2″ x 3.5″ evolution: Business cards reflect our tech

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All hail the lowly business card. For it is the most concise chronicler of the advances in communications technology.

Despite calls for its elimination as wasteful in an era of phone bumping (or, in nerd-speak, Near Field Communication wireless data exchange) and e-mail signature cutting-and-pasting, the stats remain impressive: 10 billion printed each year in the U.S. That’s 27,397,260 per day.

At the same time, it’s frequently cited that 88% of these rectangular coasters are tossed within a week of receipt. A handful, 9%, actually make it into a digital contact database.

But reasons for continuing paper cards persist, aside from practical contact information exchange (and having a handy place to scrawl a note). These include perpetuating a comfortable and accepted ritual for initiating an introduction, providing a physical reminder of meeting, and proffering another vehicle to reinforce qualities that the card-giver wants remembered – whether that’s through an eye-catching logo, clever tag line or simply quality paper stock.

Plus, an archive of business cards over time can offer another, deeper perspective. It represents a tiny time capsule of how tech affects our business lives both by what we print on them – and what we choose to eliminate.

I happen to have seven humble, historical examples.

SBLife

I had my first business cards professionally printed while I was still in junior high school for my own “speculative fiction publication” (with no phone number, since I lived at home and in those days, you had one landline phone number per house … that one’s mother might answer). Business cards had allure to me because they made one real in the working world, providing the thrill of seeing your name above a title and company and implying you were part of a team deemed official in cardboard identity.

But I got my first real business card around 1974 when, still a teen, I began to write for the monthly Santa Barbara Life tabloid. Note what’s missing: an area code. You needed an area code for long distance. And in those days, long distance phone calling was expensive and it was assumed you’d look up an area code by city name in a paper phone directory before calling. Fax? Just gaining traction. Email? Talk to the Jetsons.

KING1

In 1982, even at Seattle’s first all-news radio station, little had changed in the 2” x 3.5” world. Except now an area code more routinely was attached to the phone number, indicating the opportunity to connect across seven-digit boundaries, potentially at less expense than before. I covered technology as well as general anchor/reporter duties, but you couldn’t tell that from how you were able to reach me.

ADPA1

In 1987, the then-independent Apple Programmers and Developers Association was based in Renton. (Really. As part of the Apple user group, A.P.P.L.E. Co-op.) What we’d consider modern, modem-propelled email was in its infancy: Apple had its internal AppleLink system, and was working with Quantum Computer Services to create AppleLink Personal Edition. AppleLink was considered internal enough that my ID was not included on the official external-facing business card. AppleLink Personal Edition? It would go on to become America Online, or AOL.

Egghead2

By 1992, all that had changed. The intervening five years had seen AOL launch as a consumer service and business-oriented e-mail competitors like text-only MCI Mail became important. Even so, I had to convince the company to put the email address on the card when I joined Egghead four years earlier; a fax number was still more common.

A few months later I left Egghead to become an independent consultant, and decided to put all my email addresses on a single card – because the systems could not send to each other, and I never knew which email system my clients might have. It wasn’t unusual to see multiple, sometimes indecipherable, e-mail addresses on business cards. Mine were MCI Mail (FCatalano), AppleLink (Catalano.F), and CompuServe (76004,2222). I even had an early one for AOL, but ran out of card real estate to list it.

McGrawHill1

In 1995, the concept of a functional Internet email address for normal people was in place: someone from AOL could email someone at, say, CompuServe or an academic institution by using his or her e-mail service’s “Internet gateway.” It was awkward, but it worked. For text. And if you didn’t care how the formatting looked.

iCopyright

The dot-com boom was in full bloom by 1999. Want to be taken seriously on the World Wide Web? Get your own domain, ideally a .com, and trumpet it in even your corporate identity. Contact emails were expected. And don’t foist an “@aol.com” on anyone anymore in a work setting if you wanted to be taken seriously as one of the digerati. That was so, well, last year. Almost literally.

IntrinsicStrategy

By 2008, dot-com boom had turned to bust, and the contact-info-first mission of the business card had dramatically evolved – all due to how digital devices and media had subtly interwoven themselves into our daily lives.

