The case for and against made-for-advertising sites

On the surface, the verdict on made-for-advertising sites (MFAs) seems obvious. These sites flood users with disruptive ads, masquerading their intentions behind a thin veil of valuable content.

Yet, scratching beneath the surface reveals a more complicated picture. Marketers, surprisingly, argue that these sites can serve a purpose, as long as there are effective mechanisms in place to ensure transparency and quality control.

But before we unpick this rationale, let’s rewind and remember what MFAs are: Imagine a webpage drowning in towering banner ads and strategically placed video players, transforming browsing into a chaotic commercial nightmare. To a critical observer, this mishmash of intrusive ads and dubious content might seem like a digital apocalypse. However, lurking in the background, the algorithms responsible for ad placements consider these sites to be prime opportunities. They’re more visible and budget-friendly compared to other ad options. Naturally, advertisers would jump at the chance to purchase such ads.

It all feels a bit deceptive, doesn’t it? Yet, in the world of industry norms, MFAs are not quite criminals, but not exactly angels either. They straddle the line between authenticity and potentially Invalid Traffic (IVT). And well, that leaves just enough wiggle room for marketers to do the mental contortions necessary to swallow this bitter pill.

“Brands have the choice to buy it or not buy it and they have the choice to verify it with log data or not,” said Tom Triscari, the programmatic consultant who finished the ANA’s examination of programmatic advertising, including MFAs.

Keep reading to explore how they rationalize the arguments for and against advertising on these sites.

The case for MFAs

In all fairness, this is less about advocating for advertising on these sites and more about providing an explanation as to why it happens. There are, at the very least, three rational yet deeply flawed reasons to contemplate.

Foremost among these reasons, and potentially the most crucial, is advertisers unreasonable demands for great performing ads that are cheap. This doesn’t really exist in advertising, so MFAs were invented. The problem, though, is that while the ads there are cheap, they don’t perform well. Or rather, they don’t perform well against any metric that actually moves a business forward. They do, however, generate a large number of clicks or impressions quickly due to their ad-heavy approach. Perfect, for the short-termist marketer. 

As Chris Kane, founder of programmatic supply chain management company Jounce Media, explained: “Advertisers struggle with this issue because when they mandate their agencies to block MFA, campaigns start producing inferior metrics. Inventory costs go up. Ad viewability often goes down. Video completion rates also go down. And so at a very basic level, blocking MFA requires marketers to accept that they’ve been tasking their agencies with flawed KPIs.”

The second rationale is relatively easier to grasp, although it carries a certain level of intricacy. It stems from brand safety and how seriously advertisers take it. They typically erect firm brand safety guardrails around their campaigns, which keep their ads away from content they deem unsuitable for their brands. 

However, these safeguards can inadvertently block content that would actually be suitable. MFAs avoid those safeguards altogether, even though the same content would likely trigger strong objections from most marketers if they were to see a screenshot of it. But they rarely see that screenshot. It’s why they employ brand safety tech so they don’t have to look at them. 

Thus, even if these safeguards are a bit too blunt and imperfect, they are meant to be precautionary, and there is no penalty for being overly cautious — regardless of the impact it might have on MFA sites. When it comes to relaxing brand safety standards, the potential drawbacks loom prominently, while the potential benefits remain elusive. 

Finally, let’s pause for a moment and delve into the impact of ad tech on the widespread existence of MFAs. Essentially, these companies are getting a slice of every single transaction that occurs on these sites. Consequently, as the number of MFAs continues to rise, so does their revenue. This dynamic holds especially true for supply-side platforms (SSPs), as they tend to secure a larger share of the budget allocated to MFA inventory compared to premium inventory. This phenomenon occurs because larger publishers wield more negotiating power, which keeps the take rates lower. So, every dollar spent on an MFA site holds more value for SSPs than the same amount spent on a premium site.

This raises the question: If this additional MFA volume were eliminated, could the economic underpinning of these platforms be compromised?

Sharethrough’s chief product officer Curt Larson seems to be on the same page.

He compared ad tech selling MFAs to a grocery store selling junk food — buyers can choose whether or not to buy it. They don’t have to buy that food, but often they do because they’re craving it. It’s a similar story with MFAs. Buyers are after metrics that MFAs excel at providing. As long as this mindset persists, he thinks it’ll be a tough ask for ad tech businesses to stop offering them. All that would happen if they did, he argued, is that those marketers would look for another platform to buy their MFA inventory. And if that happened, it would impact the likes of Sharethrough negatively.

The case against MFAs

This aspect of the argument is considerably more direct. While MFA sites might appear to perform well based on superficial vanity metrics (like accidental clicks), their actual impact on business outcomes is close to negligible. This isn’t a matter of opinion; it’s counting. Therefore, the idea that advertisers favor MFAs due to an affinity for their effectiveness lacks substantiation.

For Jounce Media, one of the top three criteria that the company looks for before determining if a site is an MFA is if the ads that display on the site are “at least 50% less likely to drive sales for marketers or be attributed with driving a sale for marketers than the average website,” said Kane.

Gradually, marketers seem to be grasping this reality.

One of the biggest — and most buzzy – arguments against MFAs right now is that they’re a significant contributor of carbon emissions within a programmatic media campaign.

For sustainability-minded marketers, the realization that digital marketing alone can contribute as much as 25% of a company’s scope three emissions (typically the largest category of a company’s carbon footprint) has them looking for ways to trim down the amount of auctions they participate in through supply path optimization and prioritizing buying against more sustainable premium publishing sites

“I do love the point about supply path optimization, and yes, people are talking about it through sustainability, but it’s also just good business. You don’t have to care about the environment to care about finding the most direct possible supply path to this inventory,” said Hillary Slattery, director of programmatic, product at IAB Tech Lab.

Bottom line: marketers and agencies appear perfectly fine with purchasing heaps of programmatic inventory without much scrutiny through ad tech. If that’s what they’re going for, well, it’s their call – they’re responsible folks. However, these same lackluster standards will inevitably influence the broader market.

“Some [advertisers] may say, ‘Yeah, made-for-advertising sites are fine. I get cheap reach,” said Bill Duggan, the evp of trade body the Association of National Advertisers group, but others are starting to question whether or not they want to – or need to – be on that many sites, he continued. 

At the end of the day, however, the ANA “did not recommend in the [study] that advertisers don’t use made-for-advertising sites – we can’t really do that as a trade association – but we could educate our members on the benefits or the trade-offs, and they can make their own informed decision,” said Duggan.

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