Valentine’s Day reminds us that love is a many splendored thing – especially if you’re the CEO of Hallmark, 1-800-FLOWERS, or Godiva. This year Americans spent more than $17 billion on Valentine’s Day. To put it in perspective, that is more than the gross domestic product of half the world’s countries. Men spent an average of $163.37 per person whereas the fairer sex got away with a mere $84.72.

Sweet Nothings

The majority of Valentine’s Day spending consists of the usual suspects: greeting cards (purchased by 59% of Valentines Day consumers), candy (48%), and flowers (36%). But like the rest of our lives, love is moving online and virtual goods, in all their forms, are taking the place of the old standbys.

E-cards are the original virtual good and they continue to be a staple of online admirers. According to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 14 million e-cards were sent for Valentine’s Day in 2008, and Valentine’s Day is the largest e-card sending occasion of the year.

Virtual gifts are, to some extent, an evolution of the e-card. Facebook Gifts is probably the best example of virtual gifting in the context of social networking. For the price of $1, a Facebook member can send another Facebook member any one of over 400 different graphical icons. Many of these gifts are “virtual” versions of traditional Valentines Day gifts, such as flowers or chocolate, while others, such as “Love Duckie” or “Polka Dot Thong”, are more creative or risque takes on the theme.

In How Real Is Your Love?, Susan Wu from Charles River Ventures explains, “Sending a virtual flower is a way of showing lightweight attention and affection to someone online.” Since virtual gifts are used lightheartedly and flirtatiously, they often make sense where a physical gift would be seen as too serious or too forward.

If you can’t bear the exorbitant prices of real flowers on Valentine’s Day, then virtual flowers might be the next best thing, and they can be had for an irresistibly price – free. They’re Beautiful is a free site where users can create a virtual flower bouquet and deliver those flowers to any e-mail address. Recipients can show off their flowers by embedding them into any other website. Brown thumbs need not apply since the flowers will wilt after a few days without a virtual watering.

If sending a free bouquet of virtual flowers just won’t make the cut, you can put down some hard earned cash at Bokay Me, a service from 1-800-FLOWERS where users can create a virtual bouquet and deliver it to an e-mail address, Facebook account, or mobile phone. Sending a basic bouquet is free but enhanced options can push the price of a bouquet up to $3.00 – not a bad deal for those times when real flowers a) won’t get there fast enough, b) won’t get there at all, or c) won’t make you look anything less than desperate.

Lets face it. A virtual rose doesn’t smell as sweet and a virtual box of chocolates certainly doesn’t taste as sweet. Our friends at Mars have solved this problem by enabling Facebook members to buy real candy for each other. The UK division of Mars recently announced a Facebook application called Celebration. Using Celebration, a member can purchase candy and have that candy delivered to a friend. Rather than actually delivering the candy via the postal service (which would be time consuming and would involve disclosing personal information), a redemption code is sent to the recipient’s mobile phone. The recipient can take that code to any one of 15,000 PayPoint locations in the UK and redeem the code for the actual candy bar. Now thats innovation.

Whether real or virtual, flowers and candy might tickle your valentine’s fancy, but they won’t do the world much good. If you are looking to send a Valetine’s Day gift with a little more social impact, try Changing the Present , an application that features over 1,000 $1 gifts from leading non-profits. Instead of a “Love Duckie”, Facebook members can send a gift that both decorates their friend’s profile and helps make a difference.

Dating Evolved

If all this has you shaking your head and thinking to yourself, “Sending my valentine virtual flowers instead real ones will get me a one-way ticket to the couch.”, then you might just be dinosaur of a dater. Sure, you may have e-mailed a love letter or even met someone online. But have you broken up with someone by changing your Facebook status, had a dinner date via webcam, or been tempted to cut-and-paste your personality?

As the rules of dating transform to keep pace with our networked lifestyles, so too will notions of what is and isn’t romantic. One day those overpriced, wilted “real” roses from 1-800-FLOWERS might just be the tackiest arrow in your quiver.