Social Startups Kick the Tires: Great Spin or Retread?

Social media startups spin their offerings at DEMO Fall 2011. Can they convince people to sign up?

For social startups, creating buzz and building a big user base (not to mention finding revenue) isn't what it used to be. Many of the companies presenting at DEMO Fall 2011 in Silicon Valley face the prospect of being a retread.

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Here's a sampling of startups from today's sessions: Gumhoo hopes to be a universal shopping cart that taps your friends for shopping advice. Fav.tv is a social network that connects users to television shows and related media. OfferedLocal.com helps businesses create and manage deals on social networks.

"Are they different enough from what's out there?" asks Rich Wong of Accel Partners, speaking generally of the presentations.

Some of the social network startups took broad angles, such as Lifecrowd, which tries to match people with an array of local physical activities, while others had a unique spin on a targeted audience.

For example, TasteJive connects amateur wine lovers with affordable wines in a playful way (e.g. "My kids are yelling today, so what wine should I get?") instead of the usual aficionado wine descriptions, such as nuttiness and hints of asparagus.

TEEspy aimed at golfers makes a social game out of the storied pastime. After playing a round, golfers input their scores into TEEspy, earn badges and compete against their friends.

Taking a page out of the social dating scene, He Likes Me, He Likes Me Not is a social network that lets people anonymously gossip about their dates.

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Social networking vs. Physical networking

Other companies showed spectacular technology but little else. Aurasma 3D-I combines the physical world with three-dimensional objects in ways that make for interesting gaming—much like the wait-and-see promise of augmented reality itself.

Director of Intel Capital Christine Herron's initial response to such technology, "Wow, cool, so what do you do with it?" sums it up.

Then there are the startups trying to crack the social video and voice nut. Playkast lets users embed videos on their site or Facebook page. Stroome lets content creators edit, share and remix each other's content. Qwip is a social network of voice messages.

Voice in particular hasn't caught on in the social networking scene, panelists say. On the creation front, it's often awkward recording your voice. On the consumption side, it's faster checking a written status update over a voice one.

"There's a reason voicemail is kinda going away," says Mitch Lasky, general partner at Benchmark Capital.

Venture capitalists sitting on panels and analyzing presentations gravitated toward social network services and analytics companies, giving them the best odds of making money out of the gate.

To this end, a host of companies presented analytics services, such as Honeylizer, Socialbakers and Voyurl.

Voyurl uses dynamic charts to show what you're doing on the Web via a plug-in, matches your behavior with others and serves up related content. Gaining user trust, panelists say, will be Voyurl's biggest challenge.

While social analytics startups have a good outlook, their future is far from certain. "It's such a crowded market," says David Gutelius, chief social scientist at Jive Software.

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Networking for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Tom at tkanshige@cio.com

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