Online collaboration, particularly with online communities, is increasingly important for corporate reputation and brand management, according to a new Economist Intelligence Unit study sponsored by telecommunications giant Verizon.


The study, Dangerous Liaisons: How Businesses Are Learning to Work With Their New Stakeholders, surveyed senior executives worldwide on their views of how an emerging group of non-traditional stakeholders is impacting corporate reputation.  The majority (78 percent) of respondents say that interaction with special-interest groups, non-governmental organizations or citizen groups is important to their business, while 33 percent say that online communities will be their most important category of "non-traditional stakeholder" in five years.


According to Kerry Bailey, chief marketing officer for Verizon Business: "Online communities, enabled by social media tools, are having a transformational effect on enterprise communication, enabling stakeholders to access multiple information points on demand, choose their influencers and build global communities of engagement quickly and simply, and outside traditional corporate boundaries.  Our survey shows that corporations are now beginning to understand the importance of these new communities, and their influence on corporate success, but that there is still a way to go to establish a balanced environment where online stakeholders can be fully engaged in corporate communication."


The new EIU study points out that collaboration with these new stakeholders is still rarely taken into strategic consideration by a company's board of directors, limiting positive potential outcomes. This could be due to perceived risk: some 43 percent of respondents see reputation damage as a potential risk in dealing with online communities, and 38 percent say the same in regard to NGOs and civic groups.


Another concern is information-flow control, in particular, preventing the release of confidential or inaccurate information and protecting intellectual property. However, 42 percent of survey respondents agree that online social networks are becoming the most effective means of communicating with new stakeholder groups.


Bailey adds: "We know that collaboration is most effective when used in support of business goals, and this applies equally when dealing with traditional and non-traditional stakeholders. Eventually it's all about the creation of trust, enabled by ecosystems in which wisdom and knowledge can survive and thrive. Where IP-enabled tools are deployed well, and an organization builds engagement with all its stakeholders into its business goals, more positive business impacts can be achieved."