Pretty much 100% of the other material on the web about affiliate marketing all agree that the first ever affiliate program became available in 1989.
For reference, this program was for a flowers and gifts business.
This then leads the average person to believe that affiliate marketing itself didn’t exist before 1989 or that affiliate marketing was “invented” around the year 2000 by Amazon with their ‘Associates Program’.
None of this is true.
And you’re about to find out why.
What is affiliate marketing?
This might sound like filler content for this page, but to understand the history of something you need to need to be able to define that thing.
So the most basic definition of affiliate marketing is that you (the publisher) sells items on a commission basis for the vendor (manufacturer or distributor).
You are an agent of the company earning commission from sales you generate for that company, but without being an employee of that company.
The first affiliate marketers
So let’s join up the dots here.
The claim is that affiliate marketing started in 1989.
It would be far more accurate to say that “digital affiliate marketing” is barely 3 decades old.
The reality is that this business model has existed since the 1650 where agents sold products on commission on behalf of the international trading companies in the East and West Indies.
So, the correct answer to the question of “When was the first affiliate program introduced?” is actually 1655.
Several families became insanely wealthy during this time to the point of being worth more than entire countries.
But it wasn’t all sunshine and lollypops.
The downside to being an affiliated agent (commission agent) at this point in history included:
- Pirates robbing your shipments
- The average life expectancy was 43
- You were likely to die of disease before age 43 if you worked in the East or West Indies
And that’s without factoring in wars, storms, or any of the million things that wanted to kill you beside disease and pirates.
But even if you decide to overlook that fact the commission selling/affiliate business model was active in the 1650s, it’s still far older than you think.
The next most obvious example of early affiliate marketers is from 1752 when Benjamin Franklin opened the first fire insurance company.
As the business became more successful sales reps realized they didn’t have time to call door-to-door to collect individual insurance payments.
So they created a separate group of “hunters” who went out and signed up new customers. And then there were “farmers” who collected the weekly payments.
This is all starting to sound very familiar, right?
Our next glimpse into the history of affiliate programs takes place in the 1800s in both Europe and the United States – catalog selling.
The very first catalog sales actually took place in 1667 – the 1600s was quite the century for business innovation – but this didn’t become an established industry for another 150 years.
During that time migrants from all over the world flocked to the United States in a great expansion into the center of the country.
These same migrants and frontiers people needed to buy goods, but didn’t have the time or resources to travel to the nearest city or town to go shopping.
So, companies brought the ability to shop to their homes in the form of mail-order catalogs.
The catalog would be delivered to their home by an agent, the customer would then choose what they wanted to buy, pay the agent, and wait sever weeks for their order to arrive.
Sears, Montgomery Ward, and Hammacher Schlemmer were just some of the household names that got their start selling via mail order catalogs.
And again, although the catalogs were often distributed by direct employees of the company, they also used agents – both types of sales reps relied on commissions to make their living.
The next iteration of affiliate marketing took place from the 1900s onwards in the form of import/export agents.
And this kicked into high gear post World War II where a lot of emerging economies were looking for a way to enter Western markets.
You could buy a list of companies looking to do business in the West, contact them, set up sales for them with a local store or distributor, and pocket a commission.
My own claim to fame here is talking o LG Electronics when they still known as Lucky Goldstar Corporation.
I think I might still have that fax here somewhere. Yes, a fax – all of this took place pre-Internet so all deals and communication was handled either via landline phones or fax machines.
The Import/Export agent business model thrived until the arrival of the Internet in the late 1990s.
It was at that point that digital affiliate marketing took over, allowing companies from anywhere in the world to sell to anyone in the world via commission-based agents.
And that’s where we find ourselves today.
Wrapping things up
That’s how affiliate marketing came to be.
It wasn’t created by Amazon or some small company trying to sell flowers online.
Instead it has a history dating back almost 400 years.
Which is nuts when you think about it.
And who knows – it might be around for another few centuries yet to come.