Hot List: The 24 Digital Brands, Startups and Games That Defined 2015

Technology historians will remember 2015 as the year when we first talked about robots and drones without a sense of irony. And they’ll note it was the year when the president of the United States launched a Twitter and Facebook account, and a 25-year-old CEO of a mobile app was the star of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

Indeed, it’s been a very good year for digital, and Adweek’s jury of editors has selected the annual Hot List winners for the category, with readers voting their own favorites in our weeks-long poll. Check out the 24 honorees below:

1

Hottest Digital Brand of the Year

Editors' Choice
Snapchat

From asking brands to shell out $750,000 for disappearing ads to convincing big-name publishers including CNN and Vice to go all-in on daily news content, Snapchat proved that it’s far more than a flash in the pan this year. And with more than 6 billion video views every day, it's taken on Facebook and YouTube's supremacy for the video space. —Lauren Johnson

 

Readers' Choice
Vice 29.9%
Snapchat 22.9%
Apple 19.7%

 

2

Hottest Startup

Editors' Choice
Periscope

Seven-month-old Periscope already counts more than 10 million users—who it says spend 21 million minutes on the mobile app every 24 hours. The Twitter-owned livestreaming player shook up media and marketing in 2015 more than any other tech newbie, attracting major brands including Dunkin' Donuts, St-Germain, Nestlé and Glidden—who have used it as a branding tool. –Christopher Heine

Readers' Choice
Plated 32.7%
Uber 30.8%
Whisper 21.5%

3

Hottest Digital Obsession

Editors' Choice
Netflix

Its subscribers increased globally during third quarter 2015 to more than 69 million, as the company continues to produce lauded exclusive original content like Bloodline and Beasts of No Nation on top of established hits like Orange Is the New Black. The Los Gatos, Calif.-based streaming giant has also been flexing its innovation muscles, while turning viewer brainwaves into music to promote its telepathy show, Sense8. –Marty Swant

Readers' Choice
Netflix 28.7%
YouTube 27.2%
Instagram 19.0%

4

Hottest Digital Publication

Editors' Choice
BuzzFeed

BuzzFeed amasses a whopping 5 billion monthly views across all platforms and has struck deals with all the right players. In August, BuzzFeed formed a partnership with GroupM, WPP's media-buying arm, allowing BuzzFeed access to insights and GroupM entree to content. Also during the summer, it received a $200 million investment from NBCUniversal.–Marty Swant

Readers' Choice
Quartz 49.4%
The Daily Mail 18.6%
BuzzFeed 14.7%

5

Hottest in Sports Media

Editors' Choice
Bleacher Report

Look no further than the data to see how hot B/R is. The publication's videos garnered 82 million views across all social platforms in September, a 560 percent spike over the same period last year. According to CrowdTangle, Bleacher Report was the No. 1 publisher in the U.S. for social sharing in October, generating nearly 28 million social interactions (likes, shares, etc.), easily beating entrenched competitor ESPN's 17 million. Per comScore, Bleacher Report averaged 37 million monthly readers from February to September, up 68 percent compared with the same period two years ago. Those stats are why Bleacher Report has become a key place to be seen for sports-minded brands like MillerCoors, Sony, Ford, Dove Men+Care and Activision. —Christopher Heine

Readers' Choice
Grantland 52.1%
ESPN 27.5%
Bleacher Report 11.2%

6

Hottest Digital Marketer

Editors' Choice
Taco Bell

Taco Bell has mastered millennial lingo. On Snapchat, a pair of 20-somethings is the face of the brand, creating fun content that keeps young folks coming back. The fast-food chain also created an "emoji engine" on Twitter that spits out 600 custom GIFs and photos to anyone who sends the brand a message. –Lauren Johnson

Readers' Choice
General Electric 31.8%
Taco Bell 25.1%
Mountain Dew 20.0%

7

Hottest in Native Advertising

Editors' Choice
The New York Times

The Gray Lady is wisely adapting to the spectrum of emerging publishing opportunities, boasting 1 million digital-only subscribers and becoming a leader in native advertising, which in third-quarter 2015 accounted for 18 percent of its online ad revenue. The Times recently ran its 100th native campaign, which entailed virtual-reality-powered ads for GE. –Marty Swant

Readers' Choice
BuzzFeed 25.7%
The New York Times 24.6%
Vice 24.5%

8

Hottest Digital Gadget

Editors' Choice
Apple Watch

When it was released in April, people suspected the Apple Watch would become a tech-history footnote. Quite the contrary: The souped-up timepiece has sold a reported 7 million units in the last two quarters. Credit marketers like Starwood Hotels, CNN and Panera Bread for getting out in front of this wearables revolution with their own Apple Watch apps. –Christopher Heine

