Until now online shopping has been a lonely endeavor. Think Sandra Bullock in “The Net,” the 1995 film where she works from home, orders everything online and has few friends outside of cyberspace. Even 10 years later most people still shop online alone, sneaking it in during work hours or squeezing it in after everyone’s in bed.

“If you look at the first 10 years of e-commerce, it was solitary, not social,” says Rob Solomon, vice president of the Yahoo Shopping Group. “Yet, if you look at the pre-e-commerce world, that’s all shopping was; e-commerce changed that. E-commerce isn’t going to be a solitary thing that much longer.”

That’s because social networking is having its third rebirth online, and this time experts think it will stick.

“E-commerce will be much more than 5 percent [of retail revenue] three years from now,” Solomon says, “because this will change the landscape of it.”

As such, affiliate sites are building loyal fan bases and gaining steady clickthroughs by encouraging buyers to bring their offline friends along for the shopping experience.

“Consumers looking for the best of the best, the first of the first, the most relevant of the relevant increasingly don’t connect to ‘just any other consumer’ anymore,” according to TrendWatching.com, a report focused on spotting new trends. “They are hooking up with (and listening to) their taste ‘twins’; fellow consumers somewhere in the world who think, react, enjoy and consume the way they do.”

To tap this trend, the best-selling affiliates are adding social networking elements outside the norm. They’re offering ways for buddies to view each other’s potential purchases, give and get advice in any form they want, pay each other’s bills and even get cash for recommending something their buddy ultimately buys.

Influencing Others’ Potential Purchases

Forrester Research found that consumers who buy fashion online are more likely to interact socially by sending product links to friends. With more than 40 million – mostly young, higher-income females – having purchased clothing online to date, this market is ripe for affiliate-site options that seamlessly allow second opinions.

Take eDressMe.com, run by Tango dress designer Joanne Stoner, who uses Yahoo’s storefront to offer her dresses alongside more than 1,000 others from New York designers. The site conference calls in mothers and daughters with its personal shoppers to look at online dress options together and reach an agreement.

“It’s just the right forum because the daughter is around to shop, the mother is around to pay for it and the personal shopper will be the one who decides whether the outfit is appropriate or not,” Stoner says. The result? eDressMe.com gets about 6 million unique visitors per month and has been No. 1 in most natural search rankings for “cocktail dresses” and “evening dresses” for three years running.

While online buddy shoppers can’t actually see the other person’s outfit on, they now have options like My Virtual Model, an animated model sized to a customer’s exact measurements and customized with faces, hairstyles and builds. Merchants like Adidas.com, LandsEnd.com, LLBean.com, Sears.com and iVillage.com (20 percent commission) all offer the virtual model for “trying on” clothing as part of their affiliate offerings. The saved model can be used at all participating merchants, with final outfits “imailed” to buddies for feedback. Shoppers using My Virtual Model reportedly spend more, buy more and return fewer items.

Buddy emails and conference calls are just two of the many new ways shoppers will soon be able to provide pre-purchase feedback through shopping sites. “There is so much more you can do with IP communications if you tailor it for the e-commerce experience,” says Rob Seaver, CEO of website-embedded IP communications provider Vivox.com. “What if you could talk to people who recently purchased the same item? What if you could see into other people’s shopping carts? What if you’re considering a purchase of the ‘Desperate Housewives’ DVD collection, and while you’re looking at that there’s an ad that says, Join five people in a small affinity group talking about ‘Desperate Housewives’? By bringing the social networking aspect and e-commerce together, you can increase interaction on a site and, consequently, increase sales.”

For example, in conjunction with Friendster.com allowing users to post Amazon.com affiliate links, it now offers Net Zero.com’s free computer-to-computer calling with a banner ad on its log-in page. Buddies only need a USB headset and microphone to bring the offline experience online.

Give Advice, Get Advice

Amazon.com is a leader in product reviews with more than 6 million entered by its users. And in November, Amazon patented how its reviews are conducted.

According to Amazon’s lead engineers, “The click through and conversion rates of recommendations based on collaborative filtering vastly exceed those of untargeted content such as banner advertisements and top-seller lists.”

