New York Startup Social Amp Turns Facebook Friends into E-commerce Commentators

6/30/11Follow @jpruth

The next time you shop online for gifts and your Facebook friends’ interests appear on the webpage, Social Amp’s technology may be running under the digital hood. Matt Sunbulli, cofounder of the two-year-old New York startup, is on a mission to make e-commerce a more social experience. With a dose of crowdsourcing for shopping suggestions, Social Amp connects elements of Facebook to online purchases.

Social Amp’s applications cull data from consumers’ social circle that pertains to the e-commerce sites they visit. When customers shop at 1800Flowers.com, for example, their friends Likes regarding flowers and other gifts sold by the company appear on the page. That connects the brand’s products to a customer’s social world, Sunbulli says. “We imagined a future where brands wanted to create social experiences on their own sites and not live within a fixed page inside Facebook,” he says.

The idea is to make online shopping more chatty. Consumers, who must first opt in to share certain Facebook data, essentially bring their own crowd along for personalized recommendations on e-commerce purchases. Social Amp, for example, brought these social connections to cosmetics maker Estée Lauder’s Smashbox brand, allowing shoppers on the Smashbox site to see suggestions regarding makeup from friends who also agreed to share their Facebook Likes.

Working with such large clients is helping Social Amp poise itself for growth. The company has a staff of eight part-time and full-timers, and Sunbulli wants to expand the ranks. “I see our team doubling after we close a round of financing,” he says. Thus far Social Amp is self-funded but he says the company is exploring investment opportunities as well as partnerships with e-commerce businesses that could bring the applications to more websites.

Sunbulli says Social Amp currently provides its services to brands such as Levi Strauss & Co., Discover, and Forbes, in addition to Estée Lauder and 1-800-Flowers. Amit Shah, director of online marketing, mobile, and social media for 1-800-Flowers, says his company turned to Social Amp to leverage the social sphere in a quantifiable manner rather than for marketing purposes alone.

“Social Amp is part of differentiating our strategy—using Facebook and Twitter but bringing the social graph back to our e-commerce site,” Shah says.

Sunbulli, 30, graduated from Northwestern University in Chicago with bachelor’s degrees in economics and Russian literature. “In college I was involved in startups as well,” he said. Those startups included PaxZone, which steered the delivery of parcel packages to local grocers if the addressee was not at home. In 2004 Sunbulli became a banking analyst with Salomon Smith Barney and moved to New York. He soon shifted into the digital media arena, though, joining MTV Networks in 2005 as a production assistant and working his way up to digital product manager.

Matt Sunbulli works with such brands as Levi Strauss & Co., Discover, and Forbes.

The rise of Facebook in 2007, Sunbulli says, shook up the advertising and media markets. “A lot of the advertisers we worked with at MTV we’re coming to our marketing department and asking how they could advertize on Facebook,” Sunbulli says, because of MTV’s audience demographics, which overlapped with those of the social media phenom.

When Facebook opened its gates to work with third-party developers, Sunbulli, along with his cofounder Alex Chang, explored the opportunity to launch a marketing company. Chang previously worked as an engineer with Barnesandnoble.com and Daylife.com.

Looking for ways to leverage the social data on Facebook for their commercial clients, Sunbulli says he and Chang contacted Sinan Aral, an adjunct professor at New York University, who serves as scientific advisor to Social Amp. Aral has a doctorate in information systems from MIT and specializes in social contagion, Sunbulli says, and his expertise helped guide Social Amp. “If you can model how information moves from one person to another on a graph, you can create contagions,” Sunbulli says.

Sunbulli says in 2009 he and Chang produced a plug-in for Facebook that let shoppers add products from retail sites to a wish list. The app associated the product’s sku number with the shopper’s Facebook user ID. “When you enter an e-commerce site you can see what your friends want,” Sunbulli says, “and potentially buy it for them.”

That early work helped introduce Social Amp’s to its first big customer, Levi’s, which led to the launch of Levi’s Friend Store in April 2010. “Levi’s had a vision for social commerce and they saw what we had already done,” Sunbulli says. Visitors to the site can see which jeans their friends like, much like they would if they went shopping in a brick and mortar store together. “When you go shopping in a mall you go with your friends,” he says. “We’re now able to mimic that experience with Facebook data at play.”

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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