There’s a bit of a debate brewing on AffiliateBoards.com about the origins of affiliate marketing.
The topic was kicked off in a comment made by Stephen Messer, Chairman & CEO of LinkShare:
“When we created affiliate marketing, we really did not think about the dark side of the internet. It was a very different time and thus the openness of the internet world and the very idealistic nature of that time lead us to create the ability for anyone to make a living on the internet through LinkShare. Later on, the other networks that followed in our footsteps followed suit.”
Now was that an Al Gore (“I took the initiative in creating the Internet”) Moment, or is there really evidence that LinkShare brought affiliate marketing into being.
Of course, we’ve got Jeff Bezos still stating in the Amazon Associates FAQ that “Our Associates Program, the first on the Web, started in July 1996.”
Brad Waller blogged on ReveNews to Stephen Messer that “I still have an email in my records from Cheryl Ho (October 1997) asking if I might want to use your soon to be launched service for my existing affiliate program, and another from Heidi in March of 1998 when we already had 1,700 affiliates.”
And then to further muddy the water on this one, back in November 2000, I researched the topic for a ClickZ article.
In my attempt to uncover the birth of this industry, I came across “The Complete Guide to Associate and Affiliate Programs on the Net” by Daniel Gray, where he stated that there were a number of sites that operated programs prior to July 1996.
In February 2000, Amazon.com announced that it had been granted a patent (6,029,141) on all the essential components of an affiliate program. The patent application was submitted in June 1997, which was before most affiliate programs but not before PC Flowers & Gifts.com (October 1994), AutoWeb.com (October 1995), Kbkids.com/BrainPlay.com (January 1996), EPage (April 1996), and a handful of others.
And that is just the mainstream side of it. There are also many adult sites that dabbled in the affiliate marketing concept, and the consensus of affiliate marketers from the adult side of things was that Cybererotica was either the first or among the early innovators in affiliate marketing with a cost-per-click program.
Soon after I searched around for answers for my article on the history of affiliate marketing, I got a book deal from Que Publishing to write “Successful Affiliate Marketing for Merchants,” and came across some evidence that CDNow was the innovator of affiliate marketing, at least on the squeaky clean B2C side of things.
At the time, I wrote: “As documented in The Cdnow Story: Rags to Riches on the Internet, CDNow’s affiliate program pre-dates Amazon’s by more than a year.”
“In November 1994, almost a full year before Amazon.com even launched its Web site, the venerable CDNow began its buyweb program. With its buyweb program, CDNow was the first to introduce the concept of an affiliate or associate program with its idea of click-through purchasing through independent, online storefronts.”
So that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it, unless there is something out there that proves otherwise, in which case I’d happily eat some humble pie.