Affinity Marketing Comes To The Web

Of all the industries where you would think Multi Level Marketing (MLM) wouldn’t work, Internet service would top the list.

Well if you thought that way, you would be wrong, Modem Breath. Big Planet, a Utah-based unit of skin care MLM Nu Skin, has been using MLM to grow for two years, and is doing quite well, thank you.

MLM, for those of you unaware of the ways of the world, works through salesmen recruiting other salesmen and taking a cut of the recruits’ sales. In its more benign forms MLM has given us companies like Amway and Shaklee (and Nu Skin, which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange). Crooks have also used the MLM concept for Ponzi schemes – much of the spam that comes through my mailbox involves MLM fraud.

The difference between a system and a scheme involves the number of levels, the requirement that salesmen “buy in” (literally) before they sell, and (of course) whether there’s a real product at the base of it all to generate cash. Big Planet’s ISP service, I should note here, has scored well among reviewers.

What brought Big Planet to my attention, however, wasn’t its MLM roots, but something one of those distributors got it into, according to spokesman Travis Jacobson, namely affinity marketing.

Credit card giant MBNA uses affinity marketing a lot, and I think it’s a ripe concept for this space. Football teams, charities, colleges and other groups put their names on MBNA credit cards and push them on their members in exchange for a small commission. (I have a Rice University card in my wallet, for example.) In Big Planet’s case, one of its distributors sold such a deal to the Republican National Committee.

You may have heard of the RNC. It’s not everyone’s cup of political Joe, but millions of people love it. So Big Planet is handling the back-office functions for what the Republicans are calling GOPNet. Members get a special home page filled with Republican news, they get their access filtered to Republican tastes, and some of the money goes to filling Republican coffers.

Big Planet’s original plan (which it’s still working) was to add e-commerce to its revenue mix using MLM, but I think they’ve got something better here. The fact is Democrats, Reform Partygoers, and even Rice Owls could use their own ISPs, with their own e-commerce arrangements, to spur loyalty and grow their bottom lines. The Cleveland Browns (their owner also holds the largest stake in MBNA) may not have the wherewithal to run modem banks and e-commerce fulfillment back ends, but they can certainly pass this off to some smart operator – maybe Big Planet, maybe you.

This is already happening in the United Kingdom, by the way, where I found club owner Elton John smiling at me on an advert for his Hornets Net – John owns Premiership side Watford. There’s no reason it couldn’t work here, and there’s no reason (as the Republicans have shown) affinity’s use should be restricted to sports teams.

With affinity marketing, any site can be an ISP. It’s a trend whose time has come.

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