Some local companies are chipping away at the stigma of social media and replacing it with a new message: This Internet phenomenon could have worthwhile applications for the business world.

Just ask Tyler Jolley, who can be found dashing to his computer or cell phone multiple times a day to update his Twitter, MySpace and Facebook accounts. The manager at PFI Western's wine store samples new wines daily, and the social media sites have allowed him to update customers on the store's inventory and offer tasting reviews.

"My really dedicated customers can have it sent to their phone, just like a text message," Jolley said. "I can send what wine I have open, and they'll see that and say, 'I want to stop by there when I get off work to try that out or pick up a few bottles.'"

Jolley had 430 Twitter followers as of May 13 - a substantial collection that includes wine enthusiasts stretching as far as Australia. He plans to begin spreading the word about his online identity, possibly by adding his account usernames to his business card.

Social media may have started as a craze left to the younger generation to use for personal reasons, but it is working its way into the marketing and communication strategies at a growing number of businesses.

One tool, many uses

Springfield public relations firm 2Balance owner Sheri Hawkins began encouraging clients to utilize social media about three years ago, although she acknowledges the trend only recently has been popularized. While the specific uses may differ, she said nearly every company can find value in the cacophony of online tools.

"(Companies) are so far detached from their consumers," Hawkins said. "This has opened up a lot more honesty between the consumer and the brand."

Some businesses focus social media efforts on improving customer service by responding to online comments about their products. Others simply educate consumers about services or push promotions.

"One of our food clients had a new milkshake product, and we got them to send out tweets that they were giving free milkshakes away across the country," Hawkins said. "The response was overwhelming. And it wasn't the coupon-clippers that went - it was a whole different segment that responded."

Butler, Rosenbury & Partners Business Development Manager Mary Guccione hopped on the social media train earlier this year to leverage business for the architecture and engineering firm. She created accounts on LinkedIn, Facebook and, initially, Twitter, but later decided it wasn't applicable to her company. BRP's Facebook page isn't complete yet, but already Guccione has scored an opportunity.

"I used to work with a gentleman, and he found me on Facebook," Guccione said. "Come to find out, he is actually in a position now where he could bring leads to me. ... It could be huge."

Guccione said the time commitment to keep up with social media has been minimal, but she continues to investigate as time permits. In addition to hunting for leads and branding BRP, she uses her accounts to drive traffic to the company's Web site and new blog -, written by seven staff members - and intends to start posting job openings.

Matt Morrow, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Greater Springfield, takes a more internal approach. He is especially fond of Twitter - his staff calls him "CET" for "Chief Executive Twit" - and uses the tool to stay connected with HBA members, some of whom have joined the site. Morrow has 80 followers and uses Twitter to send updates on legislative issues, information on the housing market and new contenton HBA's Web site and 16 blogs, including one maintained by the current board president,

He said the trade association's networking opportunities are now beyond face-to-face meetings.

"All of those are still good and relevant," Morrow said, "but in 2009, there are networking opportunities that happen in a virtual sense."

Morrow said the HBA is toying with the idea of presenting how-to seminars for its members who are curious about social media but don't know where to start.

A downside?

Consultant Hawkins said some companies are apprehensive about the potential liability that could come along with the freedom to post anything and everything.

"If all the employees are on Twitter, there's too much liability out there," she said of some executives' opinions, adding that others worry that sensitive information or "trade secrets" could be made public.

Hawkins recommends companies state in their handbooks that confidentiality rules dictating what employees can say about the business in public also apply to social media.

Another concern Hawkins hears is the responsibility in managing a social media presence and the time it requires - for something that likely doesn't bring in direct revenue.

Butler, Rosenbury & Partners' Guccione believes benefits will come in other ways.

"In my mind, that's old-school thinking, and it's almost damaging in a way," she said. "You are branding, you are building your name and you're doing top-of-mind awareness. You just have to believe that everything you're doing ... is creating a chatter. It's keeping your name out there."