ZIPPING UP MY BOOTS...Going back to my roots (yeah).

MOST OUR ARTICLES will help you become smarter marketers.

MOST OUR ARTICLES will help you become smarter marketers. This one won't. Or maybe it will, indirectly, as there is no smartness without a sense of context. Close that spreadsheet you're working on, grab a coffee, sit back and join me on a trip down memory lane, back to our roots, back to the origins of online affiliate marketing.

The myth

You've probably heard the anecdote: at a cocktail party, Jeff Bezos, founder of, was chatting with a woman who wanted to sell books about divorce on her website. Following that exchange, he thought about tracking hyperlinks to allow her to link to and get a commission on the book sales she would help drive. In July 1996, the Associates Program was born, and along with it, the industry we're all living from. Case closed... or is it?

The unsung heroes

While there's little doubt Amazon did it bigger and better than anyone else, thus, creating a template for the industry, a handful of websites were already offering affiliate services before 1996. Online marketing being heavily indebted to the adult industry for so many technological advances, it's no surprise that Cybererotica, an aptly named provider of adult content, is listed among the first companies to run an affiliate scheme. It launched its CPC program as early as 1994, two years before Amazon set up shop.

That same year, Geffen records, a music label, met up with CDNOW to discuss advertising CDs on external websites. Geffen didn't want to implement e-commerce functionalities on its site, and asked CDNOW to build a system whereby CDNOW would handle orders and provide tracking links to external websites listing the albums. The Buy Web affiliate program was born shortly after that.

A few other companies, including Autoweb, KBKids/KB Toys' and Epage, also started offering affiliate services between 1994 and 1996.

The founding father?

Before patents existed, intellectual property meant nothing. The man who invented the wheel got nothing out of it. No luxury cave dwelling, no racing mammoth, nothing. He probably jumped under his own invention out of frustration.

Luckily, by the mid 1990s, things had changed. According to the US patent office, a William J Tobin applied for a patent on tracking/affiliate marketing in January 1996, six months before Amazon filed its own. Four years later, Tobin was issued US Patent number 6,141,666 for his trouble (now we know how Einstein found time to formulate the special theory of relativity while employed as a clerk at a Swiss Patent office).

Mr Tobin, founder of PC Flowers & Gifts, is widely credited with conceiving, implementing and patenting the online affiliate marketing model. It was first launched under the Prodigy online service in 1989 and migrated to the web in 1993. That year, PC Flowers & Gifts generated sales over $6 million dollars on the Prodigy service alone.

And that's that.

"How can I pay a tribute to my peers for creating this industry?" I hear you say, as the mist of nostalgia slowly dispels. Simple: go online and buy your mum a bunch of flowers.
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