Crisis? What crisis? The advertising industry is merely changing its spots.

After years of investment in traditional media, a trend has been growing in popularity for around a decade: digital advertising.

More and more companies are investing their media budgets in digital channels, recognising that these provide quality promotion opportunities and more accessible prices. Digital channels also represent a modular option which can be tailored to fit the needs of each brand and, most importantly, are capable of intercepting clients – or prospective clients – during their free time on the internet.

Across the world, it is estimated that in the coming years investment in digital channels will exceed that destined for the formerly all-powerful television. In Italy in 2016, digital advertising registered overall turnover of nearly €2.5bn, an increase of nearly 10%. Meanwhile, the advertising sector as a whole grew by just 3% on 2015 (data from IAB forum).

Driving this around the globe are the big social media players, led by Facebook, which continues to go from strength to strength.

Indeed, the majority of companies invest large sums of money into sponsoring all manner of content on what has become known as the King of Social Networks.

The objective of all this is to increase fan bases and reach the largest possible number of new users. According to companies, when these users become followers of the brand, they also become more likely to favour the brand as consumers.

It is undeniable that there is a positive connection – an overlap – between social media followers and offline clients. Anyone who follows a brand can surely be classed as a brand lover, someone prepared to spend more to buy that brand’s products.

But how can we be sure that this is the correct explanation?

According to the researchers Leslie John, Daniel Mochon, Oliver Emrich and Daniel Schwarz, who recently published a fascinating article in the Harvard Business Review, the process linking a company to their followers works in the opposite direction. They argue that the spontaneous fans of a company are already the most loyal, entrenched customers. Anyone who likes a brand on Facebook, therefore, is already a loyal customer of that brand and would be so even without media investment or highly creative content.

If confirmed, this theory would open up a whole new perspective on the presence of brands on the internet.

Let’s start with something we know for sure. It is still crucial for companies to dedicate hard work and attention to looking after their social media presence. The digital landscape is the forum in which users and customers exchange views, opinions, questions and observations. There is no doubt, therefore, that it is vital for all brands to have a digital presence. Not just to raise their profile and offer concrete support whenever a customer needs it, but also to listen to the conversations being had and take inspiration from these.

That said, the idea that “natural” fans almost always correspond to real customers should make companies reflect and encourage them to change their approach.

First of all, companies should learn to value their organic fans – the real brand lovers – and to “use” them innovatively and strategically. Why invest millions of euros conducting market-research projects, when the most active, tangible sample of the public is just a click away? Stimulating a community of users that are already receptive and committed to the brand allows companies to pick up on trends and marketing intelligence at zero cost.

Many brands have already done this, including Lego (to help them develop new products), KLM (to offer customers a real-time CRM channel) and Italy’s own San Carlo, which harnessed the creativity of its most loyal fans and followers to devise a new variety of crisps for its “Più Gusto” line.

But that’s not enough. According to the researchers, brands need to understand that the most common online behaviours – such as the classic like – have been left behind, overtaken. Simply knowing that a friend likes a page or brand is not in itself enough to spark a trend and attract waves of new followers anymore. Nowadays, fans want to see a friend or influencer actually using a product or service. Why? Because behaviour leads to behaviour. Companies can capitalise on this in myriad ways: by reposting content featuring users happily trying out their products or services, by sharing client satisfaction testimonials on their official channels (using hashtags to collate content) and – why not? – by organising a pool of influencers to act as testers and promoters of their products.