25 years ago, before my Design Inc days, I worked at a personalisation company. The company was widely recognised as being one of the most successful independent suppliers of name badges and, through the quality of the products and the drive of the sales force, they had essentially cornered the market – supplying to every company on the high street and beyond. All the leading banks, supermarkets & major fast food outlets were clients, as were the Post Office, NHS Trusts, airlines, car dealerships, rail franchises, exhibition companies. The list really did go on. If any company needed a badge with a name on it, they were either an existing customer or were certainly in discussions to be one.
‘So, what does this have to do with business cards?’, I hear you ask. Well, let me tell you…
In 1996, I joined that company. They were so successful with their operation in producing personalised name badges that they decided to expand into the world of print. And specifically personalised print. Even more specifically, just business cards. My role?..well, I was in charge of sales.
When I say ‘in charge of’, what I really mean is that I was the only person responsible for sales. In fact, I was the print department of that company. In the early days, any business card sales that I made would be outsourced to a local printer. But, what we lacked in head count, we more than made up in the way we were able to offer the product to the client.
To be honest, sales came relatively easy. So long as I could speak to the person who ordered their company’s business cards and was able to quickly explain how our unique process worked, companies would happily move all their card ordering over to us. It was a very successful and profitable business model which turned over £1m a year on business cards alone. And that was 25 years ago!
I am getting to the point of this blog, believe me. Just bear with me a bit longer…
At that company, our client list for business cards was huge. And so was the demand. Within a year of launching the division, we had invested in our own print plant and we were now managing the production ourselves (just as we were with the name badge side of the company). Moreover, we had grown the sales team and this only drove the demand higher. Business card orders were coming in thick and fast (interestingly, I even remember the first email order coming in – we had one computer hooked up to the world wide web and we watched the email slowly appearing on the screen!). Anyway, it felt like every employee in every company must have been handing out all of their business cards as soon as we had delivered a new set to them.
So, now on to the point of the article. At long last…
Business cards have been the staple item of a company’s stationery suite for many years. Every business person carried some around. Some still do. But, the cold hard fact is that they are now a shadow of what they used to be as people just do not use them in the way (and quantity) they once did. With the global lockdown restricting face-to-face meetings and leading to the rise of online video conferencing portals, gone are the days of handing over a germ-ridden business card along with your handshake. In the post-COVID 19 world, could it be that the printed business card is dead? Just as dead perhaps, as the desire for a slice of birthday cake after someone has coughed and spluttered to blow out their candles!
Personally, I have not given out or received a single business card since the end of March 2020 when I first became WFH and the vast majority of my meetings were being done via phone, Teams or Zoom. And, I am not alone – millions of others are in the same boat. Perhaps it is simply because we don’t have the opportunity to transfer a little piece of card from one hand to another? BUT…perhaps it is because we realise there is no real need to do so as the transfer of personal information can be done so much more efficiently these days through digital means.
When someone calls or texts another, they can within seconds, add them to their contact list on their smartphone. People no longer need to keep a business card &/or manually transfer the contact data. These days, everything is to hand. We are all just a screen tap away from accessing many personal and work-related CRM systems. Or just one click away from contacting individuals via phone, email, text, Messenger, Facetime, Zoom, Teams, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Slack etc etc. The information is already there. Stored securely, accessed immediately.
‘Get with it granddad’, I hear you say. ‘We have had digital solutions for years’…
Well, yes you are right. We have had digital solutions for a long time now. But that hasn’t stopped the use of analogue business cards. Until now, that is! The effect of COVID 19 has been to lead people to be more self sufficient and to work out what they really need to get their job done. And a business card is just not needed anymore. Or wanted, come to that.
Prior to the pandemic, it is estimated that close to 30million business cards were being printed each day – that’s over 10 billion each year. There is no exact data available for the current situation but all estimates point to a drop of over 70%. And, whilst that is not good news for printers, it is certainly good news for environmentalists who would prefer no trees are cut down, however ‘sustainable’ the forest.
So where is the future taking us?
Looking back to the time I worked for the personalisation company, the first sets of business cards I ever sold was to the airline company, Air China who, if my memory serves me right, purchased 250 sets. Of course, this nicely compliments the fact that the first business cards were produced in China, back in the 15th Century.
From the 15th Century to today, the world has used business cards to share personal contact data and there is a certainly a long way to go before the printed card is ever completely erased from our business lives. Inevitably, we will see its resurgence over the coming months as the number of live business events and face-to-face meetings rapidly grow. But, the modern world has proved the printed card is no longer required and it is more than likely that this resurgence will not last long.
Of course, brands still need to advertise their products and services. Sales teams still need to get their name onto the ‘radar’ of prospective clients. And companies still need to have immediate access to the details of their suppliers and customer . The question remains therefore, if printed business cards are truly a thing of the past then what other technology could fill the gap in transferring contact data?
Japanese tech firm, Sansan Global, supplies database software that enables businesses to manage and share client contact details. The pandemic meant its clients were suddenly no longer getting the physical business cards that they could scan and add to the system, so Sansan adapted and launched its virtual business card solution in June last year. Now more than 7,000 companies use their QR-based system which allows a QR code to be added next to the delegate within the video call itself. More importantly, it also works in person via a smart phone – the person you meet just has to scan the code on your screen for your details to appear on their handset.
But Sansan Global is certainly not the only ones who have embraced and offer new contact data transfer solutions. Vistaprint, for example, is one of the world’s largest printers of paper-based business cards and prior to the pandemic, business cards accounted for roughly a quarter of its sales. With so much potential revenue to lose, they have embraced QR technology themselves and are soon to be launching contactless business cards, based on NFC-technology.
One step ahead of Vistaprint, V1CEalready uses contactless NFC technology in their metal, bamboo and plastic cards. These cards can instantly share your contact details when simply tapped against a smartphone. No more messing around with old paper business cards, instead, all the information is placed right where people spend most of their time – on their phone! Moreover, with V1CE the ‘sender’ can quickly change the profile they want to share. Share your business details with your clients one minute and share your social profile with your friends the next.
Contactless sharing technology is not necessarily new either. Remember ‘Bump’? – this long-defunct app allowed you to instantly share your contact information by literally “bumping” your smartphones together. But, that came at the wrong time. Perhaps they should bring it back now.
Whatever the technology, this post pandemic period shows us that there is a real desire and drive to move away from the old ritual of swapping a piece of paper and manually transferring the details.
Thinking about business cards in the future, they are destined to go the same way as the tie. Some people will use them but they will not serve any real purpose other than to simply establish an image about the person or the company they work for. As contact data will be seamlessly and automatically sent and stored with all communication, there will not be a requirement for any of us to actively transfer contact data ourselves.
25 years ago, I worked for that business card company, manufacturing millions of cards a year for thousands of businesses. But, that was 25 years ago and the tide has certainly turned. I will happily stick my neck out and predict that business cards will not be around in another 25 years!
I may be completely wrong but I shall follow up this post in 2046andsee whether my prediction has come true …
What do you think? Is there a future for the business card?
Frank Norman is the Commercial Director for Design Incorporated.