[Editor’s note: Social media applications on networks like Facebook and MySpace — and more recently the iPhone — are starting to pull in real revenue. And we’re seeing some developers add new types of functionality to their offerings in order to stand out from the crowd and attract new advertisers through a better brand offering and increased revenue. Below, Chris Cunningham, founder of appssavvy, a company that connects social network application developers with advertisers, highlights several players to watch.]

Social media applications came of age in 2008. The profusion of half-baked applications we’ve seen since Facebook opened its floodgates in 2007 is finally giving way to quality apps that provide greater utility — that is to say, they actually provide value to their users by filling an identifiable need or above average entertainment. By and large, they are more amusing, better at community building and more appealing to advertisers.

One needs to look no further than the top social media application on Facebook (ranked according to monthly active users). At this moment, nine of the top ten provide excellent utility. Some take entertainment to a new level like MesmoTV and Zynga’s Texas Hold ‘Em — much more elaborate and higher quality than videos of cats flushing toilets that defined the entertainment apps of yesteryear. Others foster community in new, compelling ways, like date-reminder SocialCalendar and We’re Related (an app that lets you identify and create separate networks for family members within your social networks). Nearly gone are the one-hit wonder apps (like the one that let you send real pizzas to friends) that didn’t prove useful to people in their everyday lives.

This new focus on apps that are so helpful or entertaining that people make them a part of their daily lives is fantastic news for the entire social media ecosystem. Looking to 2009, the trend toward more useful apps should give promising models the boost they need to become legitimate and rich social communities of their own. Beyond that, it should give them more fodder to attract advertisers and fuel further development and even better functionality.

Here are five apps — that appssavvy has been working with to different degrees — that I see on the leading edge of this tide:

  • Circle of Moms: A great example of a social media app becoming a free-standing community, Circle of Moms’ numbers speak for themselves. The site launched to meet mothers’ need to connect with each other. It attracts more than 2 million active users a month, connecting mothers and moms-to-be to provide advice, comfort and child-rearing resources. Just launched last October, it has already become an indispensable resource for many women. And now it’s proving to be valuable for brands looking to tap its very targeted audience. For example, it gives advertisers the chance to have a user-reviewed product on the site’s homepage — right now it’s Fisher-Price’s Go Baby Go! Bounce & Spin Zebra.

  • Dogbook: Think Facebook for your pooch (actually, you and other owners, even if its Fluffy’s profile pic). It sounds a bit far-fetched (well, maybe not so much considering the success of sites like Dogster), but this app — connecting dog lovers everywhere — has become immensely popular. Like moms, pet enthusiasts represent a niche audience poised to purchase if presented with the right advertising campaign. The app has yet to be fully recognized by brands, but when it is, campaigns should be subtle and relevant. This seems like an obvious choice for a company like Purina.
  • Snow Reports (by Ridertech): Snow Reports, an app tailored to ski and snowboard aficionados, tracks snow conditions across more than 700 resorts all over the world. There has been an outpouring of support for this app from users who say they check it regularly before taking off on skiing vacations. To capitalize on its following, well-known athletic eyewear outfitter Oakley — maker of sunglasses and goggles for winter sports — decided to sponsor the app on both Facebook and the iPhone. Instead of running tradition display ads, however, the company chose to provide downloadable custom skins, entertaining videos, and profiles of Oakley’s Ski and Snowboard teams to evangelize its brand.
  • Schizle: Built for the iPhone, Schizle delivers coupons, discounts and other deals direct to your handset based on your current location. We’ve heard this mobile geotargeting tune before, and little has come of it. But with the iPhone and other new smartphones like the Blackberry Storm, a viable version may have finally arrived. Our company, appssavvy, has seen a lot of success connecting the app with a major gasoline company. Even with gas prices falling back to normal, every penny counts these days — and Schizle promises to identify the best deals on gas nearby no matter where you are. The company is also integrated geotargeted ads into its app.
  • Zynga: This company offers countless well-received games. But its Texas Hold ‘Em app has been a mainstay at the top of Facebook’s application rankings for some time. Games, for the most part, are not the best way for advertisers to reach consumers. But by incorporating chat and tournament functions, Texas Hold ‘Em has broken away from the pack of typical game apps, offering some unique features, including social integration at an online poker table, realistic cards and chips. It has also yet to find appropriate advertising partnerships — but with 259,218 fans, it seems to be a ripe opportunity. Meanwhile, it’s also reportedly making millions on its virtual goods. Users can send each other drinks, snacks and smokes as they play.

Facebook is clearly way ahead when it comes to social media applications, but I’m also encouraged by efforts being made by unusual suspects Yahoo, iGoogle and LinkedIn (apps for services like TripIt and Amazon reading list became available through LinkedIn’s developer platform late last year). To an extent, these other social networks have missed the first one or two innings of a longer game. It’s not too late for them to shift resources and energy to back an application-based strategy, but they need to act fast.

In the year ahead, I believe we’ll see the social media space exceed even our loftiest expectations. Right now, the most used apps draw about 15 million monthly active users. Considering that Facebook has more than 200 million unique users, there’s still a lot of room for growth. And I think we’ll see it sooner rather than later, especially with the new focus on consistent usefulness and added value, taking engagement and advertising opportunities to new heights.

Chris Cunningham is founder and chief executive of New York City-based appssavvy, a direct sales team that connects application developers and publishers with brands and advertising agencies.