Multilevel Marketing (MLM Meaning)

Multilevel Marketing Is a Huge Business

A saleswoman rings a doorbell.
MLM meaning... direct sales in action.

Brad Killer / Getty Images

Multilevel Marketing, or MLM, is a system for selling goods or services through a network of distributors. Multilevel marketing is also referred to as Network Marketing or Direct Sales.

How Does a Typical MLM Work?

The typical Multilevel Marketing program works through recruitment. You are invited to become a distributor (or contractor or consultant or associate), sometimes through another distributor of the company's products and sometimes through a generally advertised meeting.

If you choose to become a distributor with the direct selling company, you'll earn money both through the sales of the MLM's products and through recruiting other distributors, by receiving a portion of the income these distributors generate.

And when those distributors recruit distributors of their own, you'll earn money on the income they generate too.

The distributors that you sign up with your Multilevel Marketing plan and the ones they sign up in turn are called your downline. The distributor that originally recruited you and whoever is above him or her in the recruitment chain is called your upline. Often the distributor who recruits you will give you some help getting started, including training.

Interested in becoming a distributor? Read Is Direct Selling (MLM) a Good Business Opportunity?

How Big Is the MLM Market?

Big. The top 3 MLM business are:

  • Avon Products, Inc., founded in 1986. Avon has annual sales of $11.3 billion and over 6.5 million sales associates. Avon markets various beauty products, jewelry, and fashion apparel.
  • Amway, founded in 1959. Amway has annual sales of $10.9 billion and over 3 million sales associates selling cosmetic, wellness and food and beverage products.
  • Herbalife Ltd., founded in 1980. Herbalife has annual sales of $4.8 billion and has over 2.7 million sales associates. Products include cosmetics, personal care items and nutritional supplements. In 2016 Herbalife was cleared of allegations of having a fraudulent business model after an investigation by the FBI failed to find sufficient evidence.

Listing these three is talking about just the peak of a truly gigantic iceberg. According to the Direct Selling Association, in 2016 20.5 million people in the U.S. were involved in direct selling, with total sales of $35.54 billion. More than 74 percent of the American public has purchased goods or services through direct selling.

Worldwide multilevel marketing sales are also strong with $189,641 USD millions in sales in 2017 (World Federation of Direct Selling Associations). The United States and China are the top two global markets, with 18% market share each, followed by Germany and Korea, each with a market share of 9%, Japan with 8% and then Brazil with 6%.

Why Is Multilevel Marketing So Popular? 

Probably because most Multilevel Marketing programs operate on a "the sky's the limit" promise with a nice bit of "easy money" thrown in. If you work hard, the MLM sales pitch says, there's no limit to how much money you could make. And through your downline you will actually make money doing nothing.

The cherry on top is that MLMs are usually very inexpensive to join, so becoming a distributor is much cheaper than starting a business of your own in many cases or doing something like buying into a franchise.

Plus, many Multilevel Marketing programs are carefully constructed with attractive rewards. Avon representatives can earn trips to vacation destinations. Amway offers cash bonuses based on performance each month. And who doesn't remember the pink convertibles awarded to top selling Mary Kay consultants, for instance?

What Are the Odds of Making Money with MLM?

Poor, according to Jon Taylor, who runs the website. In his free e-book Multi-Level Marketing Unmasked, when operating expenses and other costs are included, 99.7% of people who join MLMs lose money. In other words, for every 1,000 people who join an MLM organization, only three will earn more money than they spend.

This is because of the "pay to play" feature built in to Multilevel Marketing programs. As a distributor, you have to buy x amount of products and services in order to qualify for commissions and bonuses, and to advance up the various levels in the pay plan (commonly referred to as “rank advancement". In addition to product purchases, TOPPs for many MLMs expect downline participants to pay for training, conferences, books, recordings, sales literature, and other “tools” needed to be successful.

Are MLMs Legal?

Multilevel Marketing plans are legal in the United States and regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In Canada MLMs are legal as long as they do not contravene the Competition Act. MLM companies are, in general, largely unregulated and the existing laws regarding MLM practices are vague or poorly defined. As such, prosecutions of offending MLM companies are long, arduous and relatively rare. Larger MLMs can easily afford powerful legal representation to ward off prosecutors. 

If you are considering becoming part of an MLM company, you need to investigate the opportunity thoroughly, just as you would with any other proposed business venture. Not all Multilevel Marketing plans are created equal, and some may not be MLM at all, but pyramid schemes, which are illegal.

To learn how to tell the difference between them, see Is It Multilevel Marketing or a Pyramid Scheme?

Alternatives to MLMs

If you are looking to start a business, there are other, proven business ideas that can generate full or part-time income:

15 Inexpensive Business Ideas

12 Unique Business Ideas

The Best Business Ideas for Working for or with Seniors

Best Business Opportunities for Retirees

16 Part-Time Businesses You Can Start Today

Also Known As: MLM, Network Marketing

Alternate Spellings: Multi-level marketing