As digital publishers bet big on video in search of advertising riches, many believe that a traditional method of media measurement isn’t keeping up.
Publishers have long used “unique visitors” as a benchmark to compare the size of their website audiences and lure advertisers. But some media companies say the metric has become somewhat outmoded in an era when content is being disseminated widely on social media and other platforms.
Publishers such as BuzzFeed, Mic and PopSugar all publish video content directly on services such as Facebook and Instagram to capitalize on the massive scale and reach of those platforms. Since audiences for these videos don’t always visit publishers’ websites, they aren’t captured in unique visitor figures.
“That type of measurement used to work,” said Jonathan Carson, the president of Mic. “But over the last seven years, digital has moved to these more distributed approaches.”
Publishers have long complained that their audiences were undercounted by firms that use unique visitors as a baseline. But that debate has reached a tipping point of sorts in the past year as media companies have invested more in social-first video.
BuzzFeed and Mic, which both saw their monthly unique website visitors decline in the latter half of 2017, are among the publishers arguing that those numbers don’t provide the full picture.
“It’s not that we don’t value engagement on our sites and apps — some of our most passionate fans come to us on those platforms daily,” said Edwin Wong, the head of research at BuzzFeed. “But we’ve tuned ourselves so we bump into people wherever they spend their time online and across social.”
The debate has also been shaped by two of the most prominent digital measurement firms. ComScore Inc. ranks media companies by the number of unique visitors they receive every month as counted by its Media Metrix Multi-Platform product. Those rankings track audiences on websites, videos and apps, but executives at BuzzFeed and Mic say they do not account for their brands’ combined reach across social networks and the websites they own.
Specifically, both publishers say comScore does not track viewers they receive for video posted directly to Facebook, which makes up a significant portion of their audiences.
Nielsen — which is perhaps best known for measuring TV audiences — in 2016 launched “Digital Content Ratings,” a product that can measure audiences for video and text content across mobile apps, websites and social media platforms including Facebook.
Nielsen said it is able to track viewership for video published directly to Facebook through an arrangement with the social media company. Facebook has incorporated Nielsen’s measurement standards into its video player, and the company sends viewership information and metadata to Nielsen’s servers.
In an email, a spokesperson for comScore said the company measures audiences on products including Google Play Newsstand, Apple News, Flipboard, Google AMP and Facebook Instant Articles.
“We truly live in a cross-platform world,” said Bill Livek, executive vice chairman and president of comScore. “We’re being entertained on more platforms than ever before. And it’s the job of a third party — comScore — to measure all of that content.”
In several cases, the audience numbers that Nielsen provided digital publishers through Digital Content Ratings are dramatically higher than those provided by comScore’s Media Metrix Multi-Platform product. Mic reached 11.9 million unique visitors in October, according to comScore; Nielsen reported they reached 40 million people, according to its metrics. PopSugar reached 34 million unique visitors in October, according to comScore; Nielsen reported they reached 80 million. BuzzFeed’s Nielsen number is generally about twice as high as its comScore number, Mr. Wong said.
Since it debuted in 2016, Nielsen’s Digital Content Ratings has been adopted by more than 35 clients that represent more than 60 digital brands, said Jessica Hogue, senior vice president of product leadership at Nielsen. She said the product is “designed to meet the needs of publishers that are distributed on social feeds.”
Although Nielsen’s Digital Content Ratings has gained some traction since its launch, comScore is still a mainstay in the digital publishing industry. The widespread adoption of comScore’s measurement standards makes them a lingua franca of sorts among media companies, some of whom maintain comScore and Nielsen subscriptions in parallel.
Audiences on platforms including Facebook and Instagram are vital to digital publishers and the advertisers they court, said Geoff Schiller, the chief revenue officer of PopSugar.
But comScore has its appeal, too, Mr. Schiller said. He noted a certain amount of “number fatigue” in the digital media industry that makes comScore’s familiar comparison useful. Schiller added that a company’s comScore benchmark is still an important consideration for some advertisers.
In the end, total audience size as defined by comScore or Nielsen is only one factor in an ad buying equation that includes elements like engagement and content quality, said Sarah Baehr, executive vice president and managing partner of digital investment at Horizon Media.
“I don’t think we rely on any single source to make a decision,” Ms. Baehr said. “If we are starting from ground zero, which is rarely the case, pulling Nielsen and comScore numbers is just a starting point.”