Columbus Media Has A Fake Followers Problem

Starting a local media company in the year 2019 is a stupid thing to do.

I say that with some experience. (Please subscribe to our newsletter!)

Every month something hammers home the difficulty level. Recently it was news that Youngstown’s 150-year-old newspaper will be closing at the end of August, as well as word the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will be moving to a three days a week publishing schedule.

Online advertising is eating traditional advertising, but most of that online growth has gone to Facebook and Google, two companies that pay plenty of lip service to local news, but in practice do a lot of things that leave us … well, here, where we are right now.

Local news seems like a can’t miss for businesses who want to reach their local audience while supporting their community, but it’s not difficult to see why Facebook and Google have cleaned up in the marketplace when you look at the murkiness of what’s on offer locally.

Internetting Like It’s 2009

It’s not easy to stand out when it comes to attracting advertisers because anyone with an ad budget is getting pitched all day, every day, but there are shortcuts, like pretending you’re way bigger and more important than you actually are, and luckily this is the internet where that’s as easy as a quick trip to Fiverr dot com.

You can sort of see this when it’s happening with your naked eye. If a Twitter account has almost 200,000 followers and little to no interaction, that’s kind of weird, right? That weirdness can be explored further by turning to something like Twitter marketing service SparkToro which has a “Fake Followers Audit” tool that gives you a more statistical look at how much of an account’s audience is real.

First, since we all know fake followers are epidemic, and to forestall the argument that media everywhere is overrun with fakes, here are the results for a large non-Columbus media company:

New Yorker Twitter fake followers

Now let’s look at some local accounts:

Columbus Dispatch: 182k followers, 68.7% fake

Dispatch twitter fake followers

614 Magazine: 111k followers, 62.1% fake

614 twitter fake followers

ABC 6: 155k followers, 73% fake

ABC 6 twitter fake followers

And our overall leader, by a nose:

Columbus Underground: 172k followers, 74.9%(!) fake

Columbus Underground fake followers

Buying followers on Instagram is a riskier proposition since they are quicker to ban accounts than Twitter, plus they’ve historically purged fake accounts more proactively than Twitter (Twitter sucks a whole lot is what I’m saying), and so the numbers I’m about to show you with Instagram aren’t quite as eye-popping, but they’re still alarming. Audit tool IG Audit pegs many local media companies at 1/3rd or more fake followers:

Dispatch Instagram fake followers

Compare to a legit local account like Only In Cbus:

I won’t even get into huge email newsletter subscription numbers from lists that haven’t been cleaned in years or traffic numbers that lean heavily on being juiced by people sharing divisive national political stories plus the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality that has survived the transition to internet news.

Does any of this matter?

Kind of? For readers, I would think you’d want to see honesty from any news source you’re following.

Otherwise, I know this is all a little inside baseball, but advertisers, including small businesses with limited ad budgets and a lack of digital experience, sit in meetings with many of these outlets and get fed fictional numbers.

NEXT TIME: What are local companies getting for their ad spends and just how toxic is the local media environment in Columbus?