Multi-level marketing (MLM)
Multi-level marketing (MLM), (also called network marketing) is a term that describes a marketing structure used by some companies as part of their overall marketing strategy. The structure is designed to create a marketing and sales force by compensating promoters of company products not only for sales they personally generate, but also for the sales of other promoters they introduced to the company, creating a downline of distributors and a hierarchy of multiple levels of compensation. The products and company are usually marketed directly to consumers and potential business partners by means of relationship referrals and word of mouth marketing.
Independent, unsalaried salespeople of multi-level marketing, referred to as distributors (or associates, independent business owners, dealers, franchise owners, sales consultants, consultants, 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.
This arrangement of distributors earning a commission based on the sales of their independent efforts as well as the leveraged sales efforts of their downline is similar to franchise arrangements where royalties are paid from the sales of individual franchise operations to the franchiser as well as to an area or regional manager. Commissions are paid to multi-level marketing distributors according to the company’s compensation plan. There can be individuals at multiple levels of the structure receiving royalties from a single person's sales.
MLM businesses operate in the United States in all 50 states and in more than 100 other countries, and new businesses may use terms like "affiliate marketing" or "home-based business franchising". However, many pyramid schemes try to present themselves as legitimate MLM businesses.
Because pyramiding (getting commissions from recruiting new members including "sign-up fees") is illegal in most states, to remain legitimate in the U.S. a company that uses multi-level marketing has to make sure commissions are earned only on sales of the company's products or services if they cross state boundaries. If participants are paid primarily from money received from new recruits, or if they are required to buy more product than they are likely to sell, then the company may be a pyramid scheme, which is illegal in most countries.
New salespeople may be asked to pay for their own training and marketing materials, or to buy a significant amount of inventory. A commonly adopted test of legality is that MLMs follow the so-called 70% rule which prevents members "inventory loading" in order to qualify for additional bonuses. The 70% rule requires participants to sell 70% of previously purchased inventory before placing new orders with the company. There are however variations in interpretations of this rule. Some attorneys insist that 70% of purchased inventory should be sold to people who are not participants in the business, while many MLM companies allow for self-consumption to be a significant part of the sales of a participant.
The European Union's Unfair Commercial Practices Directive explicitly includes self-consumption as legitimate.
In a 2004 United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Staff Advisory letter to the Direct Selling Association 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.
In a 2007 Wall Street Journal interview, FTC economist Peter Vander Nat stated, "If people are buying because they want to use a company’s products, those sales can count as retail."
The FTC offers advice for potential MLM members to help them identify those which are likely to be pyramid schemes.
Companies have devised a variety of MLM compensation plans over the decades.
- Stairstep Breakaway plans This type of plan is characterized as having representatives who are responsible for both personal and group sales volumes. Volume is created by recruiting and by retailing product. Various discounts or rebates may be paid to group leaders and a group leader can be any representative with one or more downline recruits. Once predefined personal and/or group volumes are achieved, a representative moves up a commission level. This continues until the representative's sales volume reaches the top commission level and "breaks away" from their upline. From that point on, the new group is no longer considered part of his upline's group and the multi-level compensation aspect ceases. The original upline usually continues to be compensated through override commissions and other incentives.
- Unilevel plans This type of plan is often considered the simplest of compensation plans. Uni-Level plans pay commissions primarily based on the number of levels a recipient is from the original representative who is purchasing the product. Commissions are not based on title or rank achieved. By qualifying with a minimum sales requirement, representatives earn unlimited commissions on a limited number of levels of downline recruited representatives.
- Matrix plans This type of plan is similar to a Uni-Level plan, except there is also a limited number of representatives who can be placed on the first level. Recruits beyond the maximum number of first level positions allowed are automatically placed in other downline (lower level) positions. Matrix plans often have a maximum width and depth. When all positions in a representative's downline matrix are filled (maximum width and depth is reached for all participants in a matrix), a new matrix may be started. Like Uni-Level plans, representatives in a matrix earn unlimited commissions on limited levels of volume with minimal sales quotas.
- Binary plans: A binary plan is a multilevel marketing compensation plan which allows distributors to have only two front-line distributors. If a distributor sponsors more than two distributors, the excess are placed at levels below the sponsoring distributor's front-line. This "spillover" is one of the most attractive features to new distributors since they need only sponsor two distributors to participate in the compensation plan. The primary limitation is that distributors must "balance" their two downline legs to receive commissions. Balancing legs typically requires that the number of sales from one downline leg constitute no more than a specified percentage of the distributor's total sales.
- Hybrid plans are compensation plans that are constructed using elements of more than one type of compensation plan.
Criticism of MLM
The Federal Trade Commission (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 requiring "independent" distributors to sell at the low 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.
Another criticism of MLMs is 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)."
MLM's are also criticized for being unable to fulfill their promises for the majority of participants due to basic conflicts with Western culture. 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."
Similar claims regarding profits have been stated by The Times ("The Government investigation claims to have revealed that just 10 per cent of Amway’s agents in Britain make any profit, with less than one in ten selling a single item of the group’s products."), high level "Emerald" Amway member Scheibeler ("UK Justice Norris found in 2008 that out of an IBO [Independent Business Owners] population of 33,000, 'only about 90 made sufficient incomes to cover the costs of actively building their business.' That's a 99.7 percent loss rate for investors." (case referred to is BERR vs Amway (Case No: 2651, 2652 and 2653 of 2007) which does list this as one of the points of objectionability: "c) because of the requirement that an IBO pay a joining and renewal fee and the likelihood that an IBO would purchase BSM there was a certainty that the Amway business would cause a loss to a large number of people (to the extent that out of an IBO population which exceeded 33,000 only building their business).") and Newsweek (where it is stated based on MonaVie's own 2007 income disclosure statement "fewer than 1 percent qualified for commissions and of those, only 10 percent made more than $100 a week.)"