Had you been a member of the upper class during the 1800s, you would have had a calling card. Elaborately ornamented and inked with fine calligraphy, you would have placed it on a silver platter held by the servant of the person you were visiting to let them know you had arrived. The practice of calling cards eventually died, of course, and it’s a wonder the modern-day equivalent has yet to meet the same fate.
Just in the past few days, I’ve received half a dozen business cards, all of them taken with a smile and a contrived level of interest, each of them promptly filed in the bin shortly afterwards.
According to StatisticBrain, there are more than 10 billion business cards printed every year (and that’s just in the US), 88 per cent of which are chucked out within a week. And, earlier this year, an Australian survey found nine in ten SME owners hand them out regularly, with two thirds finding them useful. That survey, though, was conducted by (gasp!) a business card company, so you’ve got to reflect on those numbers with at least one eyebrow raised.
Still, there’s no denying business cards are more popular than unpopular. But in a world of websites and blogs and smartphones and LinkedIn, why are they still in use? In a world where contact details are easily located in an email signature, why do we continue handing out these pieces of cardboard as though they still matter?
Maybe because, in some ways, they still do matter. Some people see the business card as an extension of their personal brand. Its initial purpose of passing on contact details has now become an inconsequential sideshow to the making of a timely commercial statement. The objective is not to be noticed but to be remembered via the design and supply of a miniature billboard.
It’s an opportunity for people to stamp – sometimes literally – who they are and what they stand for in an ostentatious grab for attention. What they don’t realise, what they probably haven’t seen, is how much they occasionally resemble this creepy scene from American Psycho in which men sitting in a boardroom compete for who has the most impressive paper-based appendage.
The philosophy that links business cards and personal branding would be more believable if it were true that buyers make decisions based on an initial exchange of cards, but I suspect there are other more important factors to be prioritised in a business deal. For instance: quality, price, speed, reputation, that kind of thing.
The “business cards are still relevant” argument would carry more weight if their recipients not only kept them but also referred to them when needed. But, really, does that happen often enough to justify their continued use when there are easier ways to find the information you require?
It’s probably more the case that business cards are now merely a habitual way of doing business. They’re simply a greeting, much like a handshake. A symbolic gesture. They don’t serve a purpose as much as they give people something to do – a way of breaking the ice in an otherwise formal encounter.
It’s only a matter of time before they go the way of the chalkboard and the cassette tape. In the meantime, I guess there is one thing they’re still good for: you can place them in the bowl to win prizes at business functions. (And then forever receive spam and invitations for coffee catch-ups.)
But, look, if you insist you have to have one, it might a good idea to take advice from this guy. He seems to know what he’s talking about – or, hey, maybe not.
Do you use business cards? Are they still relevant?
Follow James Adonis on Twitter @jamesadonis