Affiliate marketing is a type of performance-based marketing in which a business rewards one or more affiliates for each visitor or customer brought by the affiliate's own marketing efforts. The industry has four core players: the merchant (also known as 'retailer' or 'brand'), the network (that contains offers for the affiliate to choose from and also takes care of the payments), the publisher (also known as 'the affiliate'), and the customer. The market has grown in complexity, resulting in the emergence of a secondary tier of players, including affiliate management agencies, super-affiliates and specialized third party vendors.
Affiliate marketing overlaps with other Internet marketing methods to some degree, because affiliates often use regular advertising methods. Those methods include organic search engine optimization (SEO), paid search engine marketing (PPC - Pay Per Click), e-mail marketing, content marketing and in some sense display advertising. On the other hand, affiliates sometimes use less orthodox techniques, such as publishing reviews of products or services offered by a partner.
Affiliate marketing is commonly confused with referral marketing, as both forms of marketing use third parties to drive sales to the retailer. However, both are distinct forms of marketing and the main difference between them is that affiliate marketing relies purely on financial motivations to drive sales while referral marketing relies on trust and personal relationships to drive sales.
Affiliate marketing is frequently overlooked by advertisers. While search engines, e-mail, and website syndication capture much of the attention of online retailers, affiliate marketing carries a much lower profile. Still, affiliates continue to play a significant role in e-retailers' marketing strategies.
The concept of revenue sharing—paying commission for referred business—predates affiliate marketing and the Internet. The translation of the revenue share principles to mainstream e-commerce happened in November 1994 almost four years after the origination of the World Wide Web.
The concept of affiliate marketing on the Internet was conceived of, put into practice and patented by William J. Tobin, the founder of PC Flowers & Gifts. Launched on the Prodigy Network in 1989, PC Flowers & Gifts remained on the service until 1996. By 1993, PC Flowers & Gifts generated sales in excess of $6 million per year on the Prodigy service. In 1998, PC Flowers and Gifts developed the business model of paying a commission on sales to the Prodigy Network.
In 1994, Tobin launched a beta version of PC Flowers & Gifts on the Internet in cooperation with IBM, who owned half of Prodigy. By 1995 PC Flowers & Gifts had launched a commercial version of the website and had 2,600 affiliate marketing partners on the World Wide Web. Tobin applied for a patent on tracking and affiliate marketing on January 22, 1996 and was issued U.S. Patent number 6,141,666 on Oct 31, 2000. Tobin also received Japanese Patent number 4021941 on Oct 5, 2007 and U.S. Patent number 7,505,913 on Mar 17, 2009 for affiliate marketing and tracking. In July 1998 PC Flowers and Gifts merged with Fingerhut and Federated Department Stores.
Cybererotica was among the early innovators in affiliate marketing with a cost per click program.
In November 1994, CDNOW launched its BuyWeb program. CDNOW had the idea that music-oriented websites could review or list albums on their pages that their visitors might be interested in purchasing. These websites could also offer a link that would take visitors directly to CDNOW to purchase the albums. The idea for remote purchasing originally arose from conversations with music label Geffen Records in the fall of 1994. The management at Geffen wanted to sell its artists' CD's directly from its website, but did not want to implement this capability itself. Geffen asked CDNOW if it could design a program where CDNOW would handle the order fulfillment. Geffen realized that CDNOW could link directly from the artist on its website to Geffen's website, bypassing the CDNOW home page and going directly to an artist's music page.
www.Amazon.com (Amazon) launched its associate program in July 1996: Amazon associates could place banner or text links on their site for individual books, or link directly to the Amazon home page.
When visitors clicked from the associate's website to Amazon and purchased a book, the associate received a commission. Amazon was not the first merchant to offer an affiliate program, but its program was the first to become widely known and serve as a model for subsequent programs.
In February 2000, Amazon announced that it had been granted a patent on components of an affiliate program. The patent application was submitted in June 1997, which predates most affiliate programs, but not PC Flowers & Gifts.com (October 1994), AutoWeb.com (October 1995), Kbkids.com/BrainPlay.com (January 1996), EPage (April 1996), and several others.
Affiliate marketing has grown quickly since its inception. The e-commerce website, viewed as a marketing toy in the early days of the Internet, became an integrated part of the overall business plan and in some cases grew to a bigger business than the existing offline business. According to one report, the total sales amount generated through affiliate networks in 2006 was £2.16 billion in the United Kingdom alone. The estimates were £1.35 billion in sales in 2005. MarketingSherpa's research team estimated that, in 2006, affiliates worldwide earned US$6.5 billion in bounty and commissions from a variety of sources in retail, personal finance, gaming and gambling, travel, telecom, education, publishing, and forms of lead generation other than contextual advertising programs.
In 2006, the most active sectors for affiliate marketing were the adult, gambling, retail industries and file-sharing services.:149–150 The three sectors expected to experience the greatest growth are the mobile phone, finance, and travel sectors. Soon after these sectors came the entertainment (particularly gaming) and Internet-related services (particularly broadband) sectors. Also several of the affiliate solution providers expect to see increased interest from business-to-business marketers and advertisers in using affiliate marketing as part of their mix.:149–150.