The History of Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) and Affiliate Marketing


The stories of Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) and affiliate marketing are fascinating journeys that span over a century. By exploring their histories, we can uncover valuable lessons that have shaped their development and understand both their potential and pitfalls.

Early Beginnings of MLM

Late 19th Century: The Dawn of Direct Selling

Imagine a time when salesmen knocked on doors, offering products directly to consumers. This was the late 1800s, and direct selling was just beginning to take root. These door-to-door salesmen were the pioneers, laying the groundwork for what would eventually become MLM.

1930s: The Birth of Nutrilite

Fast forward to 1934, when Carl Rehnborg founded the California Vitamin Company, later known as Nutrilite. Rehnborg didn’t just sell vitamins; he introduced a new way for people to earn money. Nutrilite’s plan allowed distributors to earn commissions from their sales and the sales made by the people they recruited. This innovative idea sparked the beginning of MLM as we know it.

Growth and Development of MLM

1945: Nutrilite’s Revolutionary Plan

In 1945, Nutrilite took a significant step forward by introducing a compensation plan that allowed distributors to earn from their recruits’ sales. This wasn’t just about selling products; it was about building a network, a team, and sharing in their success.

1959: The Rise of Amway

Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel, former Nutrilite distributors, saw the potential of this model and founded Amway in 1959. Their vision turned Amway into a household name, and their success story popularized MLM, inspiring countless other companies to adopt this business model.

Expansion and Regulation of MLM

1970s-1980s: A Booming Industry

During the 1970s and 1980s, MLM wasn’t just about vitamins anymore. The model spread to cosmetics, household items, and even financial services. Companies like Avon, Mary Kay, and Herbalife embraced MLM, offering a wide range of products through personal networks.

1979: FTC’s Crucial Ruling

A pivotal moment came in 1979 when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruled that Amway was not an illegal pyramid scheme. This decision was crucial, as it established guidelines to distinguish legitimate MLM businesses from illegal schemes, emphasizing the importance of product sales over recruitment.

Global Reach of MLM

1990s-2000s: Spreading Across the Globe

The 1990s and 2000s were a time of globalization for MLM. Companies expanded their reach to Asia, Latin America, and Europe, introducing MLM to new markets. Brands like Herbalife, Avon, and Mary Kay became international sensations, bringing opportunities and challenges in diverse cultural and regulatory landscapes.

The Modern Era of MLM

2010s-Present: The Digital Transformation

The digital age brought a new dimension to MLM. With the internet and social media, distributors could connect with potential customers and recruits online. This transformation made it easier to reach a broader audience but also brought increased scrutiny regarding the ethical practices of some MLM companies.

Regulatory Actions and Ethical Concerns

As MLM continued to evolve, various countries implemented regulations to protect consumers and ensure ethical practices. The focus shifted towards transparency, with a clear distinction between legitimate MLM businesses and illegal pyramid schemes.

Early Beginnings of Affiliate Marketing

1980s: The Concept Takes Shape

In the 1980s, companies began paying commissions to independent sales agents for bringing in customers. This concept of affiliate marketing was the seed from which a new industry would grow.

1989: The First Online Affiliate Program

William J. Tobin, founder of PC Flowers & Gifts, is often credited with launching the first online affiliate program. In 1989, he filed a patent for tracking and affiliate marketing, paving the way for the digital marketing revolution.

Growth and Development of Affiliate Marketing

1994: Amazon Associates

In 1994, Amazon introduced Amazon Associates, the first widely recognized affiliate marketing program. This allowed website owners to earn commissions by linking to Amazon products, revolutionizing the way businesses and affiliates interacted.

1996: Commission Junction and LinkShare

The founding of Commission Junction (now CJ Affiliate) and LinkShare (now Rakuten Marketing) in 1996 created platforms to connect advertisers with affiliates, further professionalizing the industry and expanding its reach.

Expansion in the 2000s

Early 2000s: Advancements in Technology

The early 2000s saw affiliate marketing become more sophisticated with the advent of web analytics, tracking technologies, and performance-based advertising models. These advancements allowed for more accurate tracking and reporting, enhancing the effectiveness of affiliate campaigns.

2005: The Launch of Google AdSense

Google AdSense, launched in 2005, enabled website owners to earn revenue through contextual ads displayed on their sites. This opened up new revenue streams and opportunities for affiliates.

The Modern Era of Affiliate Marketing

2010s-Present: Social Media and Influencers

The rise of social media influencers, bloggers, and YouTubers in the 2010s created new opportunities for affiliate marketing. Performance marketing agencies and networks flourished, and advanced tracking technologies, data analytics, and AI-driven tools optimized affiliate marketing strategies, allowing for targeted and personalized marketing campaigns.

Key Characteristics and Differences

Performance-Based Earnings

Both MLM and affiliate marketing rely on commission-based earnings. In MLM, individuals earn money through both personal sales and the sales of those they recruit, whereas in affiliate marketing, affiliates earn commissions directly from sales or actions they generate.

Structure and Focus

MLM focuses on multi-tiered compensation structures where earnings are derived from both personal sales and the sales of recruited members. In contrast, affiliate marketing typically involves a single-tier structure, emphasizing direct online sales and digital products. Learn more about common commission structures here.

Integration and Overlap

Some companies blend MLM and affiliate marketing strategies to maximize reach and sales. Affiliates in such companies may earn commissions from direct sales and bonuses from recruiting others, incorporating elements of both models.

Technological Influence

Digital technologies have transformed both MLM and affiliate marketing. The internet, social media, and analytics tools have broadened the scope and reach of both models, making them more accessible and scalable. Read the 2024 Guide to Direct Sales Software.

Learning from MLM and Affiliate Marketing’s Journey

The histories of MLM and affiliate marketing offer a rich tapestry of lessons. By understanding their roots, growth, and the challenges they have faced, we can navigate the complexities of these business models. As they continue to evolve, embracing transparency, ethical practices, and a focus on genuine product sales will be key to their sustained success and acceptance in the modern world. To learn more about MLM, direct selling, and affiliate marketing trends, visit the blog article Navigating Tomorrow: The Future of Direct Selling.