At one extreme, web site and e-mail addresses could fully replace mailing addresses (go visit the site for physical location info), fax numbers were passé (scan and email, please), and fewer phone numbers would suffice (thank you, landline cutting or Google Voice intelligent routing). In my case, only the city name survived as an indicator of physical location – and then, just to provide a hint of time zone if someone were to attempt a voice call.

Looking back, my collection of business cards have become a story book, neatly documenting how communication lives have changed as technological addition (area code, fax, proprietary email, web URL) gave way to subtraction (address, fax, many numbers).

So, as the credit card ad would say, what’s in your wallet? Likely it’s not merely a business card. It’s also a reminder of how far we’ve come in connecting with each other, in the span of a single working life.

Frank Catalano (@FrankCatalano) is an independent strategist, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose regular GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech (see the column archive). He knows business cards actually date back to 15th century China when they were known as “visiting cards,” and used by guests to announce their presence in a home, but none of his own survive from that era.

  • http://www.heinzmarketing.com Matt Heinz

    Great piece Frank!

    I’m hearing more and more people express pride over the fact that they no longer carry business cards, and consider the rest of us archaic for doing so. That feels a little short-sighted to me.

    Would the world be more efficient if business cards no longer existed? I doubt it. I still consider business cards an important part of my networking and follow-up process.

    As a business card recipient, that little piece of thin cardboard is a reminder that I met you, a reminder to follow-up, and the fastest way possible to – in the moment when we’ve met, wherever that context may be – get your contact information for future follow-up. Sure, it might be nicer to just “bump” your iPhones and transfer the contact information. But then it’s too easy to forget to follow-up, forget that article I promised to send to you, etc.

    In almost every context I can think of where I’ve met a new person, the last thing I want to do at that point is bury my nose in my laptop or smartphone and type someone’s complete contact information, plus any next steps or to-do’s based on that conversation. I can take care of that later, just grab a card and continue focusing on the individual, not their digits.

    As a business card distributor, most of the world still asks for them. Yes, at technology events they might be waning in volume & impact. A little. But most of the rest of the world wants a card. If you don’t have one to give them, you’re missing out on any number of opportunities to network, get business or otherwise share mutually-beneficial information with that person – both now and down the road.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Matt, you nicely reinforce a key point: a physical business card is a reminder. It’s not just contact info, it’s a marketing piece. And marketers know repeated impressions, through different vehicles, help people remember. So having a physical reminder of a verbal introduction really can help, no matter what digital technology also allows.

      • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

        Agreed. When I keep business cards, it’s entirely to remind myself that I might want to contact that person. But it’s funny: When I want to contact them I very rarely go find that business card again. I go online and find their email address another way, because it’s easier than fishing through whatever pocket I stuffed it in. Love this column, Frank. Great stuff.

        • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

          I find I flip through business cards after an event to remind myself of who I met. Like you, Monica, I rarely use them again, but that revisiting really helps recall.

  • nikmay

    Great article..Traditional business card has it own irreplaceable value. At the same time if we embrace new technologies like FlashBind (lets you share business card instantly at a click of button), Cardmunch to share electronic business cards, we get the best of both world!

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Agreed. It’s not simply “either/or,” it can be “and.” And there are several good tools on the digital side.

  • http://ClaussConcept.com Jason Gerard Clauss

    How many people in 2008 knew what “@FrankCatalano:disqus ” meant?

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Good point; that Twitter handle addition was one I made and it was considered cutting-edge at the time. Now, it’s typical among those in tech.

  • http://www.idsource.com/ Corey Savage

    This is a great way to demonstrate all that’s changed through the years. Business cards are still being used, but it’s important to think outside the box when creating them. The boring ones will get tossed while the creative ones might get a second look.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Creative, within limits. Remember those business card shaped mini-CDs? Expensive, and jammed many CD-ROM drives. Odd-sized business cards also are awkward and tend to get tossed quickly. So cards should be memorable, but not annoying. (I tend to go starkly simple on good card stock, which is memorable in a retro way.)

  • Taylor Soper

    Frank, somewhat inspired by this column, I installed an Android app called CamCard. I can just take pictures of business cards and it automatically saves all the info within seconds to the cloud. Awesome.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Taylor, would love to hear how well it works. I’m about to do the same with Evernote, which touts business card capture as a business-friendly feature. I have too many cards collected that I want to keep, hate typing in contact info, and CardScan’s cloud service went belly up last year. So it’s time for something new.