 

Readers' Choice
Apple iPhone 6S 35.4%
Apple Watch 18.9%
Oculus Rift 18.0%

 

9

Hottest Video Platform

Editors' Choice
YouTube

The veteran video platform, which has 1 billion users worldwide, has done anything but rest on its laurels. YouTube just released an ad-free subscription service called YouTube Red that has users and video publishers abuzz. Also this fall, it added stereoscopic compatibility for its virtual-reality Cardboard headset that's sure to impact the way the public sees video's potential. –Marty Swant

Readers' Choice
YouTube 72.8%
Periscope 10.7%
Amazon Prime 7.0% 

10

Hottest Video Network/Studio

Editors' Choice
Funny or Die

Whether it was "Netflix and Chill" or James Bond's purported crush on Jason Bourne, Funny or Die continues to poke fun at the latest pop-culture trends. FoD was even responsible for one of the Internet's best April Fools' gags when it unveiled its new platform, Dips, that allowed users to record videos as long as 1.5 seconds. –Tim Baysinger

Readers' Choice
Funny or Die 28.2%
BroadbandTV 26.7%
BuzzFeed Motion Pictures 23.5%

11

Hottest Web Series – Subscription

Editors' Choice
Transparent

Groundbreaking in many ways, the transgender-themed comedy put Amazon on the map as an alternate home for quality-scripted content. Much to Netflix's chagrin, Transparent managed to bag numerous awards in the process, including a pair of Emmy wins for creator Jill Soloway and star Jeffrey Tambor. Season 2 starts Dec. 11. –Tim Baysinger

 

Readers' Choice
Orange is the New Black 39.3%
House of Cards 36.1%
Narcos 24.6%

 

12

Hottest Web Series – Free

Editors' Choice
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

Jerry Seinfeld's venerable car-driven series for streaming upstart Crackle showed no signs of downshifting for its sixth season, having amassed 100 million views since its debut. Beginning with a reunion with his Seinfeld co-star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, this season expanded its roster with Steve Harvey, Jim Carrey and newbie late-night host, Trevor Noah. –Tim Baysinger

Readers' Choice
Stay Melo 50.3%
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee 43.5%
Park Bench 6.2%

 

13

Hottest Video Star

Editors' Choice
Casey Neistat

After traveling the world to make viral YouTube content for J.Crew and Nike, filmmaker Casey Neistat got into the video space himself this year by co-launching Beme. The mobile app, whose downloads have trailed off since its July launch, requires people to post only unedited clips, which he hopes will make social media feel more authentic for consumers and brands. –Lauren Johnson

Readers' Choice
Casey Neistat 49.8%
PewDiePie 43.4%
Tyler Oakley 2.7%

14

Hottest Social Platform

Editors' Choice
Instagram

Instagram now has 400 million monthly active users, making it bigger than any social platform not named Facebook (which owns it). In March, the company launched Carousel Ads—sponsored posts that consist of multiple photos for users to swipe through. More recently, it opened its ads API, allowing all brands to play on the popular photos-and-videos platform. –Marty Swant

Readers' Choice
Whisper 29.2%
Instagram 28.4%
Snapchat 25.2%

15

Hottest Entertainer on Social Media

Editors' Choice
Taylor Swift

The pop princess loves to post pictures of her cats on social media like nobody's business. Well, guess what? Swift has three times as many followers on Twitter (66 million) and Instagram (55 million) combined than the number of albums she's sold (40 million) with five full-length records. Now that's a digital star, baby. –Christopher Heine

Readers' Choice
Ellen 40.8%
Jimmy Fallon 23.1%
Taylor Swift 12.7%

 

16

Hottest Way to Message

Editors' Choice
Kik

Even as Snapchat grabs brands’ attention, messaging app Kik still has a grip on teens—40 percent of 13-to-26 year-olds use it every month. And advertisers are paying notice: Since launching the Promoted Chats ad format last year, more than 15 million users have exchanged 400 million messages with brands like Twentieth Century Fox and Spotify. –Lauren Johnson

Readers' Choice
Snapchat 41.3%
WhatsApp 27.4%
Facebook Messenger 22.6%

17

Hottest Way to Shop

Editors' Choice
Amazon

If this year's Wi-Fi-enabled plastic "Dash" buttons are an indication of where Amazon sees e-commerce going, every surface in your house will eventually be shoppable. As part of its plan to make online shopping instantaneous, the Seattle-based retail giant also expanded its one-hour Amazon Prime Now delivery program from New York to San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta. –Lauren Johnson

