Multi-level marketing (MLM), also called pyramid selling and network marketing is a controversial marketing strategy for the sale of products or services where the revenue of the MLM company is derived from a non-salaried workforce selling the company’s products or services, while the earnings of the participants are derived from a pyramid-shaped or binary compensation commission system. An MLM strategy may be an illegal pyramid scheme.
In multi-level marketing, the compensation plan theoretically pays out to participants only from two potential revenue streams. The first is paid out from commissions of sales made by the participants directly to their own retail customers. The second is paid out from commissions based upon the wholesale purchases made by other distributors below the participant who have recruited those other participants into the MLM; in the organizational hierarchy of MLMs, these participants are referred to as one’s downline distributors.
MLM salespeople are, therefore, expected to sell products directly to end-user retail consumers by means of relationship referrals and word of mouth marketing, but most importantly they are incentivized to recruit others to join the company’s distribution chain as fellow salespeople so that these can become down line distributors. According to a report that studied the business models of 350 MLMs, published on the Federal Trade Commission’s website, at least 99% of people who join MLM companies lose money. Nonetheless, MLMs function because downline participants are encouraged to hold onto the belief that they can achieve large returns, while the statistical improbability of this is de-emphasized. MLMs have been made illegal or otherwise strictly regulated in some jurisdictions as mere variations of the traditional pyramid scheme, including in mainland China