Standard business processes are rapidly changing, in many ways for the better. The newest technology offers convenience and an enhanced workflow that is reshaping business and altering the communications we need. Witness: When we meet a potential client or partner, we typically add them to our phones and exchange emails and social media accounts.
So, given all these enhanced communications of the 21st century, I have to wonder: Do we still need business cards? Is this long-standing tradition of business slowly fading away?
I would argue "yes." Business cards have forever been a necessity for a professional, serving as a rite of passage for a businessman's or woman's entry into the marketplace, and a professional takeaway impression. Whole business lectures out there deal with how to develop the best impression with your business cards, and use business cards as a creative way to stand out in the market. As a creative professional myself, I've enjoyed developing my own colorful and unique card to hand out to business prospects.
Nonetheless, I recently found boxes of unused business cards and was surprised by the sheer size of the leftovers. The issue wasn't that I didn’t want to use my cards; it was that there were fewer opportunities to hand them out. This issue became even more obvious when I found an even larger collection of third-party cards from networking events.
Is there a purpose for business cards in modern business? How are business cards used today, if at all?
1. Useless business meeting formality
Business meetings are probably one of the silliest uses for business cards today. Most of my card collection comes from existing clients and colleagues at in-person business meetings. A traditional formality, business cards get passed along the table at the beginning of your first in- person meeting with a contact.
To assess the value in this exchange, consider that a card typically includes an individual's email, phone, address and website. To book an in-person meeting with a client, so I already need to know his or heremail or phone. And if I schedule by phone, I typically follow-up via email to confirm or send a calendar invite. So, I already have both the email and phone number for my contact.
Next, to meet my client, I obviously need an address; and our meeting will be doomed for failure if I don't have the client's website URL. So, the business card provides me no value above and beyond what I have already obtained on the Internet or through prior conversations.
If you are a small startup trying to rub elbows with the elite, then, investing in business cards just to look prepared at meetings could be worth it. Otherwise, you would be safe forgoing the formality and saving the paper.
2. The forgetful networker
When I first started as a young entrepreneur, I would grab a pile of cards before every new event. The success quotient for an evening would be judged by the stack of new cards I'd acquired or the few I had left of my own.
Today, however, I can go to an event with fewer than a handful and come out with the same amount. This is not a result of poor networking, but rather, the uselessness of exchanging cards.
Truthfully, nine out of 10 people I speak to at events don't have cards. I used to wonder: Why go to a networking event without any cards? The very nature and point of such events was to exchange information with new contacts.
Then the answer became clear when I overheard a colleague tell a some students that they could follow up with him by just remembering his email via his name @ his company.com.
In this vein, contact information for the executives you want to reach is readily available, typically via a standard email format. It takes only a few guess to find the correct address. So, if you are trying to connect with a busy executive or thought leader, use those few minutes you have to grab his or her attention. Converse instead of occupying this person's time with trivial contact details.
3. Lost in the pile
As a motivational speaker and young entrepreneur, I have seen both sides of networking. As a speaker, I've transitioned from eager networker to someone others seek to connect to. By the end of an engagement, I will have shaken many hands and filled my purse with cards attendees have pushed my way.
Those who decide to be creative and change up their card design with a funky shape, embellishments and color have a higher likelihood of catching my attention. The majority of cards, however, blur together into one big pile of white paper.
If a card does catches my attention, however, or if I see a direct correlation with my own work, I may look up the individual. But, for the most part, the networking stops here. The contacts who get past this point are those who follow-up after a meaningful conversation.
Follow-up is where keen young professionals can really step up. Guessing what someone's email is isn’t the only option for connecting with a desired contact. LinkedIn and other social media are great resources; you can use these platforms to remind the person of your conversations and propose a reason why you should connect further.
The takeaway is that business cards should only be a supplement to networking. Even if you opt-in for a creative card, it will not provide much of a return unless you take the initiative to follow-up with the contact and engage with him or her beyond your contact details.
4. Industry red flags
As a founder of several startups in different industries, I interact with diverse influencers. Business cards seem to fit better with some industries more than others. In the startup world, business cards seem to be more readily exchanged; in media and entertainment circles, cards are non-existent.
During my initial networking days in Los Angeles, I originally thought it was a cultural shift -- that business cards were just more prominent for businesses in Canada, my home nation and current base. I quickly learned from influencers that that is more an industry mentality. A well-known music producer said it best: “I don’t need a card. If you are important, I should already know of you or can find you.” In that context, business cards red-flag you as a novice, perhaps one who is desperate and too eager.
An industry, like the entertainment sector, which operates through inner circles poses an interesting challenge for entrepreneurs trying to jumpstart their careers: How do you stand out and share your details with an influencer if you can give them a card?
In this case, your digital footprint becomes a priority. The keywords in the quote above a young professional should focus on is “or can find you." Your online and social presence becomes your online resource as a business card to sell yourself and compel your contacts to follow up. My recommendation? Forgo business cards and invest that money instead into a high-quality website. Thatresource will speak volumes, compared to a piece of cardstock.
5. CASL records
The strongest reason to still employ the idea of business cards will resonate with Canadian entrepreneurs. Due to the rigorous marketing regulations of CASL (the Canadian Anti-Spam Law), business cards can be your saving grace. According to CASL, a business card can serve as proof for consent and allow you to market to your contacts. To avoid the ridiculous, if not crippling, fines attached to inadvertently violating one of the many restrictions of CASL, collecting business cards in order to store them as records of consent is worth the investment.
Overall, the purpose of business cards shifts within industries and situations. To understand if business cards are worth it for you, consider the goal behind using them. Cards are not completely obsolete, but there are certainly other resources available now for professionals to build their image and network with new contacts.
Certainly, business cards can still provide you with value, but you likely don’t need to stock up on thousands of them as you traditionally would have in past years, thanks to modern media.