Readers' Choice
Amazon 71.4%
Polyvore 10.3%
Net-A-Porter 8.3%

18

Hottest Way to Hook Up

Editors' Choice
Tinder

Thanks to Tinder, "swipe right" has entered the cultural lexicon and is now seen on many a dime-store T shirt. With 50 million users who make 1.6 billion swipes a day, the dating app turned into a big moneymaker this year by selling subscriptions, while also running ad campaigns for Bud Light and Universal Pictures. –Lauren Johnson

Readers' Choice
Tinder 71.6%
Grindr 8.6%
Bumble 8.0%

19

Hottest Music App

Editors' Choice
Spotify

Spotify is building a platform to plug music into everyday life, inking deals with Starbucks and Virgin Atlantic this year to bring tunes to coffee shops and airplanes, respectively. The streaming-music app also added original video content to its library of songs this year, while also growing its base to 75 million active users. –Lauren Johnson

Readers' Choice
iHeartRadio 32.3%
Spotify 27.2%
Pandora 17.5%

20

Hottest Anonymous Social App

Editors' Choice
Whisper

It's no secret anymore. Big brands like Coca-Cola, MTV and Paramount Pictures have gotten to "know" Whisper's audience of 10 million anonymous users well enough that they are coming back for more ads. Whisper offers keyword targeting that lets marketers zero in on its users in terms of what moods they're in (happy, depressed, bored, puzzled, etc.). –Christopher Heine

Readers' Choice
Whisper 77.4%
Yik Yak 22.6%

21

Hottest Utility App

Editors' Choice
Uber

With an aggressive marketing campaign that was akin to a political take-down, Uber thwarted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposed legislation to cap the number of for-hire cabs roaming Gotham. And as it expands its fleet of drivers across 65 countries, the company this year has lived up to its $70 billion valuation. –Lauren Johnson

Readers' Choice
Uber 39.0%
Google 29.7%
Twitter 15.3%

22

Hottest Mobile Design

Editors' Choice
Snapchat

Snapchat was a design trendsetter in 2015, telling video creators their clips should run vertically—and they listened. Also this year, the company launched Snapchat Discover for publishers, letting Cosmopolitan, CNN, iHeartRadio, IGN and BuzzFeed create swipe-friendly stories. And in June, Snapchat, WPP and Daily Mail announced a new agency venture called Truffle Pig, which aims to create better content for mobile. –Marty Swant

 

Readers' Choice
Instagram 32.4%
Snapchat 31.0%
YouTube 20.3%

 

23

Hottest Game – Console

Editor's Choice
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Selling 3 million copies in the first five days of release, this open-world action game proved that the nearly 30-year-old Metal Gear franchise still could serve up mind-bending creativity. Addictive, immersive and joyously odd at times, Phantom Pain likely marks the end of the storied game series due to a falling out between its auteur creator Hideo Kojima and publisher Konami. But it's a fitting finale, not only because of how it ties up long-running story lines but also thanks to the sheer insanity of what you're able to pull off on the battlefield. At a time when games like Call of Duty have become annual (and predictable) franchises, Phantom Pain showed how exciting it can be to throw out the rulebook and create something truly unique. –David Griner

Reader's Choice
Destiny 33.4%
Grand Theft Auto V 27.7%
NBA 2K16 14.4%

 

24

Hottest Game – Mobile

Editors' Choice
Clash of Clans

After years of betting big on app-install promos, mobile video game advertising went mainstream this year, with Clash of Clans running one of the buzziest Super Bowl spots. The app enlisted actor Liam Neeson and Barton F. Graf 9000 to show how mobile gaming has become a part of everyday culture. According to Think Gaming, CoC is ranked No. 2 among top-grossing games. –Lauren Johnson

Readers' Choice
Candy Crush 33.4%
Clash of Clans 25.3%
Minecraft 20.1%

This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Check out the rest of this year's Hot List honorees:
Media Visionary: Roger Ailes
Hottest Magazines of 2015
Magazine Executive of the Year: Troy Young
Magazine Editor of the Year: Graydon Carter
Hottest TV Shows and Networks of 2015
TV Executive of the Year: Bonnie Hammer
TV Producer of the Year: Greg Berlanti
Digital Executive of the Year: Evan Spiegel
Digital Editor of the Year: Joe Yanerella