It's amazing when you think of it. The march of technology over the past two decades has decimated the music and publishing industries, left Tower Records, Borders and other national chains to history's dustbin, and created an environment in which nearly all of our correspondence is digital, leaving the postal service struggling. Yet miraculously, the simple 3.5" x 2" rectangular paper business card continues to flourish.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. I remember my first Palm from 2002, then nearly synonymous with "personal digital assistant," which we used to carry along with our mobile phones in the pre-smartphone era. Then the newest model introduced technology to let you "beam" your business card to another Palm user. This was in the pre-wireless data days for consumer devices (the first Blackberry wasn't unveiled until 2002) so you had to be within four feet of the other person for the infrared beam to connect. Still, folks were already predicting the demise of the paper business card was not far away.
As email proliferated, vCards were exchanged. Technology continued to race ahead with the first smartphones and the launch of the iPhone in 2007. Then in 2009 along came the electronic transfer app Bump, with more than 125 million downloads, which got a lot of folks ready to load up the nail guns and seal the business card coffin for good. While it seemed that "bumping" might endure longer than "beaming," Bump shut down early in 2014.
Amazingly enough, standard old paper business cards continue to thrive. And not just at staid old law firms and accounting offices. I've got a collection of business cards from clients of our agency at companies like Amazon, Facebook and Spotify.
There's not much we're using for business communications these days that's been around since Civil War days (you can check out Abraham Lincoln's business card from his pre-presidential law practice here.) So what accounts for their longevity?
I'd suggest there are three big reasons people still love handing out business cards. First, very few of us produce anything tangible in our work these days. We're selling financial instruments, creative ideas, and lots of services. It's not like Antonio Stradivari with his namesake violins centuries ago. Yes, we've got our websites and our PowerPoint presentations, but there's not a lot to hold in your hands. So that's why a business card has actually become more important. You can hold it, feel it, and from the design, paper selection, and colors of the ink, probably draw a number of first impressions about the person who gave it to you.
More importantly, the business card is a conversation starter. It takes time to exchange business cards: you need to see if there's one in your wallet (without anything written on the back) or maybe you remembered to put them in your bag before you left the office? The receiver then has to take the card and put that somewhere, all the while talking about your respective businesses or other points of convergence between you.
Contrast that with the typical email exchange of data which usually spurs the recipient to move as quickly as possible to process that, either deleting it or--if they're really organized--filing it electronically somewhere they might retrieve it. Yes it's still great to have the information in your digital files, but how much more effective to do that with an exchange of emails following up on your physical card exchange where you can reference something you actually discussed in person.
Lastly, the business card provides a palpable manifestation of one's hard work and success. A promotion tastes much sweeter when you can hold it in your hands. People enjoy handing out cards with their latest title on it in ways that ethereal digitals signatures can't quite match.
The ritual of exchanging business cards has a long history dating back to 15th century China. Six hundred years later, they still serve much the same purpose. When I go to a business lunch or industry dinner, I always try to load up my pocket with business cards. When I get back to my desk, I stick the ones I received in a pile next to my 21st century wireless keyboard to remember to send follow-up emails to the people I want to remember--or to remember me.
Think business cards are a thing of the past? Don't give up that increasingly rare chance for person-to-person interaction. And don't worry about coming up with something to say: you can always reflect on how amazing it is we're still handing one another small pieces of paper in 2014.