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.
ClickBank aims to serve as a connection between digital content creators (also known as vendors) and affiliate marketers, who then promote them to consumers. ClickBank’s technology aids in payments, tax calculations and a variety of customer service tasks. Through its affiliate network, ClickBank also assists in building visibility and revenue-generating opportunities for time-strapped entrepreneurs.
Two-tier programs exist in the minority of affiliate programs; most are simply one-tier. Referral programs beyond two-tier resemble multi-level marketing (MLM) or network marketing but are different: Multi-level marketing (MLM) or network marketing associations tend to have more complex commission requirements/qualifications than standard affiliate programs.
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.
The terms of an affiliate marketing program are set by the company wanting to advertise. Early on, companies were largely paying cost per click (traffic) or cost per mile (impressions) on banner advertisements. As the technology evolved, the focus turned to commissions on actual sales or qualified leads. The early affiliate marketing programs were vulnerable to fraud because clicks could be generated by software, as could impressions.
After being accepted into an affiliate program, marketers receive a unique URL that includes their affiliate ID. They share that unique URL with their subscribers, site visitors, and social networks via text links or ads. When someone clicks on that link, affiliate software records that click and any resulting product sales in the affiliate’s account. When commissions reach a pre-determined threshold, the affiliate is paid.