Multi-level marketing (MLM) also called pyramid selling, network marketing, and referral marketing, is a controversial marketing strategy for the sale of products and/or services where the revenue of the MLM company is derived from a non-salaried workforce (also called participants, and variously known as "salespeople", "distributors", "consultants", "promoters", "independent business owners", etc.) selling the company's products/services, while the earnings of the participants is derived from a pyramid-shaped commission system.
The first stream of compensation can be paid out from commissions of sales made by the participants directly to their own retail customers. The second stream of compensation can be paid out from commissions based on the sales made by other distributors below the participant who had recruited those other participants into the MLM; in the organizational hierarchy of MLMs, these participants are referred to as one's “down line” distributors.
Participant profits and losses
The overwhelming majority of MLM participants (most sources estimated to be over 99.25% of all MLM participants) participate at either an insignificant or nil net profit. Indeed, the largest proportion of participants must operate at a net loss (after expenses are deducted) so that the few individuals in the uppermost level of the MLM pyramid can derive their significant earnings—earnings which are then emphasized by the MLM company to all other participants to encourage their continued participation at a continuing financial loss.