Affiliate Marketing vs MLM (Multi-level Marketing): Which is the BETTER Business Model [2024]

affiliate marketing vs mlm network marketing featured

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Ever found yourself at a crossroads, trying to decide the best path for your entrepreneurial journey? Two popular models you may be considering are affiliate marketing and multi-level marketing (MLM). In this article, we’ll compare the core aspects of affiliate marketing vs MLM and put them under the microscope.

Which Is Better Affiliate Marketing or Network Marketing? (My Recommendation)

I strongly advise choosing affiliate marketing over multilevel or network marketing.

Affiliate marketing puts you fully in control without the pressures and complexities of building out a sales team.

The beauty of affiliate marketing lies in its simplicity. You choose niche products, drive your own campaigns, and make commissions directly proportional to your marketing efforts.

No recruiting, no managing inventory, no high-pressure tactics. Just you leveraging your skills to promote brands you believe in.

Which One Should You Pick to Make Money?

When choosing the best model for earning income online, affiliate marketing stands out for its straightforward approach and high-profit potential.

Multilevel marketing offers residuals from building a sales team but requires immense upfront investment and ongoing non-sales obligations.

Both can prove profitable if executed well.

MLM appeals to those who enjoy leveraging group dynamics, while affiliate marketing better serves solo entrepreneurs seeking flexibility and higher control.

If you want simplified startup costs, better work-life balance, and uncapped earning capabilities, affiliate marketing is likely the smoother path.


While money can be made in both models, affiliate marketing offers clear advantages for beginners and time-strapped solopreneurs. You can promote at your own pace with total ownership over scaling your income streams.

Are Either of Them Pyramid Schemes?

A common concern arises in evaluating affiliate marketing and multilevel marketing (MLM) – could these structures border on illegal pyramid schemes? Understanding the key distinctions is crucial for building an ethical, sustainable business.

pyramid scheme illustration

A pyramid scheme is a fraudulent business model that primarily makes money by recruiting new distributors rather than selling real products or services. The hallmarks of a pyramid scheme include:

  • Little to no focus on actual products – income relies heavily on bringing in new recruits
  • Paying commissions for enrolling others rather than product sales
  • Requiring large upfront buy-ins or investments to join
  • Promising exponential returns dependent on expanding the recruitment “downline”
  • Circulating money internally between invested participants rather than driving external sales.

Legitimate businesses derive income directly from product/service transactions. Pyramids derive income from recruitment under the false pretense of killer ROIs tied to scaling enrollment. Understanding these stark differences is important.

MLMs rely heavily on recruitment, which can appear pyramid-esque. However, legitimate MLMs drive the majority of revenue from actual product or service sales rather than money from enrolled members.

Affiliate marketing sidesteps these pyramid issues entirely. Income stems from your personal ability to promote affiliate products/services and earn commissions driving external traffic to your unique links.

It’s a rewarding system based on results from your work, not pyramid promises that seem too good to be true.


Neither business model is a pyramid scheme, however, if you are in an MLM you should always make sure that your income depends on selling to external customers rather than money from enrollments or internal circulation.

In my experience, search volume is typically a good indication of overall popularity.

However, popularity can fluctuate based on current economic trends, technological advancements, and shifts in consumer behavior.

Based on Google Trends data, over the last 12 months, it appears that affiliate marketing is slightly more searched than MLM (check the average search volume bar graph below).

affiliate marketing vs MLM google trends popularity

What is Affiliate Marketing?

Affiliate marketing is a popular type of performance-based marketing that involves a business rewarding its affiliates for each customer brought by the affiliate’s own marketing efforts.

This marketing strategy is based on revenue sharing, where the affiliate is paid a commission for every sale or lead generated.

With affiliate marketing, the business and the affiliate benefit – the business gains more customers, while the affiliate earns money.

How Does Affiliate Marketing Work?

In affiliate marketing, affiliates actively promote products or services on behalf of the merchant, often via their own blogs, niche websites, or social media channels.

When a customer clicks on a specialized tracking link provided by the affiliate, makes a purchase, or completes the predefined action, the merchant pays the affiliate a referral commission.

It’s a straightforward process that relies heavily on your marketing skills and the trust you build with your audience.

Pros of Affiliate Marketing

Imagine earning money while you sleep, travel, or spend time with your loved ones.

That’s the allure of affiliate marketing – it offers incredible potential for passive income.

If your content drives consistent traffic, you could earn commissions round-the-clock.

The flexibility is another plus; you can work from anywhere and choose products that are relevant to your niche.

Additionally, most affiliate programs are free to join, which minimizes your startup costs.

Cons of Affiliate Marketing

However, it’s not all smooth sailing. You’ll need to generate significant traffic to make substantial income, which requires time and high-level online marketing skills.

