We Gave MFA Sites Their Power. Here’s What Happens When We Take It Away

By Justin Choi, Founder & CEO, Nativo

Right now, there’s a tidal wave of disdain within the digital advertising industry being directed toward made-for-advertising (MFA) sites right now. It’s good when a light is shined on the context of where ads appear. However, if we don’t simultaneously acknowledge what’s going to happen if MFA sites collapse in the face of this scrutiny, our industry is in for one hell of a rude awakening.

What’s left after MFA sites disappear will represent the true internet. It’s akin to when Neo takes the red pill in “The Matrix” and Morpheus tells him, “Welcome to the real world.”

The true internet might be a scary place at first. It’s a lot smaller than we thought, and “brand safe” inventory pools are even smaller. But it’s real—and there’s an opportunity to rebuild better.

The Red Pill: What Happens If and When MFA Sites Go Away?

The simple fact is that MFA sites today are substantially influencing price points and key metrics that advertisers and open web publishers have come to rely on. When MFA sites go the way of the dodo, we’re going to have to simultaneously realign our industry around a new set of expectations.

When we remove MFA sites from the digital advertising landscape, we’re pulling out a piece of the Jenga puzzle that’s been supporting more weight than we want to acknowledge. When it crashes down around us, Nativo data indicates that:

  • Average CTRs will decline between 20-40 percent
  • Ad rates will increase by 20 percent

MFA sites aren’t actually, as the name suggests, made for advertising. They’re made for advertisers. They are sites that are optimized to give advertisers everything they want: a cookied user, with high click rates (albeit likely accidental), in a “brand safe” environment that’s cheap. In a way, you could say MFA sites are just smart publishers—if, that is, the publisher’s goal is to make money without providing value to users.

The goal of MFA sites is to game the programmatic system through intrusive ad placements, including pop-ups and auto-play videos, that seem to perform well based on the metrics advertisers have said matter to them—impressions, views, and clicks, for example. But if you’re tracking to business outcomes (which most advertisers aren’t), there’s no true value being provided. 

The problem with simply declaring that MFA sites should be banished from the digital advertising ecosystem is that these sites represent little monsters that advertisers and publishers—whether knowingly or unknowingly—have embraced, nurtured, and relied upon for years. Publishers have relied on MFAs to bolster inventory within both real-time bidding auctions and private marketplaces. Meanwhile, advertisers have relied upon them to bolster their campaign results—results based on superficial metrics like clicks and cost per viewable impression, rather than real business outcomes. The fact that these metrics are still so widely used points to the continued weakness of programmatic measurement.

The Real World: Rebuilding Digital Advertising the Right Way

We shouldn’t have to mourn the loss of MFAs. News sites have, in fact, been harmed by having to compete with MFAs and their apparently stellar “brand safety” profiles. Average bids across all placements have been reduced as a result of MFA sites, and revenue has shifted from quality publications to those gaming the click system. 

Here’s how we can rebuild quality into the true internet:

  • Advertisers need to acknowledge that notions of “brand safety” have been overdone and are harming legitimate publishers that have great (and real) traffic. They should challenge their brand safety partners to find better ways to validate the suitability of environments in which they advertise, rather than adhering to wholesale categorical blacklists.
  • Advertisers need to wean themselves off cookies. Not only will they see better performance, but they’ll also finally reach lucrative Safari users. (Not to mention, advertisers soon won’t have a choice in going cookieless anyway, so now is the time to act.)
  • Advertisers need to start to monitor ad density (total ad placements on a page), whether ad placements are likely viewed (vs. just viewable), the impact of the ad format, and whether or not real attention time was generated.
  • Advertisers are also going to have to realign on KPIs. As MFAs vanish, the BS clicks and viewability they drove are going to vanish too—and advertisers shouldn’t have been relying on clicks, last touch, or view-through attribution in the first place. They need to look at true engagement and business outcomes.

Ultimately, MFA sites have their place in the digital advertising ecosystem because they’ve provided what advertisers said they wanted. Advertisers will need to take a moment of bravery and recognize that they need to break from the past and shift what they measure and value. The result will be a better Internet and better business results.