Meet the 7 Social Startups That Marketers Are Watching at SXSW

Some Well-Hyped, Others Still Under-the-Radar, All Worth Attention

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As is typically the case at SXSW, one breed of startups is anointed before the festival as the latest and hottest to watch in emerging tech platforms and apps. This is probably because of a combination of actual awesomeness, some good marketing, well-timed updates and launches, and, most important, SXSW-specific utility (will this help me find, or communicate with, my friends?).

Last year it was "group messaging," a trend that some might argue affected Google's decision to emphasize "circles" in Google+. This year, its all about "social discovery," smart technology that moves the user experience from an active "check-in" (like Foursquare) to technology that runs in the background and automatically notifies users when the situation calls for it.

While it sounds a league creepier than the location-based networks that popped up a few years ago, smarter apps could spur adoption beyond the early-adopter crowd and allow new services that offer layers of value and utility that weren't available in the past.

Here's our rundown of apps set to make waves at SXSW and to get marketers' attention. Some are already well-hyped; others still under the radar. First, let's talk about the well-hyped:

Brett Martin, CEO, Sonar
Brett Martin, CEO, Sonar

Sonar, an Ad Age Brand Hack alum, has recently introduced a beta for Android, which I've been testing out. It's a simple but utilitarian app. As with Foursquare, you can check in at locations, but the selling point is its ability to filter those around you, analyze common interests, mutual friends and other factors (through syncing with other networks), listing your friends first and ranking the rest according to who's most relevant or who you should probably meet. That could prove quite valuable at big events and conferences, where networking is paramount., another Ad Age Brand Hacker, has also just updated its app in time for SXSW, with a nice UI upgrade. mines location data from other networks and presents it to users with a map of people nearby. Unlike Sonar, these people are ranked by proximity, not relevance, emphasizing the other side of social discovery. Between the two services you get a complete picture.

Glancee is a newer player in this space. I've been playing around with the app and am intrigued. It mines Facebook (shocker) and then presents a list of people nearby with whom you share common interests. The differentiator is in the UI and that it's geared toward jump-starting conversations with those people using a simple baked-in chat function – as opposed to telling users exactly where they are.

Highlight has become the standout darling among those who can't stop talking about SXSW. It works only on iPhones, which is a bummer for many of us Android lovers, but that hasn't held them back (nor has the rather annoying URL). Highlight tracks your location and notifies you when people are nearby, in a way similar to Glancee. Additionally, Techcrunch believes it's moving toward becoming "a personal, social CRM system that helps you remember people's names and when you met them," which is something I could certainly use.

People are a) lazy and b) busy. Many great apps and platforms have died in their infancy because their value or utility couldn't be presented in a way that addressed those issues. By reducing friction and offering clear-cut utilities, ambient intelligence helps solve that problem.

Now, for the under-the-radar startups I've had my eye on that haven't received quite as much hype as, well, Highlight:

Meeps is another social-discovery tool built around common interests, specifically designed to facilitate conversations around specific topics. Like the others, it's location-aware, but users can browse through and join ongoing conversations taking place between people nearby, based on what interests them. Again, for events and conferences, a tool like this could be useful in connecting like-minded individuals.

Roamz, in some ways, is like a reverse Foursquare. It knows where you are, intelligently curates content from the social web, and suggest events, shindigs and general places nearby that are aligned with your personal-interest graph. It's social discovery in a way that 's meant to suppress a lot of the junk but surface the nearby goings-on that would interest you. Different than many of the others in this post, Roamz analyzes content from all of the major silos that contain location data (FB, Foursquare, Instagram and Twitter), but the curating process shows relevant nearby posts from all users rather than just from friends or those in your social graph.

Tracks is a photo-sharing app that 's less about social discovery and more about collaborative curation between friends. It's meant to be a tool for groups to create and share experiences, as users start tracks to reflect a certain experience and invite friends to help build out that track with photos, commentary and other content. This is one of those apps probably better suited for the general consumer -- friends bar-hopping, on vacation or at the music portion of SXSW -- rather than the early-adopter tech crowd. Everyone and their uncle seems to have developed a photo-sharing app, but there's something I like about this one and it will be interesting to see how people use the service.

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