WTF are made-for-advertising sites (MFAs)

This article is a WTF explainer, in which we break down media and marketing’s most confusing terms. More from the series →

Originally published on June 26, 2023, this article has been updated to include a video explainer skit.

What’s deceptive, fueled by profit and involved in ad arbitrage? Made-for-advertising (MFA) sites. These cunning sites masquerade as prime real estate for online advertising, luring gullible advertisers into their web of trickery. With each passing day, their misleading practices grow more refined, perpetuating a lucrative grift that shows no signs of abating. 

Sounds bad right? Read on to find out how bad, why the situation is so dire and what can be done about it. 

Firstly, WTF is an MFA site?

Picture a web page overrun by towering banner ads and strategically positioned video ad players, morphing the browsing experience into a cacophony of commercial chaos. To the discerning human eye, this amalgamation of cluttered ads and questionable content would appear as the epitome of a digital nightmare. However, behind the scenes, the very machines that facilitate ad purchases perceive these sites as golden opportunities. They’re more likely to be seen and they’re cheaper than a lot of other ads. Of course, those ads are going to be bought. 

So this is really another way programmatic advertising is being gamed? 

Yes, that’s the crux of the issue. It all begins with an unattainable desire for the impossible: cheap media of impeccable quality. Well, correction — this sort of media does exist but only if marketers are willing to prioritize superficial success metrics like cost per viewable impressions over genuine business outcomes. Surprisingly, a significant number of marketers are inclined to do so, and this very demand willed into existence MFAs. 

Isn’t this fraud?

It depends. By industry standards, MFAs do not meet the criteria for invalid traffic (IVT). While MFAs enable marketers to reach real users engaged in genuine content, the duration of their engagement is typically short-lived. This occurs when traffic is acquired through content recommendation companies rather than organically earned. As a result, MFAs tread a fine line between legitimate traffic and potential IVT, leading marketers to invest in ads that yield little impact on consumer behavior.

“MFA sites are a great working example of a programmatic system being gamed,” said Damon Reeve, CEO of the U.K-based publisher alliance Ozone. “Advertisers don’t like them, publishers don’t like them, and yet advertiser budgets still flow to them. And that’s because they are designed to perform according to the ad-tech metrics that advertisers value for their digital budgets.”

How big is this problem? 

No one knows for sure how widespread MFAs are (this is programmatic advertising, after all). That said, the limited information available on MFAs paints a concerning picture. In the ANA’s examination of programmatic ad dollars, MFAs accounted for 21% of the audited 35 billion impressions. This translated to 15% of the $123 million spent by 21 advertisers. Nevertheless, it’s highly likely that the true extent of this issue exceeds these figures. Consider this: the ANA’s findings specifically pertain to a piece of the premium part of the programmatic open marketplace, where ad buys are determined through real-time bidding auctions. Unfortunately, MFAs extend beyond these auctions. They’re also being baked into private marketplaces.

Wait, aren’t private marketplaces meant to be free from such dodgy inventory?

They are in theory meant to be made up of the best inventory, but the reality is they aren’t always. This has been explicitly highlighted by programmatic consultancy Jounce Media. In the past 90 days, it has run 136 multi-seller private marketplaces (commonly known as auction packages). Surprisingly, 106 of these marketplaces included MFA inventory. Alarmingly, nearly a quarter of these PMPs (23 in total) allocated more than 25% of their budget to MFA inventory. Far from being premium, these marketplaces increasingly resemble a programmatic version of a bait-and-switch tactic — enticing unsuspecting advertisers only to deceive them with subpar offerings.

Are advertisers concerned? 

Well perceptions may vary, but the conversations surrounding this issue have been fervent since the ANA’s recent investigation came to light last week. Ad execs have consistently emphasized the imperative of prioritizing high-quality media over low-cost, low-value inventory. Meanwhile, marketers have expressed their frustration toward ad tech vendors for allowing MFAs to flourish. Then there are the consultants who have advised marketers to only buy ads from a shortlist of trusted sellers.

And therein lies the problem — it’s all just talk. To act on it would require markets to do the unthinkable. They would need to consider adopting more meaningful KPIs that effectively measure campaign success that align with tangible business metrics. Such a shift would undermine the very foundation that allows MFAs to persist. But it would also mean admitting the metrics marketers currently use are superficial. 

“Acknowledging MFAs are nothing more than a vehicle for gaming a system, and investing in the alternative — proven channels that deliver real and sustainable business results — will be a wonderful milestone for brands,” said Reeve. 

How likely is it that marketers will tackle MFAs head on?

If past patterns are any indication, the likelihood seems slim. Despite multiple opportunities, marketers have consistently fallen short in curbing the proliferation of issues like MFAs. In fact, all indications point to the continued growth of MFAs in the coming years. Ad tech vendors, once dismissive of MFA inventory, are now embracing it, leading to an influx of sales opportunities for these duplicitous impressions. Publishers are also jumping on the trend, enlisting MFA specialists to maximize their ad revenue. Furthermore, MFA sites are becoming increasingly adept at acquiring traffic at remarkably low costs, adding to the challenge. 

“This is a great case of the difference between brand safety, and brand suitability,” Lou Paskalis, chief strategy officer at Ad Fontes Media, said on a panel in Cannes last week. He intimated that arriving at an industry consensus on what constitutes a made for advertising website would go some way to alleviating the issue.  

“The MRC [Media Ratings Council] says these [MFA websites] are generally brand safe sites, but while there’s nothing nefarious about them, they’re not brand suitable as they are a terrible user experience,” Paskalis continued.

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