According to Amazon.com, theirs was the original affiliate program. The following statement is taken directly from Amazon's Associate Programs FAQ page. "Our Associates Program, the first on the Web, started in July 1996."
That statement is generally accepted as gospel truth.
However, if you thumb through Daniel Gray's Top 100 Directory in his "The Complete Guide to Associate and Affiliate Programs", you'll learn that there were a number of sites that operated affiliate programs years before Amazon.com entered the fray.
Among the first were PC Flowers & Gifts launched in 1994, AutoWeb.com in 1995, and KB Toys in early 1996. IOwn.com and ArtToday.com were both established in 1996.
How are those early players doing today?
Well, PC Flowers & Gifts no longer exists as an online business. KB Toys and AutoWeb.com, which used to manage their own affiliate programs in-house, now have Commission Junction administer the program. My browser times-out searching for IOwn.com. It seems that of the originators, only ArtToday and Amazon are left standing with their own in-house affiliate programs.
So, Amazon.com's program may not have been the original, but it is one of the most successful in terms of affiliate numbers and duration.
Then again, does it really matter who launched the first affiliate program? I think not.
What DOES matter is that some very smart person contrived of a scenario that allows the 'little' people (us) to share in big profits, without having to buy shares in the merchant's company.
As Martha Stewart would say, 'It's a GOOD thing'.
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