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Canada’s Five Most Interesting Social Media Companies

Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes and Mika, at the company’s Vancouver headquarters.
Social media has become the new normal. Do you remember what using the internet was like before Facebook or Twitter? Me neither. It seems amazing that the former will only celebrate its tenth birthday this coming summer. The way things are shaping up, it seems likely that we’ll look back five years from now and find our tweets, shares and likes as alien to us as the quaint old notion of the “information superhighway” is today.

While social media may seem instantaneously old hat, it’s worth remembering how far we’ve come in a relatively short time. Statistics Canada tells us that 67% of Canadians who used the internet in 2012 also used social media, up from 58% in 2010. Meanwhile, small business’ use of social media climbed from 40% to 57% between 2012 and this year. While the risk-averse business world struggles to come to terms with consumer “engagement” and employees are increasingly expected to participate in the online life of their companies, it’s clear that social media’s role is set to both drastically expand and change in the near future.

The next defining feature of this evolution will likely be a mass migration to mobile technology. While 54% of Canadian internet users accessed the Internet using a handheld device in 2012, up from 33% in 2010, a full 84% of Canadians aged 16 to 24 did so. Generation Y is not transitioning from desktop computers to a mobile device. For them, the Internet is and always has been mobile.

And in contrast to Generation X, who scoffed at and scorned brand association, Generation Y has met the world of marketing more than halfway, their mutual interests dovetailing almost frictionlessly. Keeping that future in mind, companies that have positioned themselves ahead of the curve are poised to reap the reward. With 67% of Twitter users more likely to buy from brands they follow than from brands they don’t, businesses are increasingly feeling the pressure to master social media more or less immediately.

In Canada, we’re lucky to have cultivated more than our fair share of social media visionaries. These five Canadian companies may just dictate the shape of social media to come, here and abroad.

1. HootSuite
Ryan Holmes’ Vancouver-based company shocked the investment community last year when it closed a Series B financing round worth $165 million, a record amount for a Canadian technology company, attained shortly after the company’s fourth birthday. It’s been a short hop from people asking “WhoSuite?” to Ryan Holmes openly musing about a $1 billion valuation, while investors salivate at the prospect of a HootSuite IPO.

How have they done it? Among other things, HootSuite was one of five Twitter Ads API partners in February 2013, a select group of companies allowed to offer their user base advertising integration with the Twitter platform. Today, HootSuite is among 31 Twitter certified product partners. That early show of faith by the social media giant gave HootSuite a valuable head start and helped to cement its current reputation as the “Switzerland” of social media, mediating the various warring silos. The genius of HootSuite has been not to provide weary Internet users with “the next Facebook” or yet another social media platform. It’s been to act as the unifying medium through which people experience the platforms that they already use. Think of Facebook and Twitter et al. as separate TV channels. Now think of HootSuite as your TV set. Basically, HootSuite has invented the social media equivalent of television.

2. Wattpad
Allen Lau’s Toronto fan fiction publishing platform boasted 10 million unique monthly visitors at the end of 2012, and that number has doubled since then. Founded in 2006, Wattpad now has 70 employees and was fortunate to pick up an early fan in Margaret Atwood, who decided to publish her zombie fiction piece, The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, on Wattpad, alongside all the other teen romance and vampire fiction writers avidly sharing their stories. Several Wattpad authors have gone on to sign legitimate book deals. In the meantime, Allen Lau has stated his ambition to make Wattpad the Youtube of Internet publishing, envisioning a day when the platform will function as a town square for storytellers to gather, a billion strong. There’s that “B” word again.

3. Empire Avenue
From humble origins in Edmonton, Empire Avenue attracted a group of investors in 2010 led by Boris Wertz, now of Version One Ventures in Vancouver. Empire Avenue is essentially a social “stock market” for social media wonks who spend their time investing in each other and accumulating influence through campaigns and reward programs. Founder Duleepa Wijayawardhana has just stepped down as CEO, opening the door for the platform’s most active users to take control of the social media asylum. Whether or not this model will ultimately work remains an open question. But things are about to get interesting over at Empire Avenue.

4. Uniiverse
Launched at the beginning of 2011, this Toronto start-up unveiled its iOS app last September and has just rolled out the Android version. On the face of it, Uniiverse would appear to be the polar opposite of most social media companies – it helps people connect in real life. Billing itself as a “social marketplace for events”, the company mines users’ existing social media profiles to help them discover people nearby with similar interests, using an algorithm similar to the recommendation engines employed by Netflix and Amazon. If you like bowling, perhaps it follows that you’re partial to cupcakes. There’s got to be at least a little Venn diagram overlap there. Food events are Uniiverse’s number one category. People can use the platform to announce events and sell tickets. The company has raised $2 million in venture capital since February 2012.

5. Wajam
Montreal company Wajam is a “social search engine” that essentially exists as a browser extension for monitoring users’ social media behaviour. In contrast to social media utilities that are client-facing, Wajam handles the back-end functionality necessary to serve tailored advertising based on mining social media data. It does this by scanning the 300 terabytes worth of tweets, status updates, shares and photo data stored at its headquarters. Wajam’s stated aim, according to marketing manager Alain Wong, is to make all advertising social. If Millennials are developing cosier relations with brands in their social media life, Wajam is as well poised as any company in the world to deepen that relationship and to profit from it.

This article originally ran in the Financial Post Business Trends section, and is provided courtesy of Market One Media Group.

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