Competition in profitable niches is fierce, demanding unique and high-quality content to stand out.

There’s also the reliance on affiliate networks and merchants; if they change commission structures or go out of business, your income could be affected (or even completely wiped out).

What is MLM (Multi-level Marketing)?

MLM, or Multi-Level Marketing, is a business strategy where you, as an independent distributor, sell products directly to consumers and recruit others to do the same.

You earn commissions not only from your sales but also from the sales of the recruits you bring into the business, who are often referred to as your downline.

The strategy is also known by other names like network marketing, referral marketing, or direct sales.

How Does MLM Work?

In MLM, the primary focus is on recruitment as a pathway to income.

You sell a company’s products to your personal network and try to enroll new distributors from the same pool.

These new recruits, in turn, sell to their circles, expanding your downline.

As you build your team, commission structures reward you for the combined sales of your downline, offering incentives to continually recruit and help your team members sell products.

Pros of MLM

Some key advantages of engaging in MLM include the potential for residual income through your downline sales and the flexibility to work remotely.

Successful network marketers often boast about the benefits of leveraging personal relationships to grow their business and the opportunity to create multiple income streams.

With dedicated effort and a strong sales strategy, some individuals find MLM to be a rewarding revenue model.

Cons of MLM

MLM, however, presents challenges like the responsibility of purchasing product samples and the pressure of intense competition online.

Statistics suggest that profitability tends to be concentrated at the top of MLM structures, with most commissions benefiting those at the highest level.

Also, with low participation rates among households, it’s clear that MLM may not be as universally successful as other business models.

The recruitment-driven nature of MLM can often blur the lines with pyramid schemes, which are illegal and financially unsustainable.

It’s crucial to ensure the MLM you choose sells legitimate products and generates revenue from actual sales rather than merely recruitment fees.

Differences Between Affiliate Marketing and MLM

Affiliate marketing and multi-level marketing (MLM) may seem similar on the surface, but several fundamental distinctions exist between the two models in terms of revenue generation, costs, sales process, earnings potential, and long-term sustainability.

Let’s compare and contrast to reveal why one likely outperforms the other for the average solopreneur.

Compensation Structure

In affiliate marketing, the way you earn income is vastly different from MLM.

You get paid a commission when someone makes a purchase through your affiliate link.

The allure of affiliate marketing lies in its performance-based earnings; there is no cap on how much you can make, and it’s possible to accumulate commissions passively over time.

In contrast, MLM’s compensation structure is often more complex, involving a combination of direct sales and earnings from your recruit’s sales.

This can include a multi-layered commission framework but typically requires you to reach certain sales targets or recruitment levels to unlock higher rates of commission, which can be limiting.

Fees to Join

One of the most notable differences between these two business models is the upfront investment.

Affiliate marketing generally allows you to join programs at no cost, and offers the flexibility to choose from a myriad of niches across various affiliate networks.

MLM programs, on the other hand, frequently involve an introductory fee and may require ongoing membership payments.

This financial commitment can be a barrier to entry for many and adds an element of risk as you’ll need to generate a certain level of sales just to recoup your initial outlay.


While affiliate marketing focuses solely on product promotions and sales, MLM hinges significantly on recruitment.

In MLM, building and nurturing a network of distributors is essential, as your income partially depends on the performance of your recruits.

The recruitment aspect can often make or break your success in MLM, demanding not just sales acumen but also prowess in team building and leadership.

Freedom to Promote

Convenience and control are key facets of affiliate marketing. You’re free to market products from a host of companies, allowing you to target specific niches that mesh with your brand or interests.

MLM confines you to promote the products of only one company, narrowing your scope and sometimes forcing you to sell items that may not align with your personal brand or your audience’s preferences.

Product Purchasing

Associates in MLM are typically expected to buy products themselves, which can be seen as a necessary step for personal selling and recruitment demonstration. This requirement can lead to a stockpile of products if sales don’t meet expectations.

In affiliate marketing, there’s no prerequisite to purchase any inventory.

Your role is to direct potential customers to the products through your marketing efforts, which means minimal financial risk compared to MLM.

Training and Support

MLM companies often tout comprehensive training programs and support networks. New members usually receive extensive guidance on both the products and the business model, including direct mentorship from existing members.

Affiliate marketing can also offer support in the form of affiliate managers and resources from networks; however, the level of support varies by program.

The autonomy in affiliate marketing means you’re more on your own to hone your marketing strategies and learn through practice and observation.

Affiliate Marketing vs MLM: Final Thoughts

Choosing between affiliate marketing and MLM is an important decision for any aspiring online entrepreneur.

Both models offer the ability to make money online, and if you choose to move forward with one over the other make sure to understand the risks and rewards involved.

Analyze them both carefully and determine which one suits you better.

Choosing wisely will put you on the road towards building a profitable online business on your own terms.

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