Pundits have been calling for the death of the business card for years now. Writing in The Globe and Mail in 2007, for example, Amy Verner wrote that the growing number of Blackberry users (this was pre-iPhone and Android) presaged the end of the traditional business card. As more people began to carry smartphones, predicted Verner, more people would begin to ditch paper cards in favor of swapping digits.
Of course, reports of the business card's demise have been exaggerated. At South by Southwest this year, as at any conference I have attended over the past four years, I collected a stack of business cards that nearly tore the seams from my wallet. Clearly, for most people, the business card is still the networking tool du jour.
Yet, even if the business card hasn't died, perhaps it should. I've collected thousands of business cards from the people I've met over the years, and most of them just sit on my desk in a pile until I go to a new conference and get a fresh batch -- then I toss the old ones in the recycle bin. Once I've emailed or called a new contact, I rarely look at those cards again, so what's the point?
For some people, a business card is a statement, a way to make an impression and be remembered -- and for those whose business is rooted in visual design or being top of mind, investing in a memorable and unique business card has its advantages. But for most of us, exchanging business cards is just a ritual, a social formality that we've come to accept as a necessary part of the networking process. Indeed, in that same Globe and Mail article, Peter Post, the director of the Emily Post Institute, the go-to etiquette institute, told Verner, "The card is universal. There's this ritual that would be a shame to lose because we could push a button and electronically transmit the information."
Though the paper business card is alive and kicking, the phenomenal growth of the the smartphone market means that virtual card alternatives are finally viable. While it may not have the visual or tactile impact of a well-designed physical business card, the convenience offered by going virtual is causing some people to switch (or at least start relying less on paper cards).
Virtual business cards offer a number of advantages over their paper counterparts: they're cheaper (often free), they take up less room in your pocket, you can't run out of them, they automatically update, and perhaps most importantly, they can instantly hook into your social graph. What makes more sense given today's electronic message-centric business communication landscape: sorting through a pile of paper business cards to find someone's phones number, or clicking on an email address link on a mobile profile? Manually typing an email address into Gmail or following a new contact on LinkedIn?
"If I'm connected to someone on LinkedIn, I'll always have a way of finding them," events manager Dave Stevens told Forbes earlier this year. "If you rely on a business card and the person moves on, you'll get nothing but a bounced e-mail."
There are many ways to share virtual business cards, but one method that is gaining a lot of traction is mobile application Bump, which is available on the iPhone or Android (BlackBerry is forthcoming). The app allows people to automatically share business information from phone-to-phone based on proximity; meet a new contact and simply "bump" your phones together to share details. One of the reasons Bump is so attractive is that it emulates the ritual exchange of business cards by including a physical aspect to the information swap, but it still nixes those clumsy scraps of paper and keeps information in a highly usable, interactive digital format.
Still, though virtual business card use is on the rise, it's not quite time for the sun to set on the trusty printed card. The main reason comes back to aesthetics. "Some of the emerging virtual business card ideas are great, but they universally lack one critical ingredient: personality. Form is still just as important as function these days. A virtual business card is just data," said Richard Moross, CEO of Moo.com, in Fortune magazine.
Until virtual business cards carry the same visual impact as their paper counterparts, we'll have to put up with the ritual of exchanging cards. For many people, however, going virtual is finally a realistic alternative, which is why your next business card may be made of pixels and bits rather than ink and paper.
Image courtesy of iStockphoto, YanC