Made-for-advertising sites lack a clear definition, causing confusion among the advertising industry

Marketers say they’re concerned about made-for-advertising (MFA) sites, but the industry lacks a clear consensus on what an MFA actually is.

Consider this response when Digiday asked one media buyer for their stance on including MFAs in clients’ programmatic campaigns: “My mind immediately goes to clickbait. Am I using that in the right context?”

Normally, advertisers and publishers would look to a standardized definition or guidelines provided by industry trade organizations like the Association for National Advertisers (ANA) or the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). While the ANA is developing guidelines to release in October, the IAB hasn’t formally touched the issue. When asked if the IAB is working on a definition, a spokesperson said, “I believe the 4As and/or the ANA are working on a definition.”

“The industry writ large needs guardrails [for determining MFAs],” said Hillary Slattery, director of programmatic and product at IAB Tech Lab.

Though the IAB does not have a formal policy in place addressing MFAs, Slattery said buyers can prioritize certain signals from the IAB Tech Lab that could help them monitor whether or not a site is appropriate for their clients’ media investments. These signals include the amount of times an ad slot refreshes to whether a video is or is not in-stream, but she added that alone these signals cannot be indicators that a site is MFA. Additionally, Slattery said that “different buyers are going to have slightly different risk thresholds to what does or does not constitute MFA.”

Nonetheless, the ANA is working to come up with a singular definition for what does, in fact, constitute an MFA. The definition will be released in October as part of its follow-up report to the Programmatic Media Supply Chain Transparency Study published in June, where MFAs were first put on the ANA’s radar, according to Bill Duggan, group evp of the ANA.

Until a consensus can be reached, however, “we’re pretty much working with the definition from Chris Kane of Jounce [Media],” Duggan explained. 

Programmatic supply chain management company Jounce Media created a set of criteria based on six KPIs that are monitored across every real-time bidding (RTB) website daily, according to founder Chris Kane. While those six KPIs are confidential — which is reason enough why there needs to be an industry standard for MFAs. Kane said that there are three variables informed by the daily KPIs that if a site checks at least one, it will ultimately be added to Jounce’s MFA list:

  • A site is twice as dependent on paid traffic as the average site.
  • Ad density is at least double the web average.
  • Ads are at least 50% less likely to drive sales for marketers or be attributed with driving a sale for marketers than the average website.

Still a new concept, many marketers and publishers will conflate an overbearing ad experience with a clickbait article that lacks journalistic substance, but MFAs do not necessarily equal clickbait, Kane explained. “It’s all about the advertising experience. If the advertising experience is ridiculous, that’s made-for-advertising,” he said.

Jounce Media’s “outline of what constitutes MFA is as good as you’re gonna get at this point,” said Rachel Pasqua, CMO of TrustX, an SSP that has not included any MFAs in its marketplace since it was founded, favoring an inclusion list created using members of its parent organization Digital Content Next. DCN is a trade organization that represents publishers including Condé Nast, Dotdash Meredith, Fox News, The New York Times and Warner Bros. Discovery. 

Pasqua said that, despite the “pretty solid” benchmarks, the pure amount of MFA sites that are created on a near-hourly basis nowadays because of AI, filtering out MFAs via an exclusion list is “an exercise in futility.” 

This is why agencies and SSPs like TrustX, GroupM, Sharethrough and others are starting to rely on inclusion lists in their programmatic businesses that only feature a select set of premium publishers versus exclusion lists, which allow for all publishers except for known MFAs.

Inclusion lists are meant to bypass the whack-a-mole effect of having to vet every single website that pops up, but Kane — whose company provides clients with a list of MFAs that can be used for a variety of purposes including creating inclusion lists and exclusion lists — said that inclusion lists can be stricter than necessarily, running a risk when it comes to supporting the open internet.

“Absolutely, you could run a giant scaled agency with an inclusion list of 50 to 60 publishers, no question. That has trade-offs, though. That very likely means you are not choosing Black-owned media businesses, LGBTQ-owned media businesses, women-owned media businesses,” said Kane.

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