At last year’s SXSW conference in Austin ambient networking apps were all the rage. The concept is simple: the apps run in the background on a user’s smartphone, recommending connections when their Facebook friends or people who have similar interests are nearby. The most talked-about apps were Highlight, Glancee, Sonar, and Banjo, and while they failed to garner the attention and user base of past SXSW breakouts like foursquare, they are all still active and growing (aside from Glancee, which was acquired by Facebook in May 2012). Today one of those companies, Sonar, announced that it has added an undisclosed amount of funding from Microsoft’s Bing Fund to continue to scale its app, an announcement it made on Twitter’s video app Vine.
The New York City-based company launched its iPhone app at TechCrunch Disrupt in May 2011, and debuted an Android version in September 2012, with support for six languages. Sonar users connect their Facebook, foursquare, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts, and can then view who from their networks is nearby at any given time, or who is at a particular venue. Since the app runs in the background at all times, users also get push notifications about professional contacts or friends who are in their area. It was originally designed to be used at conferences and large events like SXSW, but could be used anywhere to find local contacts.
In a previous interview with Sonar’s VP of Voice Katie Smith-Adair she outlined why Sonar stands out versus other players in the space who are tackling ambient social discovery. “Sonar is unique in that we’re able to show you the most comprehensive overview possible of the most relevant people around you who may have publicly shared their location from across social and location platforms,” she said. “We’re super focused on providing users with value by connecting them with friends in cities small and large and in as many countries as possible by making the best possible use of lots of data.”
Right now the free app doesn’t have any paid features, but Smith-Adair said last summer that they have had a lot of interest from “smart brands who want to understand how they can be a part of the Sonar experience and be involved in connecting friends to one another offline.” Today she said those partnerships are still a possibility, but nothing has been secured yet, though the fact that the investment comes from Bing Fund and the company has worked with Microsoft on several events in the past could mean further collaboration with the company.
“We’re still exploring brand partnerships, but these have to be the right fit,” she said in a comment to BetaKit. “That’s part of why we’re so happy to be working with Bing Fund. We feel like they really recognize the potential in location and social, and are lucky to have their support.”
As for competitors, Banjo hit three million users in November 2012, and launched a new version to let users connect with people in their area but also see what’s happening in local markets around the world. Highlight released a revamped version of its app last week just in time for SXSW, which includes the ability to post photos and events. Sonar doesn’t report on user numbers, and Highlight also hasn’t released updated user numbers, so it’s hard to say which app is leading in the space.
Ambient location apps have been criticized for issues like battery drain and privacy (Sonar lets users “hide” so other users can’t see them for a period of time), and the fact that they only work well in large urban centers or at large events, likely why Banjo introduced the ability to check out what’s happening in other cities around the world. While Smith-Adair didn’t comment on what the company will be using the funding for, it’s likely to build out more localized versions so it can build a global audience. The key to its growth this year will be getting brands on board, since regardless of how large a user base it builds, it will have to figure out a way to add paid features in order to build a sustainable business.