Still most others claim it’s a non-issue. “All the major sites have product and user reviews,” says Martin Levy at eDeals.com, which posts reviews alongside merchant, auction and coupon results for product searches on one page.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 33 million American Internet users have reviewed or rated someone or something online. And Forrester Research found that, in Europe, more than 50 percent of online consumer electronics buyers check product reviews from other customers, 30 percent purchased something online based on someone else’s online rating and 15 percent wrote a review themselves.

TrendWatching.com cataloged these results in its late-2005 “twinsumer” report.

“The twinsumer phenomenon is turning millions of reviews, ratings and recommendations into truly valuable results fitting one person’s very particular preferences or even lifestyle – whether it’s a one-off twinsumer union or an ongoing relationship. Twinsumer therefore isn’t about access to reviews or ratings or even trust in general (those are fast becoming hygiene), but about relevance.”

The name of online mall Yub.com says it all. It’s “buy” written backward. The company, launched in February 2005 and snapped up by Buy.com, is all about consumers recommending products to other consumers. Offering nearly 5 million affiliate-fed products, Yub.com provides a place where people sign up to meet (and give Yub valuable consumer data), hang out and get merchant-negotiated cash-back rates of up to 25 percent for free members and up to 34 percent for “premium” members, paying $24.95 per year. Users also get 1 percent when their buddies buy something endorsed in their profile.

“The voice of our members is an incredible resource for both merchants and online shoppers,” said Jared Morgenstern, president of Yub.com, in a launch release. “Merchants receive the benefit of satisfied customers who become product evangelists, and online shoppers learn the latest in trends from the most reliable source – their friends. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.”

Insiders are finding that the best way to help “product evangelists” refer other shoppers is by giving them the communication tools they’re most apt to use. They may want chat, email, instant message, text messages, on-demand cell phone or land-based phone calls, calls to other computers with headsets, photo or video uploads or live webcam communication.

“One of the things people don’t like doing online is not having any sort of interaction when they’re picking out, say, a dress,” says Karen Hoskins, Logitech’s webcam PR specialist. The addition of webcam communication “is a more personal element to shopping online.” Sellers on eBay now can even upload pre-shot Webcam footage for 99 cents per video listing (first upload free).

“But to make it more like real life,” Vivox.com’s Seaver says, “the next step will be to have the real-time interaction among users.” Vivox has a manag
ed IP service that integrates all of the various real-time IP-based communication methods. It costs a few hundred to several thousand dollars per month, so sites usually roll costs into membership fees charged to users.

For sites wanting to add their own social network, Vivox already powers WorldFriends Networks’ (WFN) new WorldFriends Phone service. Buddies can view personal hot lists, identify members online and escalate interpersonal interactions from IM – regardless of the branded IM service they may currently use – to voice to video with one click. All of these services can be private-labeled: WFN customizes and operates the personals service, combining profiles from more than 150 sites in 18 countries viewable in up to five languages.

“There is no up-front cost to join our network and avail of our service,” says Dominic Penaloza, in sales partner for Meta4-Group.com, WorldFriends Network’s parent company. “However, we do have a modest set up fee that is payable from the user-fee revenue share.” Partners get a “generous” share of all user fees, which run $24.99 per month or one year for $99.99 ($8.33 per month).

And don’t forget the forums for tapping into buddy-type recommendations.

“There is an amazing amount of discussion on everything – from digital cameras to professional chef knives – on all of the specialized user forums out there,” says Michael Tchong, founder of Trend Setters.com and UberCool.com. “That’s shopping engineering at its best.”

Pay Each Other’s Bills

eDressMe.com is just one example of sites using social networking to have one person find an item and another person pay for it. Gift card revenues have exploded to $55 billion dollars, according to Tchong. “That inherently includes the social element – because you buy a gift card to give to someone else.”

BarnesandNoble.com’s new shopping cart software builds on its social features (blog-like back-and-forth reviews and posts of a reviewer’s other recommended reads) by including pop-up reminders to “send an online gift certificate” now.

