Exchanging business cards is a tradition that goes back in excess of 400 years. It began in 17th century Europe where they were used to announce the impending arrival of aristocratic or prosperous people. By the mid-17th century they became a staple of the elite. These cards were shaped and sized similar to playing cards; over time, these evolved to become engraved with gold and with varying typefaces.
By the 19th century, business cards were a must-have by anyone of note in the middle class circles of the times. They were also referred to as “social cards”, where the cards were placed in card trays at the door as a matter of etiquette. The card, which was then delivered to the lady of the household who examine it, would create the first impression of a person.
By and large, business cards were limited to households with servants, or at least, presented to households with servants who could then deliver the card to the lady of the house.
The industrial revolution changed the landscape of business cards usage. It became essential to exchange contact information, and card exchange gradually became a less formal affair, much to the chagrin of the upper class no doubt. You could say in the modern day, business cards are a commodity. I have a vast collection of business cards collected over almost 20 years in the workforce.The question to explore is, are business cards effective in today’s mobile world?
Let’s go back to the exchange of business cards, and I am referring to post industrial revolution rather than the fancy aristocratic hobnobbing. In the purest essence, it is an introduction of self and an exchange of key information to facilitate contact between two parties.
Fast forward to today, there are a myriad of ways to exchange information. So often I have seen the “What’s your number? I will prank call you now so you can have mine, too,” situation. That certainly happens a lot, just check out the parents in the playground with their respective kids playing. Or the alternatives – What’s your email address? I will add you on Facebook now – which can happen anywhere thanks to mobile phones.
To me, in a casual situation such as parents exchanging contacts to facilitate a play date, there is nothing wrong with the above scenarios. As a professional in the workplace, though, I cringe at the thought of replicating that sort of familiarity. Why?
Why are you handing your business card over in the first place? It forms part of the intricacies of introducing yourself to a stranger, a person perhaps you want to get to know better – to facilitate a business transaction, or a prospective employer, or to create professional networks. Along with your own presentation, it is part of your toolkit to make yourself stand out and be remembered, instead of being immediately lost in a blur of random heads.
A business card is a piece of your introduction that can be left behind. It still holds true that it forms part of the first impression of a person. If you are a creative person with the world’s most plain business card, the message you are sending is that you are not very good at what you advertise yourself for. Conversely you would generally not dress as a slob, no matter how eye catching the business card is, the negative first impression sticks. There are of course exceptions to that, but for the rest of us plebes, the business card is a ticket for an undrawn lottery.
Does technology negate the need for business cards? My thoughts are no, absolutely not. But that does not exclude technology to be used in a business card. QR codes, NFC, USB drives can all make you be different when you hand over that little identifier. Is it more effective to have have a gadgety business card? That would depend on what business sector you are in.
At the end of the day, I still have that stash collected over almost two decades of work and networking. Having the physical cards gives me a sense of the timeline of my career, and often the same names come up in different companies and it is always handy to be able to jot one’s memory by flipping through a deck of cards.