Strategy

Twilight of the business card

The day is coming when swapping contact details won't require bits of paper. What took so long?

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The South by Southwest festival, the annual gathering of the creative and technology elite in Austin, Texas, seemed divided into two camps this year: those who had business cards ready to exchange, and those who were puzzled to see those bits of paper still around. After all, why would you need a business card when you can just carry a person’s contact information on your smartphone?

When the event ended, the debate continued online, with many denouncing and others hailing the humble business card. One blogger who had attended the conference pronounced printed cards “a poor way to get into someone’s social graph and a great way to wind up as clumpy dryer lint.” Suzy Jackson, a Harvard Business Review staffer, piped in with the observation that “in the start-up circles I’ve come across, the business card is the badge of the outsider.”

The tech savvy are increasingly turning to digital solutions, a number of which have recently come on the market. For example, Bump, one of the most popular apps of the moment, allows users to share contact info, pictures and other files by literally bumping their iPhones or Android phones together. In Europe, people are experimenting with Pokens—small, personalized USB sticks through which they can exchange contact and social-network details by touching their devices together. Another app generating buzz is Hashable, a service that lets users post, chart and share the connections they make with others. It can also be used to make introductions remotely, and updates a “relationship book” with each new person tagged.

For those not willing to en­tirely foresake business cards, there are hybrid options such as EverNote, a popular program that supports paper cards and web Rolodexes by creating text files from digital pictures of cards. Imprinting cards with square quick-response bar codes (like the kind you can find on plane boarding passes) is another solution growing in popularity in North America. Card recipients can scan the code by taking a picture of it with a smartphone, and then are directed to the owner’s contact details or website.

Still, no matter how old-school non-digital business cards may seem, they remain staples of most people’s work life. And to inspire new contacts to accept and retain them, companies are under increasing pressure to be creative—often in ways that reinforce their expertise. For example, Lego employees give out personalized Lego men imprinted with their contact info. Some furniture companies offer wooden cards, and one security consulting firm has a business card that can be disassembled to form a lock-picking kit.

Jason Pytlarz discovered the power of innovative cards when he sought a new branding scheme for Cement Solutions, his Calgary oilfield waste-management company. He recognized that social media aren’t the most useful tools when dealing with 50- or 60-year-old oilpatch executives. So he commissioned a design company to create business cards out of small, 14-gauge stainless steel pieces. A cut-out in the shape of the company’s cog logo doubles as a bottle opener. “You’re not going to see sales out of a standard business card alone,” says Pytlarz, who got requests for the card/opener from as far away as Italy. “The bottle opener is going to sit on people’s desk, they’re going to play with it, and they’re going to think about you.”

Jim Gott, who designed the Cement Solutions opener, be­li­eves it’s the conservative companies least likely to try new designs or materials that could benefit the most from deviating from the standard mould in business cards. Conversely, in fields like media or technology, cards have long been a way for companies to show off their originality, making it hard to stand out. “So much has already been done,” says Gott.

Allen Stern, founder of Austin-based CloudContacts, a company that scans, transcribes and connects business cards on social networks and through e-mail, doesn’t expect paper business cards to disappear any time soon. “I could see them, maybe in another 15 years, going the way of the cheque,” he says, but adds, “Fifteen years ago, people said that no one would write cheques in the future. And yet, we still do.” He does, however, report that the content of business cards is changing rapidly. Twitter names are featured more often, and fax numbers are disappearing.

But while staying on top of business trends is important, so is knowing your audience. And the paper business card still has many adherents. As one respondent to Jackson’s blog pointed out, “Handing someone a piece of card doesn’t need an Internet connection, doesn’t require an app [and] you can scribble on the back of it.”