Getting Paid for Social Networking

“When consumers rally around a specific topic, recommendations are instantly relevant, as long as they don’t stray too far from the topic at hand,” TrendWatching .com reports. “No wonder virtual communities are fertile breeding grounds for meeting one’s twinsumer.”

Perhaps the most affiliate-friendly virtual community to date is Squidoo.com, launched in early December by Internet marketing guru Seth Godin, author of New York Times best-sellers Permission Marketing and Purple Cow.

Users create profiles and build a topic-specific reference Web page known as a lens. Fifty percent of net revenue from a lens, whether from automated Google AdSense ads or affiliate sales for Squidoo’s 500 merchant partners, go back to the lensmaster.

“Squidoo lets online entrepreneurs sell thousands of products without signing up for different affiliate programs or building and hosting a website,” Godin says. “In just a few minutes, they can present a thoughtful collection of items – and then spend their time promoting the site.”

The bonus for adding yourself to social commerce sites like this can be immense. Relevant content garners higher Google PageRanks and can highlight your best blog posts, point to the products and services you write about, autofeed with RSS news when you’re out of town, track your site’s name mention on other blogs and promote upcoming podcasts and offline events.

Gather.com is another social commerce site now in beta testing. All of its members are bloggers, an area ripe for commercialization. Bloggers, some of whom simply repost blog entries or newsletter content from their own site, are paid out of revenue generated from Gather.com’s in-house ad network, where affiliate ads are welcome. Ads appear based on interests specified in a user’s profile.

“Because we’ve got just a few dozen advertisers since [our Nov. 15] launch, they’re getting prices that are much better than what they’re getting at Google or Overture,” says Gather.com founder and CEO Tom Gerace, the brains behind BeFree’s affiliate network (it sold for more than $100 million to ValueClick in 2003). “Plus they’re able to target an audience – membership is 5,500 and growing – that’s already loyal to coming back to our site.”

Then there’s Yahoo’s Shoposphere beta, which launched Nov. 14. It aggregates and sorts Pick Lists created by Yahoo Shopping’s community, allowing users to “search, view, read about and purchase specific products recommended by people they know and trust, experts they’ve never met, and everyone in between.” Affiliates can use Yahoo’s Open Web Service APIs, which include shopping search, price compare, reviews and product specifications.

“This creates a whole new value chain that allows those people who were only consumers in the past to become sellers,” says Yahoo’s Solomon. “Not too many other people can execute on this like we can. Amazon.com is positioned, but without the social networking all ready they’re really at a disadvantage.” Yahoo won’t roll out revenue sharing with Shopospherekeepers, however, until later in 2006.

All in all, tapping into this social networking trend boils down to making your online shopper’s experience more like one they’d have on land.

“One of the affiliate managers I work with said he was so tired of seeing stores that looked alike, and wanted to see different things in online shopping like capturing the social experience,” says John Gilhooly, publisher of mallDTS.com, which launched in October 2005. “Malls have always been a great social experience for people, so we get a little more of that online to make it seem like they’re actually engaged in offline shopping, online.” He’s made the experience so authentic, he says, that “two people actually called recently and asked for directions to the mall.”

Sources like TrendSpotting.com are predicting this is just the beginning.

“The twinsumer trend is part of an all-encompassing trend changing who and what consumers rely on when making purchase decisions, both need- and impulse-driven,” the report states.

But will the business model work, or will content-based sites crash like revenue-share Themestream.com did in 2001? The tagline for the 1995 movie “Mallrats” hints at the perils of crossing your fingers for commerce in a social environment: “They’re not there to shop. They’re not there to work. They’re just there.”

But industry insiders say that, thanks to the buddy factor, consumers are ready to come online and actually buy this time. “Instead of getting the lowest price and leaving, shoppers are staying on the site and getting some value for that,” eDeals.com’s Levy says. “Then they’re there when a merchant comes out with a special offer and they can take advantage of that. That’s what eDeals is doing ” something very similar to Yahoo. And if Yahoo is doing this, then you can see that this is where the market is heading.”

JENNIFER D. MEACHAM is a freelance writer who has worked for The Seattle Times, The Columbian, Vancouver Business Journal and Emerging Business magazine. She lives and writes in Portland, Ore.