Confessions of a Black-owned publisher who is concerned about being labeled an MFA over traffic goals

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

In the crackdown on made-for-advertising sites (MFAs), smaller, independently-owned publishers, including Black-owned media companies, are feeling the effects.

Last year, a number of Black-owned publishers said agencies’ commitments to spend a percentage of their media dollars with them after the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests in 2020 had, in fact, led to increases in ad revenue and new advertisers. But this year, declining referral traffic from Facebook has led to one Black-owned publisher struggling to fulfill the ad impressions required. They feel pushed to buy traffic on Facebook to satisfy the campaign demands and keep the ad revenue, but are concerned about the risk of being labeled an MFA as a result, according to that publisher’s head of digital.

In this edition of our Confessions series, in which we exchange anonymity for candor, a Black-owned publisher’s head of digital explained the conundrum of benefitting from agencies’ budgets going to companies like theirs while needing to find ways to fulfill those deals without being labeled an MFA, at a time when referral traffic is on the decline.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

When did you start to notice a significant dip in traffic coming to your site?

It was probably sometime [around] August of last year. [We were] part of the whole Facebook News deal. They were paying us a nominal fee. It was like $100,000 a year for three years. But… they were surfacing our content in the Facebook News tab. So we were getting a two-for-one. We were getting the organic stuff that we’ve pushed out… to [Facebook]. And then we were getting the Facebook News tab [traffic]. And then around probably August of 2022 [we heard they were] getting rid of the Facebook News tab deal. I’m fine with that; we didn’t need $100,000 a year.

But the traffic that came from it was like 3 to 4 million unique visitors on top of the 3 to 4 million unique visitors we were doing through organic posting. And that went away. And it hurt. [Traffic] has been slowly going down [since then], maybe because of the bug… For a small niche publisher [like us] it hurts us. We used to be at 13 million unique visitors. Last month in Comscore we were [around] 2 million. That’s not just all Facebook, but a big chunk of that — like 6 or 7 million — was Facebook just deciding, “We don’t want to help you promote your content.”

How has the decline in traffic taken a toll on the business?

Where it really hurts is in Comscore. Agencies still use it. We were getting so many RFPs falling from the sky, just based on our reach [as a top Black-owned media publication]… So we kind of lose the easy dollars right there. But in addition to that, now you have to deliver on all the campaigns we have. We’re still benefiting from the George Floyd bump when agencies like GroupM and Publicis decided they were going to do X amount of spend. We get a lot of direct deals. Now we have to fulfill those deals. Now we don’t necessarily have the traffic all the time to fill them. We’re sold out more often. So now we have to do audience extension or buy traffic to the site. And it’s just a balance. 

You buy traffic to the site then you have Chris Kane [founder of programmatic supply chain management company Jounce] saying you’re an MFA. And if you don’t do it, you’re buying outside the site [by running impressions through another publisher] and the advertisers are like, “Why are you using other publishers to fulfill your deals?” So it is a balancing act there, which is the biggest struggle for the business. We’re losing money, because we have to actually spend money to extend that audience.

Are you having to pivot to make up for the loss in traffic and the business challenges as a result of that decline?

One of the biggest issues that I have right now [with traffic] and have to decide what to do is the NewsBreak app. It was giving us 3 to 4 million uniques per month and they recently decided to go to a walled garden model similar to SmartNews. The way to push us into the walled garden is to turn down the reach of our current basic RSS feed that goes in there. So now we’ve gone from [getting] 4 million [uniques] down to [around] 1.5 million uniques from them. What I’m basically up against is, do I do this walled garden deal, which essentially might give us a larger traffic number and larger Comscore number? But then it takes away any place we can run our own ads. 

Facebook, SmartNews, NewsBreak, Flipboard [aren’t] really doing much [for us]. Essentially, you’re [relying] on Google and you’re hoping for people coming right to your site. [I want to do] an ad deal [with NewsBreak] where I can insert [our] ads into their walled garden, and thus giving them a little bit of margin but at least being able to fulfill the direct deals we have. If you’re a niche publisher, it’s pretty difficult. I’m at a loss for words on what to do… It’s not like I’m not doing my job. It’s just the industry is changing right now.

That sounds really tough. If inventory is often sold out and the money is still coming in but the impressions aren’t there anymore, what can a publisher like yours do right now?

It’s kind of pushing you to buy [traffic]. And I’m not saying we can’t buy. But then when you’re buying, you have some type of arbitrage, right? It’s not like — I can buy [cost-per-click ads on Facebook], that gives me a high [cost per 1,000 impressions], then my [revenue earned per 1,000 page views] is low. So you put a templated page in there [with a lot of ad units] to maximize RPM. But it’s nonstop — every week there’s like three or four articles about MFAs and we kind of got hit once by Jounce saying, “You’re an MFA because you’re [buying] all this traffic.” Well, what do you want me to do? I need to fulfill these deals, so I’m going to have to buy traffic. I’m not trying to put together a MFA site, but I’m trying to do something to allow us to get the money from agencies and deliver on the campaigns. It’s just a balancing act, and it’s very tough these days.

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