Business cards thrive in a digital age

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 2010; 9:44 PM

Paper is in peril. Hardcover book sales, down; e-book sales, soaring. Magazine and newspaper circulation are in decline. When was the last time you let your fingers do the walking in the Yellow Pages?

But one paper tool is thriving. It is 3.5 inches long and 2 inches tall. Its use dates to Victorian times, when respectable people presented themselves with a formal flourish and a simple calling card.

The digital revolution has swept away many tree-based products, but the lowly business card, against all odds, is thriving.

Staples, the office supply chain, reports with some surprise that demand for business cards has surged, with double-digit growth over the past three years. Vistaprint, a large online printing company, sells more business cards than almost any other product. Office Depot also reports growing sales.

"There is something incredibly genius about the business card performing a single function very well," said Ted Striphas, author of "The Late Age of Print" and a communications professor at Indiana University. "It works right every time."

Nearly every week brings a new app designed to relegate those little rectangles of heavy-stock paper to the shredder. Bump, for example, is an iPhone app that lets users touch their phones to each other to exchange contact information. Facebook and LinkedIn help people catalogue their contacts. But something about business cards feels more intimate and immediate.

Creators of alternatives to business cards "are trying to solve a problem that nobody wants solved," said Peter Corbett, the 30-year-old chief executive of iStrategyLabs, a D.C. digital marketing firm.

Corbett, whose iPhone is essentially an appendage to his body, is an unlikely defender of such antiquated technology, but young tech executives are hardly the only new group of users to be won over by a card that fits neatly in your wallet. Smartphone-toting moms use business cards to arrange play dates. Singles hand them out at bars. In these hard times, the jobless often have cards even if they don't have a business address.

Other paper products are being displaced because the digital version appears to be better. Print newspapers can seem old compared with the instant offerings online. Kindles and iPads let people tote around thousands of books. Google is faster, smarter, and more complete than the Yellow Pages.

Business cards, however, are as speedy as their digital competitors - hand over a card and your new acquaintance knows who you are and how to contact you - but they also add something more. "Even today, people still love seeing their name in print," said Rob Schlacter, vice president of quality and business services for Staples.

There's something more nuanced to the appeal of the card, though. When people exchange business cards, they transfer more than just contact data. They transfer impressions and stories that leave mental imprints.

Corbett's business card is matte black, so it's silky and no one can write on it. When he hands one over, the recipient often says, "Hey, I can't write on this." That gives Corbett a chance to tell a story about how when he was working in Japan, it was considered rude to write on business cards.

"A client gets to know a little more about me," he said. "You are branding yourself. And I think a lot of people today are also really visual. I might not remember a person's name right away, but I'll remember, oh. . ., their card had a green tree and a blue background. Then I can sort through my cards, find the one with the green tree, and call them up. That doesn't happen with an app."

Bump offers a new form of social interaction - actually touching your phone to someone else's. But the way Bump is used indicates that it is losing out to cards, at least in the business world. Although 20 million people have downloaded Bump, a spokeswoman for the company says traffic on the app dips during midweek and surges on weekends, suggesting that most use is for non-business purposes.

"We haven't found anybody solely using this in a business setting," said Sadie Bascom, whose title is Bump Evangelist, though the company doesn't use business cards.

The irony of the card's survival is that it has been made possible by technology. Many businesspeople who still value exchanging cards use small desktop devices such as CardScan to scan business card details into their computer's contacts file. There are even smartphone apps that scan cards and extract information.

"I am not the enemy of the business card," said Patrick Questembert, developer of ScanBizCards for the iPhone. "These things will be around a long time."

Advances in digital printing have made it simple and cheap to print professional- looking cards. Vistaprint offers free business cards in exchange for putting an ad on the rear. Megan Tracy Benson, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Silver Spring with her two young children, took the offer, handing out cards to fellow moms at the playground.

"I was always just writing on the backs of scraps of paper and losing them, so I thought, 'I had one when I was working - I'll just get some business cards,' " Benson said. "It's very 19th-century, but I still enjoy using them. They come in handy," such as when she's out to lunch and drops her card into fishbowls of business cards in an effort to win a free sandwich. (Hey, kids aren't cheap.)

Business card makers report an increase in orders from workers who have lost their jobs or worry they could be displaced.

Martine Jean is a financial adviser for Morgan Stanley. But, as she says, "These days, you never know what can happen." Because she has a law degree, Jean recently decided to practice on the side. One of the first things she did: Head over to Staples for some business cards. "It's a quick and easy way to just say who you are," she said.

Business cards are also reverting to a 19th-century function. Several online dating companies have sprung up to offer cards for pickup situations. For $25, Cheek'd offers customers 50 cards they can hand out at bars bearing a flirtatious comment and a way to contact the suitor.

Michelle Farrell, a 36-year-old federal contractor in the District, chose the old-fashioned route, ordering dating cards online - cream stock with green vines on each side. First name, email address, phone number. She hands them to intriguing guys at bars, with a simple pickup line: "Here's my card."

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