In most industries today, small business owners will find that e-commerce is the only true route to success. If you’ve already built your online business and are now struggling to turn a small but devoted customer base into a large and vocal fandom, maybe it’s time to recruit your customers to sell your product for you. If you’ve already come this far, maybe it’s time to look into affiliate marketing.
Affiliate marketing is often confused with multi-level marketing (MLM). In light of the recent Herbalife settlement, people are once again thinking of MLM as a bad word – just Google “MLM” and you’ll see that one of the first results is “Is multi-level marketing a pyramid scheme?” But that’s missing the point of the settlement, which we believe is actually a good thing for the industry.
In 2012 Bill Ackman, founder of Pershing Square Capital, a hedge fund, began a campaign against Herbalife, accusing the 35-year-old dieting supplement company of being a pyramid scheme. After a lengthy investigation, the company agreed to establish a $200M fund to reimburse distributors for lost wages and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that Herbalife was operating legally.
This settlement is meaningful because, despite the fine, it reinforces that MLM is a fair and legitimate business model. In the words of Herbalife CEO Michael Johnson: “The settlements are an acknowledgement that our business model is sound and underscores our confidence in our ability to more forward successfully.”
While it shares superficial similarities with MLM, affiliate marketing is itself a distinct business model from both multi-level marketers and illegal pyramid schemes:
- Pyramid schemes require that people pay to participate in the scheme and only profit when they recruit others to participate. The “product” is only redistribution of money pumped into the scheme: the business is built on recruitment. It’s a closed system and the money flows overwhelmingly toward the top. With no incentive to actually sell a product, those at the bottom of the pyramid eventually run out of new recruits and the pyramid collapses.
- Multi-level marketing companies rely on the sale of real products for their cash flow. New recruits are brought on board and the company incentivises recruiters, but the profits at all levels still come from actual sales. Rather than profiting off fees charged to recruits, the company rewards recruiters with a percentage of profits based on sales. In other words, the product is everything.
- Affiliate marketing is a single-tier system which rewards affiliates for each visitor or customer the affiliate directs to the business. The affiliate is not selling the product but is instead marketing the business and directing traffic to the company’s website.
Affiliate marketing is often overlooked by digital marketers. Though the methods are more or less identical – SEO, SEM, PPC, email campaigns, etc. – instead of coming from the business directly, the content is actually being promoted by a third-party “publisher” (the affiliate). This is a powerful tool for building trust in a brand; when somebody else speaks up for your product, it makes a greater impression on consumers than hearing it directly from the merchant.
The product is still everything, however. Some people get into affiliate marketing or MLMs because they seem like a solid, profitable business model, and then figure out what the “product” is later. But the medium is not the message. There is no product that is a poor fit for affiliate marketing as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons. Get your product right first – the best time to introduce affiliate marketing to your business is once you have a small but growing customer base, a group of potential brand ambassadors who can prove to you and others that you have a great product.
Affiliate marketing is not a “get-rich-quick scheme” and it’s certainly not a scam. It’s good business. If you know you have a great product and a great online business, affiliate marketing is right for you.
From the start, our mission has always been to provide freelancers, self-employed professionals, entrepreneurs and small business owners with convenient and affordable tools for growing their business. We believe in small business and want to do what we can to help improve the lives of your customers – check back often with the Payza blog for the latest tips and tricks on growing your online business, and be sure to follow us on: