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Multi-level marketing (MLM) is a marketing strategy in which the sales force is compensated not only for sales they personally 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 for MLM include pyramid selling, network marketing, and referral marketing.
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, which started centuries ago with peddling.
MLM companies have been a frequent subject of criticism as well as the target of lawsuits. Criticism has focused on their similarity to illegal pyramid schemes, price fixing of products, high initial start-up costs, emphasis on recruitment of lower-tiered salespeople over actual sales, encouraging if not requiring salespeople to purchase and use the company's products, potential exploitation of personal relationships which are used as new sales and recruiting targets, complex and sometimes exaggerated compensation schemes, and cult-like techniques which some groups use to enhance their members' enthusiasm and devotion.
In contrast to MLM is single-level marketing, where the salesperson is rewarded for selling the product directly to the consumer.
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 1000 firms using multi-level marketing in the US alone.
It is generally accepted that the first multi-level marketing plan was introduced in 1945 by the California Vitamin Company (shortly afterwards to become Nutrilite). The plan allowed Nutrilite distributors with at least 25 regular customers to recruit new distributors and draw a 3 percent commission from their sales. Unlike traditional direct selling, this was an ongoing payment whenever the customer re-ordered, allowing direct sellers to build a sales organization that could generate a residual-like income.
Independent, non-salaried salespeople of multi-level marketing, referred to as distributors (or associates, independent business owners, dealers, franchise owners, independent agents, etc.), represent the company that produces the products or provides the services they sell. They are awarded a commission based upon the volume of product sold through their own sales efforts as well as that of their downline organization.
Independent distributors develop their organizations by either building an active customer base, who buy direct from the company, or by recruiting a downline of independent distributors who also build a customer 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 states. New businesses may use terms such as "affiliate marketing" or "home-based business franchising". Many pyramid schemes try to present themselves as legitimate MLM businesses. However, there are people who hold that all MLMs are essentially pyramid schemes even if legal.
The United States Federal Trade Commission 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 FTC 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 FTC 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.
MLM's 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 MLM’s are recruiting MLM’s, in which participants must recruit aggressively to profit. Based on available data from the companies themselves, the loss rate for recruiting MLM’s 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."
Another criticism is that MLM has effectively outlived its usefulness as a legitimate business practice. The argument is that, in the time when America 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.