Business Insider has become the latest large web publisher to challenge an influential arbiter of digital traffic. It is arguing that it has a monthly audience of 328 million people, more than triple the 100 million suggested by ComScore's domestic estimate of 51 million and Google Analytics' count of overseas traffic.
It blamed the discrepancy on publishers' growing model of distributing content across multiple platforms, some their own and others belonging to internet giants like Facebook.
"There's just this kind of growing frustration," said Julie Hansen, president and chief operating officer at Business Insider. "There are so many platforms with so many people, yet they're not reflected in the numbers."
Business Insider is following BuzzFeed, which has made similar claims that ComScore, an authority on audience in the industry, is not getting the full picture. In February, BuzzFeed wrote a blog post detailing why it thinks ComScore can see only one-fifth of its true audience size, which it said was closer to 400 million people than 80 million.
The accuracy and authority of online audience estimates from companies such as ComScore are important to give an independent appraisal of what publishers can deliver advertisers. Rather than take publishers' word for how big their audiences are, they can refer to ComScore's yardstick.
Business Insider uses ComScore in its advertising pitches to show its reach, though it doesn't use the service to measure ad campaigns for clients. Publishers often use other third parties to show how many impressions ads received, and advertisers can audit those numbers through their own tech partners.
The measurement conversation is spreading as so-called "distributed publishing" complicates audience counts.
"It's a real problem for sites that pursue a distributed strategy," said one publishing executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to openly criticize ComScore or Business Insider's measurement techniques.
The executive runs digital publications with tens of millions of viewers across multiple platforms. "I think it's fair to add users across different platforms when the audiences are clearly different," the exec said. "Though it needs to be properly disclaimed. There's absolutely overlap but no reliable way to de-duplicate."
On Monday, Business Insider came out with a new analysis of its reach, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat and other outside platforms, concluding that there are 328 million unique viewers consuming its content monthly.
The platforms like Facebook and Snapchat are not open books, making it difficult to say how many readers check out a publishers' stories exclusively on those properties and how many read on multiple channels. Facebook is starting to integrate more with ComScore, as are other platforms.
Some publishers, for instance, can pay ComScore to measure the reach of Facebook Instant Articles, which allow consumers to read full articles without leaving the social network. Business Insider does not apply ComScore's measurement tools to its Instant Articles.
The global nature of publishing and audiences are making metrics more challenging.
"De-duplicating audiences on a global level requires a high level of complexity," said Andrew Lipsman, VP of marketing and insights at ComScore. The analytics firm is getting more sophisticated at measuring multi-platform audiences, but it can't do so globally with consistency.
It's easy to conceive of one person visiting Business Insider's website, checking out its Snapchat account, viewing one of its videos on Twitter, and following a Business Insider sub-brands such as The Insider on Facebook. Metrics firms and publishers need to be able to tell whether that activity is the result of one consumer or many.
ComScore's numbers are used by the publishers to show advertisers their size and the value of their readership, Mr. Lipsman said.
Business Insider said its monthly unique audience estimate of 328 million people can't be completely precise, and it isn't using that figure to make any guarantees to advertisers, but said it's not an overestimate either.
"There's just no way to say definitively, but at the same time we feel good about the number," Ms. Hansen said. "If anything, it's wildly conservative."
Business Insider came to its number by looking at its Google Analytics for worldwide visits, adding up followers on its more than 20 Facebook pages and other social accounts, and by counting viewer stats provided by the platforms and other metrics around sharing. It also relied on ComScore data that show what percentage of its audience visits both Business Insider's main website and its Facebook pages.
On Facebook alone, Business Insider says it has 2.5 billion monthly views on its videos, which would suggest it reaches well more than 100 million people, Ms. Hansen said. An audience of 100 million people would have to watch 25 videos a month to generate 2.5 billion views.
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article and its headline said ComScore estimated Business Insider's global monthly unique audience at 100 million. That figure reflects two components, ComScore's estimate of 51 million monthly unique visitors to Business Insider in the U.S. and Google Analytics figures for Business Insider elsewhere. Business Insider also told Ad Age it estimates its monthly video views at 3.5 billion, a figure originally cited in the article. The company actually puts its video views at 2.5 billion.