Getting wise to the sneaky practices of MFAs

Mobile Marketing - Member Content

Made For Advertising (MFA) domains have been a particularly hot topic in recent months, with their increasing scale and sophistication matched by the determination of the advertising and media industry to divert media investment away from them. Alexander Taylor, Picnic’s Head of Partnerships, has a few things to say about the MFA challenge and how advertisers can sort good domains from bad.

Mobile Marketing: What challenges do agencies face when trying to curate ad inventory effectively, and how can they ensure they curate the right data in the right ways to avoid MFAs?

Alexander Taylor: Ultimately, the publishers who have built MFA domains are extremely clever in the way they do it. If you were to search for a known MFA domain via a search engine, or directly within your browser URL, you would end up describing your experience as “brilliant”. The site layout would be spacious, with a maximum of three ads per page, with some engaging content within the article. As an agency planner, you’d approve this domain with no questions asked.

However, it is vital to understand how MFA domains have been set up to manipulate potential buyers. MFA domain owners have a brilliant understanding of three core components of site monetisation: SEO, advertising performance metrics and price point arbitrage. The reason your experience is seamless when you go directly to an MFA domain from a search engine or browser is because that’s what they want you to experience.

The real version of their site (and what the majority of their traffic experiences) is if you end up on the domain via a social link, or native advertising link, or if you go direct but get three or four pages into the site. This is where the publisher has now loaded the page with highly viewable video and display placements that hit all of ad tech’s vanity metrics – viewability, dwell time, view through rates, etc. – and at a price point significantly lower than any competing publisher.

In fact, whether or not a site is MFA at all is extremely subjective. So the best way to avoid MFA domains is to use a partner who audits all of their publisher partners for key MFA indicators, such as their percentage of non-direct traffic, ad density, user bounce rates, average pages per visit and, importantly, emissions.

MM: You mentioned that using the wrong metrics, such as completion rates and CPMs, can lead to ads being bought on MFAs. What are the correct metrics or criteria that agencies should use to identify and avoid MFAs?

AT: To begin steering away from MFA sites, agencies should prioritise authentic engagement metrics. No performance metric is perfect in silo, therefore we should look to combine a number of metrics to paint a clearer picture of MFA domains. At Picnic, we look at meaningful clicks and share of voice. Both metrics are made up of a combination of data points to help tell a clear story about the quality of a particular engagement.

Take share of voice as an example: we look specifically at how many ads were onsite during a user’s journey and break that down into an ad density score. With that, we look at predicted attention and viewability per ad placement, which gives us a rich understanding of the user’s advertising experience. A page with all three indicators indexing highly compared with the overall domain’s average (or peers in its vertical) would suggest that the advertising on site has been set up for the sole purpose of maximising revenue from that user.

MM: Media buyers need to vote with their wallets to drive change. How do you see recent attention on MFAs, such as the ANA report, influencing how marketers measure the success of their programmatic ad campaigns?

AT: The recent spotlight on MFAs and the ANA report will likely prompt media buyers to prioritise transparency and cost-effectiveness, and partnerships with vendors adhering to industry standards will gain prominence.

Media buyers will wield their budgets strategically, channelling investments towards accountable and ethical programmatic ad campaigns, and promoting a shift towards greater transparency and improved industry practices.

Additionally, advertisers will scrutinise fees, opting for transparent platforms and demanding clear metrics. Key indicators will include verifiable data on brand safety, the percentage of MFA sites and meaningful clicks – something we’re looking to develop at Picnic to prove the power of our user-first (and <1% MFA!) marketplace.

MM: MFAs often tout high viewability and completion rates at low CPMs. Can you explain why these vanity metrics are impractical when it comes to driving actual sales and why brands should be cautious of them?

AT: From a publisher’s perspective, very simply, video ad impressions maximise the yield per page. In order to successfully run video advertising onsite you need to hit vanity metrics like viewability and completion rates, which have sadly led to more and more small sticky video players on site. These players autoplay with sound off, but sell themselves as in-steam advertising opportunities due to the content that’s used within the player. With MFA specifically, domains will be running multiple players at once across the page, resulting in them being able to lower the CPM per player, while maintaining a high yield per page.

As a brand, you need to be extremely rigorous in your process to exclude players that have been set up to take advantage of vanity metrics, as ultimately these impressions don’t influence positive engagement or sales. If anything, the bad experience will result in negative sentiment towards the brand, or a wasted ad impression due to the fact that the user can’t see the ad. Low CPMs typically reflect ad placements on low-quality, irrelevant sites, reaching the wrong audience.

Authentic engagement matters more than just visibility. Prioritising these meaningful metrics ensures that ad spend translates into real, revenue-generating actions – guarding brands against investing in misleading or ineffective advertising strategies.