Legit Black-owned Publishers Are Being Labeled MFA Sites, but Maybe There’s a Solution

The MFA site reformation in ad tech is well underway. Still, some Black-owned publishers are being labeled as MFA sites by the industry in their attempts to reach advertisers’ quotas and serve quality ads to consumers. Is a tiered approach the answer to this problem?

In the wake of the media reckoning sparked by the tragic murder of George Floyd in 2020, advertisers funneled more ad spend toward Black-owned publishers. Ad agencies, driven by commitments to allocate a portion of their media budgets to these publishers, sought to address the longstanding disparities in media representation. 

However, Black-owned publishers now face unique challenges, primarily related to declining referral traffic from sources like Facebook ever since the social network’s algorithms started deprioritizing news

This decline has made it increasingly tricky to meet ad impression requirements stipulated in deals with advertisers. Consequently, some Black publishers felt compelled to buy traffic or partner with other publishers to extend their reach.

But here lies the conundrum: as Black-owned publishers seek to bolster their audiences and meet advertiser demands, they face the risk of being labeled MFA sites. 

Executives at Black-owned media companies are frustrated because, despite the stigma associated with traffic buying, they have historically resorted to purchasing traffic to expand their platforms through search-engine marketing and editorial promotions, especially on social media platforms like Facebook. 

Black-owned Publishers Require Clarity Defining MFA Sites

Grouchy Greg Watkins, Founder of AllHipHop.com, underscores the need for clarity and fairness in MFA site classification. “The current issues surrounding MFA are murky at best, and there needs to be some sort of standard brought forth to define an MFA site clearly,” said Greg. 

Many Black-owned publishers share his sentiments. Justin V. Barton, VP, Digital Strategy and Partnerships at Black Enterprise, has found his site mistakenly classified as an MFA site due to their association with third-party vendors. Barton believes that many in the industry need to consider direct or programmatic guarantees in their methodology.

“Instead, they focus on open market bids and paid traffic, making assumptions based on that data,” said Barton. “Black Media has successfully secured direct deals from agencies in recent years, which has reduced our reliance on open market bids. This issue stems from flawed methodology, preventing us from fulfilling guaranteed deals without being flagged as MFA.”

Black-owned websites, like AllHipHop.com and Black Enterprise, have been in the media business for decades and have consistently provided high-quality content. These publishers are frustrated by the unintended consequences of being labeled as MFA sites and the impact it has on their revenue streams. 

“Legitimate websites should not be penalized for creating high-quality pages with higher ad densities to monetize those pages, especially when the content interests the reader,” argued Watkins. 

Recently, the ANA, 4A‘s, WFA, and ISBA came together to create guidelines to help advertisers identify MFA sites so that advertisers can avoid them. And while many legit Black publishers cannot be categorized under these guidelines, they are still penalized.

Chris Kane, founder of Jounce Media, told Digiday, that while he understands publishers’ concerns about being incorrectly labeled MFA based on clickbait or paid traffic, he has no sympathy for publishers solving the need to fulfill demand by becoming an MFA publisher.

Blame It On the Bad Actors

Watkins also points out that the real issue lies with bad actors who create entire websites solely for arbitraging and making profits rather than providing valuable content to their readers. The focus, he believes, should be on identifying and targeting these malicious actors instead of casting a wide net that unintentionally ensnares legitimate Black-owned publishers.

In response to these challenges, the industry has seen the emergence of AI-driven detection products from the IAS, which identify and combat MFA sites. DoubleVerify has also released an MFA solution, powered by blending human and AI auditing, to enable advertisers to monitor and avoid MFA sites. 

And then there’s the crusade against MFA sites, being led by Jounce Media’s MFA tracking technology, using advanced detection and domain tracking to score and identify MFA sites. Since its launch, we’ve seen agencies like GroupM announce new protections against MFA sites, while SSPs like Pubmatic, Magnite, and OpenX are all vowing to eliminate MFA inventory from curated publisher lists in the private marketplace. 

However, these tools, and others like them, may carry inherent biases, depending on how the manufacturer trained the data sets. This potential bias could disproportionately affect smaller Black-owned publishers, exacerbating the challenges they already face in the advertising ecosystem. Sure, MFA sites are a scourge on the entire advertising ecosystem, but should the solutions cut off reputable publishers from meeting their revenue goals?

The Tier System: How Can the Ad Tech Industry Remedy This?

It is crucial to address the problem while acknowledging the unique circumstances of Black and Minority Owned Media. Chris Kenna, CEO of Brand Advance, suggests a tiered approach to dealing with MFA sites. 

“Larger, fully funded publications with a history of 5+ years should be classified as Tier 1, adhering to the current MFA definition, which doesn’t allow for certain audience arbitrage or paid social promotion,” Kenna explains. This tiered system would allow established publishers to continue their work without interference.

Kenna also advocates for Tier 2, accommodating younger and minority-owned publishers. These Tier 2 publishers would have more flexibility in their strategies, including audience arbitration and paid social promotion until they reach the scale and stability of their Tier 1 counterparts. 

This approach balances the need for ad fraud prevention while considering the historically limited investment in Black and Minority Owned Media.

An Equitable Advertising Ecosystem

The MFA conversation has sparked debates about fairness and equity in the advertising industry, raising questions about whether all publishers should be subject to the same rules and restrictions. The industry must find a way to address ad fraud issues while ensuring that Black-owned publishers are not unfairly burdened in their quest for sustainable growth.

This conversation is a great starting point, but the industry has plenty of work ahead. As Barton acknowledges, it’s essential to note that major platforms like Facebook have reduced organic traffic significantly, making it challenging for smaller, non-mainstream publishers to thrive. 

“We need to find ways to run a legitimate advertising-focused business. The problem lies in organizations jumping on the MFA bandwagon, limiting opportunities for clean and respectable advertising arbitrage, which could benefit both publishers and advertisers,” said Barton. 

Any MFA reform should consider the unique challenges Black-owned (and other underrepresented) media outlets face and strive for a more inclusive and equitable advertising ecosystem that supports growth and success. 

As Watkins puts it, “The industry should not put all the blame on the publishers. The buy side spends millions of dollars that the supply side gladly gobbles up. They all get a cut.” The responsibility to create a fair and equitable environment lies with the entire advertising industry.


An earlier version of this article stated that: “Black-owned publishers are disproportionately labeled as MFA sites.” According to Jounce Media’s data, Black-owned publishers are disproportionately *not* labeled as MFA.

Images were created with the assistance of DALL·E 3