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Shannon Boudjema needed evidence - fast - to convince a skeptical manager and client of her marketing plan for a new product pitched to younger buyers.

Had she gone traditional routes, "I would have needed to drop all my other work, spend days on the phone and have meetings or buy research," says the business manager for marketing communications company Maritz Canada Inc. in Mississauga, Ont.

Instead, she had a brainstorm.

Before leaving work one evening last month, she posted a message on Twitter, asking followers to steer her toward research on the preferences of young consumers.

Arriving at work the next morning, she found a flood of tweets from dozens of contacts. "I got a ton of links to research that substantiated what I was proposing, so that I felt comfortable making my recommendation," she says.

Results like that have made her employer sit up and take notice - so much so that Maritz is urging all 500 employees to find ways to use social networking sites to business advantage.

It has created such a buzz that the company has been ordering in pizza and inviting 50 employees at a time to lunchtime training sessions on how to use sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook in their jobs, says Paul Marchildon, Maritz's vice-president of marketing communications.

"Social media are proving to be a great way to reach clients and build business networks," he says. "Even if employees haven't used these sites, they badly want to learn how to use them. And even regular users have things they want to know more about."

That represents a radical shift in thinking. Had Maritz employees logged on to such sites just a year ago, they would have received a stern warning message blocking access in the office as "inappropriate."

Now, Maritz and a growing number of other companies are not only opening access but actively encouraging employees to jump on the social networking bandwagon from their office desks.

Those at the forefront see a wide range of benefits for both businesses and individuals. For employers, they are new tools to promote their brands, build business, spot trends, find talent and collaborate with industry experts, says Judy Sweeney, vice-president of HR consulting company Taleo Research in Toronto. They are also a way to reach a younger generation of early social media adopters.

Employees can use the sites not only to help do their work better - expanding their network, gaining instant feedback, finding new information -but boost their value: Becoming known as an online trend setter is destined to raise your star with management, which can lead to new opportunities, even job security in unstable times, career pros say.

Just last summer, 65 per cent of U.S. and Canadian businesses said they blocked employee access to instant messaging and social media sites, citing worries about security and wasted time, according to a survey done by the American Management Association.

Contrast that with a new study by San Diego-based Internet security company Websense. It found 86 per cent of 1,300 information technology managers worldwide reported they are under pressure from management to give employees more access to social media. Of the 100 Canadian managers in the survey, just 39 per cent said their companies currently allow access. But 36 per cent said they are being urged by marketing managers to cut back restrictions on employee access, and 29 per cent said the prodding is also coming from sales managers. Nearly a third - 30 per cent - said pressure is coming directly from senior management.

Far from wasting time, social media can make workers more efficient, says Mark Relph, vice-president of the developer platform and product evangelism group for Microsoft Canada Co. He logs in to Twitter with his morning coffee at home and, throughout the day, has it running in a corner of his work computer and on his mobile messaging device. He uses Twitter to get instant feedback on what his software designer customers would like to discuss in workshops he runs across the country.

His obsession has helped raise his pay and visibility with management, he says.

Mr. Relph gets a bonus based on customer satisfaction ratings; in the two years he and others in his department have used Twitter, those ratings have risen by 8 per cent.

"I attribute that in large part to the constant feedback that gives us a better understanding of what customers want."

Meanwhile, he is receiving glowing performance reviews, which have led to more important assignments and, he hopes, an eventual promotion.

"I think that knowing how to leverage social media tools like Twitter is the kind of thing employers will look for even more in the future," he says.

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