Ad Tech Industry Experts Weigh In On the MFA Scourge and Black Publishers’ Concerns

While industry experts have mixed opinions about how labeling a site as MFA  affects diverse-owned media, they agree that the focus should be on performance metrics instead of arbitrage.   

With hints of arbitrage, a dash of low-quality inventory, and a sprinkle of a bad user experience, digital media companies are working to rid the ecosystem of MFA sites like the bubonic plague. The issue is that the industry is still trying to nail down the exact definition of an MFA site. But are they all bad news? 

According to Sharethrough, MFA sites make up one-fifth of global programmatic ad spend because advertisers are under a lot of pressure to maximize their ad spend, and publishers are under pressure to reach their impression goals. This is why some believe that Black-owned sites are unfairly labeled MFA sites, but the industry is working to nail down a standard definition and how to move forward. 

After we published our article about Black-owned publishers’ concerns about being designated MFA sites, we spoke to some of these industry experts to understand how they define them, how to distinguish a bad site from a benign one, and to see if the industry’s standards label Black-owned publishers as MFA sites unfairly. There are some mixed opinions and some overlap in classification, but the industry has one goal—creating a sustainable ecosystem. 

What is an MFA Site? Industry Experts Weigh In

We’ve established mixed definitions for MFA sites, but what is the industry saying? 

“The term ‘Made for Advertising’ has created significant confusion within the industry,” said Jack Smith, CPO at DoubleVerify. Smith further asserts that while of course, MFA sites with misinformation and poor content are problematic, there are some ad-heavy sites that may attract the audiences some advertisers want to reach.

According to Scott Pierce, Sr. Director for Product and Fraud at Integral Ad Science, MFA sites have varied definitions, dating back to the early days of programmatic advertising. While they’ve been called spam sites or ad farms, MFA has recently gained popularity.

“MFA sites offer a low-quality ad experience, often performing well on vanity metrics but delivering minimal value to marketers,” said Pierce. “Our findings, in line with research by Jounce Media and the ANA, indicate that advertising on MFA sites lacks meaningful campaign results, such as conversions and brand lift, making it a wasteful use of ad spend.” 

On the other hand, Jounce Media’s MFA Evaluation page defines MFAs as “inventory that achieves superficial KPIs like viewability by creating a user-hostile advertising experience.” However, Jounce Media specifies that a “user-hostile advertising experience” is subjective. Sometimes, it’s unclear where they draw the line for which RTB-traded websites meet MFA standards. 

How Do You Flag an MFA Site? 

IAS’s Approach: The media quality company’s approach focuses solely on performance, tying site characteristics to meaningful outcomes like conversions and brand lift. MFA sites are highly optimized to perform well against traditional campaign metrics such as click-through and viewability rates, but they don’t deliver actual value. 

“At IAS, we leverage AI to identify MFA sites. The model assesses various characteristics, including traffic sources, network associations, templating, and AI-generated content,” said Pierce. “Key focus areas involve ad clutter, evaluating factors like the ad-to-content ratio, total ads on a page, presence of auto-refreshing ads, refresh rates, autoplay video ads, and pop-ups.” 

Jounce Media’s Approach: Jounce performs a daily battery of tests across every RTB-traded website to evaluate three hallmarks of MFA supply: 

  • Paid Traffic: MFA publishers heavily depend on clickbait ads from social networks and content recommendation platforms, making paid traffic their main cost driver.
  • Aggressive Monetization: They manage these costs using aggressive monetization tactics like high ad frequency and rapid auto-refreshing placements, creating a user-hostile advertising experience while seeking arbitrage opportunities.
  • Superficial KPIs: Despite achieving high viewability and video completion rates, our research shows that MFA publishers’ products do not influence consumer purchase decisions.

In addition, Jounce is now working with the DSP, Basis Technologies, to identify MFAs and steer ad dollars away from them.

Basis will integrate Jounce’s MFA site block list into its DSP, automatically applying it to all campaigns, but marketers and agencies retain the option to opt out. Ian Trider, Basis’s VP of product, highlighted that using a dynamic definition allows sites to make improvements that could reclassify them positively.

DoubleVerify’s Approach: DV created its exclusive MFA analysis process by combining human and AI auditing. Customers can directly activate this solution within their brand safety and suitability profile for measurement and monitoring.

“With the rise of AI tools that can rapidly spawn MFA sites, DV’s AI tech can assist global brands in identifying, measuring, and avoiding problematic MFA content in real-time and ultimately drive better marketing outcomes,” said Mark Zagorski, CEO of DoubleVerify.

More specifically, they look to see if:

  • Ads dominate the page with high density, frequently refreshing to maximize earnings per visit. 
  • Monetization relies heavily on paid traffic like social and native ads, lacking organic traffic. 
  • The content aims to keep users endlessly engaged within the site, often duplicating verbatim across multiple sites and occasionally generated automatically by AI.

Myth or Fact: Are Some Black-owned Publishers Unfairly Labeled MFA Sites? 

There have been many facets to the MFA site conversation in ad tech, but a prominent concern developed when some Black-owned publishers became labeled as MFA sites. There are some mixed opinions about the validity of this claim. 

There is a history of stigma around traffic buying, but some Black-owned publishers purchase traffic to expand their platforms through SEO and editorial promotions. Of course, some agree that there are better practices outside of arbitrage, encouraging them to grow organic SEO engagement. 

Jounce Media acknowledged that brand safety standards have often suppressed diverse-owned media but stood on the fact that the MFA reformation does not marginalize diverse-owned publishers. “It is 100 times more likely for a non-diverse publisher to be classified as MFA than for a diverse-owned media company,” said Chris Kane, Founder of Jounce Media. 

However, there is still some concern from diverse-owned and small publishers that the MFA scourge will hurt their businesses. Dévon Christopher Johnson, CEO and founder of BleuLife Media Group and co-founder of non-profit organization BOMESI, said that telling Black-owned publishers not to buy traffic is “like telling a developing country ‘Don’t use fossil fuels’ after Americans used fossil fuels for 150 years to grow its economy. It’s kind of a slap in the face to do that.” 

However, just because you buy traffic does not automatically make you an MFA site. 

“I’m aware of concerns about MFA labels impacting black-owned or DEI sites. The industry must not penalize small publishers, including DEI publishers, using content recommendation platforms to build an audience,” said Scott Pierce. “Sourcing traffic from a partner doesn’t inherently make a site MFA. At IAS, we focus solely on how a site performs for marketers, emphasizing the importance of ad clutter and overall performance over traffic sources.” 

Redefining the Stigma Around Paid Traffic

Recently at our PubForum New Orleans conference, Justin Barton, SVP, Digital Strategy & Partnerships at Black Enterprise spoke about how he recently joined the 4A’s MFA Working Group which includes the ANA, IAB Tech Lab, Jounce Media and other publishers. This will allow publishers and parties from all sides of the industry to voice their concerns. 

Barton is focused on highlighting the significance of paid traffic and how that affects publishers being tagged on MFA lists. He believes that marketing through paid means shouldn’t be restricted for publishers, despite certain research organizations associating paid traffic with negative outcomes in native ads.  

“My aim is to normalize paid traffic for publishers by advocating transparency. This means ensuring that publishers engaging in paid traffic disclose their actions properly, refrain from excessive ad loads or aggressive video players on pages, and maintain transparency to avoid being labeled as MFA,” said Barton.