. Basically, it's a social network and a game that helps members meet and connect with new people, gain insight and metrics of their social media activity across the web, and have fun while becoming better at using the social media environment.
c. Why it's hot: Empire Avenue asks its members one fundamentally different question, and that is: if every connection members made cost them money from a limited source (even if that source is virtual currency), who would they connect with and why?
This leads to many interesting connections that most members might not otherwise make. "Our 'Buy' mechanism generates a connection that is much deeper than a 'Follow,' but less intrusive than a 'Friend,' which makes it easier to connect across the world while playing a fun game that, in itself, is based on social media engagement," Ohle says. "And, based on how deep members get involved, they might end up using it as a training tool, a social network, or as a way to become a virtual millionaire."
d. Stats: Web traffic grew by more than 150 percent from March to April. And, as it continues to climb, they are keeping their members highly engaged, averaging over 10 page views and 12 minutes per visit.
e. Funding sources: Privately funded by Boris Wertz, Dr. Ray Muzyka, Dr. Greg Zeschuk, and Kevin Swan.
2. Color (Color Labs Inc.)
a. Founders and date founded: Bill Nguyen and a team of engineers, 2010
b. What it does: Color is a free iPhone and Android app that creates an instant social network based on users location and proximity to others. The objective is to facilitate better relationships with neighbors and co-workers without the rigors of establishing permanent connections. Users can instantly share images, videos, and text conversations with others in proximity by capturing information as a group instead of an individual.
c. Why it's hot: Color is addressing the question: What is social networking in the post PC era?
According to founder Bill Nguyen, Color provides a mobile layer on top of the social networks users already love. Color works by using advanced technology to process location information, social network graphs, and device sensors to accurately define proximity, so users can share and interact with their community in a way that's more personal and relevant than the broadness of the Web. "We believe that relevance from proximity is the next step forward for social networking," says Nguyen.
d. Stats (page views, number of subscribers, followers, etc.): Color representatives elected not to disclose this information. The site is still very young.
e. Funding sources: Bain Capital Ventures, Sequoia Capital, and Silicon Valley Bank