A couple of weeks ago an article in Bloomberg Businessweek asked how business cards survive in the 'Age of LinkedIn'. The article's author, Roger Bennett, quoted Mo Koyfman of Spark Capital describing business cards as "so horse-and-carriage". He went on to describe the range of technological innovation designed to commit physical business cards to the annals of history, including 'Bumping' smart phones, applications that share virtual cards and LinkedIn itself.
Attempts to replace the humble business card in its instantly recognisable format predate smartphone technology and, indeed, the rise of social networking. A few years ago CD-Rom cards were going to be 'the next big thing' in networking. You could offer people not just a business card but digital information on your company and its products and services that people could access on their computer as soon as they got back to the office.
I've also seen business cards in all shapes and sizes, as well as different textures. Anything to make them stand out from the pack.
All of these attempts to replace business cards, or to simply do something different, miss the key point. As does Bennett's article.
In exploring why business cards have resisted such innovations, Bennett looks at the ease of the lack of technology, the fact that not everyone has a compatible device and even the enjoyment of the act of exchanging cards. Bennett quotes one expert as saying, "The act of theater surrounding the exchange of a business card allows for flirtation, self-expression, and recognition. Bumping may be fun, but in comparison to analog business card exchange it's the difference between having sex and merely exchanging bodily fluids."
Interesting analogy aside, some of the points made are valid. However there's a simple fact that has commonly been overlooked about why business cards work and why their effectiveness lies in their simplicity.
When I exchange business cards with someone it will often follow a brief conversation in which we have found some areas of mutual interest and, perhaps, agreed some areas in which one of us will follow up with the other. The act of exchanging cards not only acts as a commitment to follow up as agreed, it also acts as a reminder.
I may well be at a networking event, exhibition or conference where I am going to speak to many people. Even if I am in a 1-2-1 meeting, it may be just one of many before I am next at my desk. The physical business cards I have collected, possibly with notes I have been able to quickly scribble on the back, act as a reminder of who I have met , what we have discussed and to what I have committed.
I often find that I'll return to my desk the day after an event and be able to recall people and conversations from the night before by looking at their business card. If we had 'bumped' phones to exchange data, their details would be lost in my address book and I might forget all about our conversation.
If you only input people's data into your address book after meeting them briefly, how many of them would you remember if you then saw their name one month later? And how many of us will genuinely sit down and type notes and reminders into our smart phones either at the time or immediately after an event?
As I write this, I have a business card sat next to my computer to remind me to follow up on a conversation I had earlier this morning. For me they act as the perfect physical prompt. Move them completely into a virtual existence and that benefit would be completely lost.
This is the same reason that CD-Rom cards were destined to fail (along with the rise of more efficient technologies). You couldn't write reminders on them and you only wanted the card for the contact details. Who wants to access a CD-Rom to find someone's phone number or email address?
There is a role for technology that helps us to share personal information and connect, but it can't replace the business card as a simple tool that works for everyone. Co-founder of CardMunch, Sid Viswanathan, says in Bennett's article, "The business card remains pervasive. Our goal is not to kill it but to thoughtfully replace it".
Perhaps instead, they should accept that business cards are here to stay and look to complement them, not replace them.