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Multi-level marketing (MLM) is a marketing strategy in which the sales force is compensated not only for sales they generate, but also for the sales of the other salespeople that they recruit. This recruited sales force is referred to as the participant's "downline", and can provide multiple levels of compensation. Other terms used for MLM include pyramid selling, network marketing, and referral marketing. According to the US FTC, some companies that use multi-level marketing exploit members of their networks and constitute illegal pyramid schemes.
Most commonly, the salespeople are expected to sell products directly to consumers by means of relationship referrals and word of mouth marketing. Some people use direct selling as a synonym for MLM, although MLM is only one type of direct selling.
Companies that use MLM models for compensation have been a frequent subject of criticism and lawsuits. Criticism has focused on their similarity to illegal pyramid schemes, price fixing of products, high initial entry costs (for marketing kit and first products), emphasis on recruitment of others over actual sales, encouraging if not requiring members to purchase and use the company's products, exploitation of personal relationships as both sales and recruiting targets, complex and exaggerated compensation schemes, the company and/or leading distributors making major money off training events and materials, and cult-like techniques which some groups use to enhance their members' enthusiasm and devotion.
Network marketing and multi-level marketing have been described by author Dominique Xardel as being synonymous, and as methods of direct selling. According to Xardel, direct selling and network marketing refer to the distribution system, while the term "multi-level marketing" describes the compensation plan. Other terms that are sometimes used to describe multi-level marketing include "word-of-mouth marketing", "interactive distribution", and "relationship marketing". Critics have argued that the use of different terms and "buzzwords" is an effort to distinguish multi-level marketing from illegal Ponzi schemes, chain letters, and consumer fraud scams. Some sources classify multi-level marketing as a form of direct selling rather than being direct selling. The Direct Selling Association, a lobbying group for the multi-level marketing industry, reported that in 1990 twenty-five percent of members used MLM, growing to 77.3 percent in 1999. Companies such as Avon, Electrolux, Tupperware, and Kirby all originally used single level marketing to sell their goods and later introduced multi-level compensation plans. By 2009, 94.2% of members were using MLM, accounting for 99.6% of sellers, and 97.1% of sales. The DSA has approximately 200 members  while it is estimated there are over 1,000 firms using multi-level marketing in the United States alone.
The origin of multi-level marketing is often disputed; but multi-level marketing style businesses existed in the 1920s, 1930s with Nutrilite or California Perfume Company renamed as “Avon Products”, 1940s with the California Vitamin Company, 1960s, and even as late as the 1970s.
Independent non-salaried participants, referred to as distributors (or associates, independent business owners, dealers, franchise owners, independent agents, etc.), are authorised to distribute the company's products or services. They are awarded their own immediate retail profit from customers plus commission from the company, not downlines, through a multi-level marketing compensation plan, which is based upon the volume of products sold through their own sales efforts as well as that of their downline organization.
Independent distributors develop their organizations by either building an active consumer network, who buy direct from the company, or by recruiting a downline of independent distributors who also build a consumer network base, thereby expanding the overall organization. Additionally, distributors can also earn a profit by retailing products they purchased from the company at wholesale price.
Several sources have commented on the income level of specific MLMs or MLMs in general:
MLM businesses operate in all 50 U.S. states. New businesses may use terms such as "affiliate marketing" or "home-based business franchising". Many pyramid schemes attempt to present themselves as legitimate MLM businesses. Many courts, and portions of the public assert that all MLMs are essentially pyramid schemes even if they are legal.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) states "Steer clear of multilevel marketing plans that pay commissions for recruiting new distributors. They're actually illegal pyramid schemes. Why is pyramiding dangerous? Because plans that pay commissions for recruiting new distributors inevitably collapse when no new distributors can be recruited. And when a plan collapses, most people—except perhaps those at the very top of the pyramid—end up empty-handed."
