Business cards are a networking staple. They have been for ages. And they will continue to be for ages.
The question is, in which format?
With the rise of smartphones and other handheld digital devices, it's becoming an increasingly viable alternative for networkers to exchange contact data virtually - after all, that's what we already do with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. So how come the business card, in all its thick paper glory, hasn't kicked the can? In theory, isn't it the networking equivalent of sending snail mail to somebody to say, "Hi, what's up?" We're talking not simply outdated, but thoroughly antiquated. Ancient even. Prehistoric, perhaps?
In some cases, this certainly true. On the surface, we're dealing with an exchange of 2 inch by 3.5 inch paper with some ink on it. The ink displays essential contact information, and optionally a logo, slogan, and/or succinct list of products or services. All of this information can presented digitally, and is most likely available digitally and in greater detail on their website and other online locales. This piece of paper will go in a Rolodex if the receiver is old-fashioned. If they're modern, they won't have one, and it will probably go through some variation of this process: into the wallet, then onto their computer desk or in their palm while they access the internet and bookmark the website address and add the email to their contacts, then into the garbage (or, if convenient, recycling bin).
Virtual is lookin' pretty good
By the sounds of the above, then, an exchange of virtual data would streamline that process into fewer steps. Let's look at some of the major benefits of virtual data exchange:
Green: No stacks of paper-and-ink cards means saving those good old trees.
Convenient: No need to stuff your pockets with your business cards before an event, or empty stuffed pockets from others' business cards after an event. No need to copy the information onto your computer, either. No awkwardly fumbling for a card thats gotten itself stubbornly stuck in the inner lining of your pocket.
Cheaper: No ordering boxes of cards from your local printing shop means your bottom line for networking/marketing drops.
Self-updating: If you actually rely on a business card's info down the road, you may be screwed. If a contact's info changes, the card of theirs you possess certainly won't. But virtual data may, and if not, will always link access to their latest info.
What's in a ritual?
It's a convincing list. This sort of stuff has been possible for years, though. So why aren't virtual business card startups tearing up the industry? Perhaps because there are two classic sayings that are tried, tested, and true: Old habits die hard. And tradition is sacred. The ritual of exchanging business cards is still strong, primarily for these reasons:
Habit, tradition: "Could I get your card?" It's the classic line. Would you really feel normal saying anything else? "Could I get an SMS text relaying some your essential contact data?" just doesn't roll off the tongue as well.
Something physical: There is something profoundly deep about two businesspeople making the physical exchange of physical cards. It's a connection that registers on a level that an automated virtual exchange can't quite match. It's a case of the tangible triggering the intangible.
Personality: It's about the contact info first and foremost, we all know - but when there are sixteen and a half billion (give or take thirty-two trillion) ways to design your card, personalities will pop. A card can be simple or intricate, colourful or reserved, and everything in between: whatever it is, the design of your card triggers a visual impact, and this impact speaks on behalf of your company's personality and style.
As you can see, not everything is about convenience and efficiency. The business card is more than an exchange of contact info. It plants roots and leaves impression. Do you want to be remembered as a human or a data bot? Do you want to be that finely textured, mildly embossed rectangle of impression in your client's pocket, or just another pair of initials in their contact list?
What's most probable is a very gradual transition: slowly, more networkers will switch to virtual cards as software developers innovate technology to bring the best of paper business cards to the virtual realm, such as the physical exchange and visual personality. But there will definitely be sticklers of paper-and-ink who cannot be uprooted from their attachment to the networking ritual. If you're willing to dip your toes into new waters, here's a list of ways you can start experimenting with your virtual business card.
6 ways to embrace the e-card
1. SMS: Text message-based services seem a natural fit for sending some basic contact data. Unfortunately, this constricts visual impressions and text messages are easily lost and often accidentally deleted without being saved.
2. Google Profiles: Short, vanity links direct people to your SEO-optimized (for Goole search anyway) bio page. Like SMS, this has the potential to be efficient, but lacks the opportunity to be original.
3. Twitter: Exchanging Twitter usernames is simple enough (if you chose a good name). Your Twitter profile already lists some basics, and then links to a site of your choosing, likely your homepage or a major social profile page. The main problem is that of Twitter usage - while many people do, many still don't, so this can't be entirely relied on. But at least there is a verbal, social interaction with the other person during the exchange.
4. LinkedIn: There isn't actually much on this yet, but if the company developed software to virtually exchange a business card version of their LinkedIn profile (with a link to the full profile), this would be nearly perfect. LinkedIn includes everything a business card should and more, and will always be up to date. Watch for this.
5. Mobile web: Look for a growing number of mobile apps designed for easy exchange of business cards. Unfortunately, until one explodes in popularity (a la Twitter did with social media), it's not going to work very well. This concept functions best when everybody runs the same software.
6. Email: There a few apps that will send your target a email including your business card and/or other relevant info, plus a personalized note (where did you guys meet?). This is nice because they'll return home and be reminded of you in their inbox. And from there, it's easy to add your email to their contacts. Problems? These apps generally carry monthly fees, and inboxes inundated with this stuff may never get read at all - plus, you run the risk of finding yourself in the junk mail folder before you ever had a shot.
Virtual business cards are guaranteed to be one of tomorrow's technologies. But it's not yet known when this tomorrow will come.
Do you use paper or virtual business cards? How come?