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Net-a-Porter Wants to Build the Social Network for Shopping

On May 13, Net-a-Porter will launch The Net Set, an ambitious mobile-first social network for shoppers.
The Net Set will debut on iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch devices on May 13. Photo: Net-a-Porter

The Net Set will debut on iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch devices on May 13. Photo: Net-a-Porter

Over the past five years, we've seen a number of fashion-focused social media networks come and, in all too many cases, go. There was Fashism and WhereToGetIt, which both asked people to upload photos of their outfits for community feedback; Pose and Snapette, "Instagrams for fashion" that wanted people to be inspired by — and shop from — each other; and Motilo, which launched as a website for friends to shop together (and has since pivoted); among several dozens of others. Just when it seemed the mania for fashion-specific social networks was starting to fade, Net-a-Porter has announced that it, too, wants to get into the game.

On May 13, Net-a-Porter will begin inviting shoppers and the 4.1 million followers it has across its social media accounts to download and join The Net Set, a mobile-native social shopping network where the stylishly-minded can interact and be inspired by others in an entirely shopping-focused environment. The network — launching first as an app for iPhone, iPad and (in a limited way) Apple Watch devices — has an Instagram-like interface that invites users to explore feeds of Net-a-Porter products curated by other users, leave comments on those products, and curate their own groups of products. Users can also upload their own imagery, from street style shots to products from other retailers' websites, for others to explore, a la Pinterest.

According to Sarah Watson, vice president of social commerce, and Alex Hoffnung, creative director of social commerce, it was Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet's idea to build a social network that would re-imagine — and ultimately disrupt — Net-a-Porter's "pure-play shopping" model with one that has mobile and social at its core. The Net Set began as a side project that launched in beta as The Netbook in 2013. In September of last year, Watson and Hoffnung were moved onto the project full-time, and now have a team of 13 others working alongside them.

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The trick with any social network is to get the right group of people using it first, so as to set the tone. (Many have pointed to Facebook's decision to launch first at Ivy League schools as a critical step to its success, for example.) Net-a-Porter is launching with a 15-member "Style Council," a group of stylish women like W magazine contributor Giovanna Battaglia, who will have their own prominently placed profiles for users to follow. (Battaglia, who is already a brand ambassador for Net-a-Porter and featured across its other properties, like its online magazine The Edit, will be compensated for her participation via "the beginnings of an affiliate model," per Hoffnung.) Brands, too, will have their own pages where they can curate products, upload images and interact with customers as much or as little as they'd like.

As with any new launch, it's impossible to predict whether it will be a success, but Net-a-Porter does seem to have built an app with features that its most dedicated fans will enjoy using. But Watson and Hoffnung say they don't want the network to be just an add-on to Net-a-Porter — they want it to be "the social network for shopping."

That, however, will be tricky — if not impossible — unless Net-a-Porter brings the network to desktop and opens it up to competing brands and retailers. Not even Net-a-Porter's most dedicated customers only shop at Net-a-Porter, and the app is inherently limited by the fact that products are only fed in from one retailer. Hoffnung said there are no direct plans to bring in other retailers at this point, but that "anything is possible."

If the Net Set is able to build a dedicated community, it should enjoy an increase in sales and a wealth of customer insights. If Net-a-Porter were to notice that users were uploading product of certain brands not carried on the site, they could take that information to their merchandising team, for example, while those who follow a feed for "double denim" might receive more tailored newsletters in the future specifically related to denim. But, as the founder of any of the fashion-focused social networks listed above could tell you, it will be no easy task.