In a 2004 Staff Advisory letter to the Direct Selling Association, the FTC states:
Much has been made of the personal, or internal, consumption issue in recent years. In fact, the amount of internal consumption in any multi-level compensation business does not determine whether or not the FTC will consider the plan a pyramid scheme. The critical question for the FTC is whether the revenues that primarily support the commissions paid to all participants are generated from purchases of goods and services that are not simply incidental to the purchase of the right to participate in a money-making venture.
The Federal Trade Commission warns "Not all multilevel marketing plans are legitimate. Some are pyramid schemes. It's best not to get involved in plans where the money you make is based primarily on the number of distributors you recruit and your sales to them, rather than on your sales to people outside the plan who intend to use the products." and states that research is your best tool, giving eight steps to follow:
The Federal Trade Commission issued a decision, In re Amway Corp., in 1979 in which it indicated that multi-level marketing was not illegal per se in the United States. However, Amway was found guilty of price fixing (by effectively requiring "independent" distributors to sell at the same fixed price) and making exaggerated income claims.
The FTC advises that multi-level marketing organizations with greater incentives for recruitment than product sales are to be viewed skeptically. The FTC also warns that the practice of getting commissions from recruiting new members is outlawed in most states as "pyramiding". In April 2006, it proposed a Business Opportunity Rule intended to require all sellers of business opportunities—including MLMs—to provide enough information to enable prospective buyers to make an informed decision about their probability of earning money. In March 2008, the FTC removed Network Marketing (MLM) companies from the proposed Business Opportunity Rule:
The revised proposal, however, would not reach multi-level marketing companies or certain companies that may have been swept inadvertently into scope of the April 2006 proposal.
Walter J. Carl stated in a 2004 Western Journal of Communication article that "MLM organizations have been described by some as cults (Butterfield, 1985), pyramid schemes (Fitzpatrick & Reynolds, 1997), or organizations rife with misleading, deceptive, and unethical behavior (Carter, 1999), such as the questionable use of evangelical discourse to promote the business (Hopfl & Maddrell, 1996), and the exploitation of personal relationships for financial gain (Fitzpatrick & Reynolds, 1997)". In China, volunteers working to rescue people from the schemes have been physically attacked.
MLMs are also criticized for being unable to fulfill their promises for the majority of participants due to basic conflicts with Western cultural norms. There are even claims that the success rate for breaking even or even making money are far worse than other types of businesses: "The vast majority of MLMs are recruiting MLMs, in which participants must recruit aggressively to profit. Based on available data from the companies themselves, the loss rate for recruiting MLMs is approximately 99.9%; i.e., 99.9% of participants lose money after subtracting all expenses, including purchases from the company." In part, this is because encouraging recruits to further "recruit people to compete with [them]" leads to "market saturation." It has also been claimed "(b)y its very nature, MLM is completely devoid of any scientific foundations." Another criticism is that MLM has effectively outlived its usefulness as a legitimate business practice. The argument is that, in the time when the United States was a series of relatively small, isolated towns and rural areas not easily accessible to small companies, MLM was a useful way to let people know of and buy products or services. But the advent of internet commerce, with its ability to advertise and sell directly to consumers, has rendered that model obsolete. Thus, today, nearly all modern MLMs ostensibly sell vastly overpriced goods and services (if there even is a real product or service involved at all) as a thin cloak of legitimacy, while their members are driven to recruit even more people into the MLM, effectively turning these programs into pyramid schemes.
Because of the encouraging of recruits to further recruit their competitors, some people have even gone so far as to say at best modern MLMs are nothing more than legalized pyramid schemes with one stating "Multi-level marketing companies have become an accepted and legally sanctioned form of pyramid scheme in the United States" while another states "Multi-Level Marketing, a form of Pyramid Scheme, is not necessarily fraudulent."
In October 2010 it was reported that multilevel marketing companies were being investigated by a number of state attorneys general amid allegations that salespeople were primarily paid for recruiting and that more recent recruits cannot earn anything near what early entrants do.
Not all multilevel marketing plans are legitimate. Some are pyramid schemes.