Is the Era of the Business Card Over?
Business cards have been a ubiquitous component of the corporate world for more than 100 years, but according to the Los Angeles Times, the days of trading cards are coming to an end.
In an article published Friday, L.A.Times writer Matt Stevens said, "to many young and Web-savvy people who are accustomed to connecting digitally, the cards are irrelevant, wasteful—and just plain lame."
The article cites a study from market researcher IBISWorld Inc. claiming that the business card market has stumbled 13 percent in the last five years, which the firm attributed to an overall print industry decline. According to IBISWorld Inc., U.S. business card sales were approximately $211.1 million for 2011.
The L.A. Times identifies a generational shift as the main culprit. "Many under-30 tech entrepreneurs see the paper rectangles as an anachronism," Stevens said, and points to the proliferation of social media and other electronic resources as reasons why business cards are failing.
It's not hard to see how the humble card is an endangered species being outcompeted by more evolved predators. Business networking sites and apps like LinkedIn and Bump have skyrocketed over the past few years, boasting 85 million and 77 million users respectively, and the increase in smart phones allows people to store and transport the information from thousands of business cards in one device.
Yet the rise of electronic solutions only tells one part of the story. Business cards are a staple product for many printers and promotional products suppliers, and remain popular with large segments of the business world—just ask any lawyer or real estate agent if they still carry cards.
According to Bridget O'Brien, vice president of marketing communication for Vistaprint, The L.A. Times' death knell for the popular product may be premature. "Business Cards are alive and well, particularly in the micro business industry, which Vistaprint serves," she said. "What speaks to the continued popularity of business cards is the number of companies now offering them and still entering the space. At one point in time Vistaprint was one of the few online options for business cards, today there are dozens of companies that offer them."
A search for "business cards" on Google yields 143 million results, with sites like Zazzle and MOO joining the Netherlands giant. In addition to those online offerings, trade printers like 4over Inc. and BCT still find success in the business card market.
Promotional products businesses also have a large stake in the continued success of the product. Navitor, the North Mankato, Minnesota-based trade printer and supplier, explained that a decrease in business card sales does not equal a deceased market.
"Business cards are in decline, but the need for personalized business identity solutions is not," said Sandy Bartels, product manager for Navitor. "So while the current trend may reflect a decline, this is more directly correlated to the current economic conditions then a long-term reduction in the need for business cards."
Bartels pointed to the modern emphasis on personalization and self-branding, evident in the social media spheres, as strong signs that business cards are more important than ever as extensions of an image. Recent declines, she said, result from people walking away from mass-produced, templated designs.
"So, if overall consumption of business cards is down, it reflects a move to increasing importance of quality and personalization and a move away from cheap, stock image commoditization of cards we have seen in recent years," she said.
Beyond the market for traditional paper stock cards, distributors often find success with the alternative takes on the item. Magnetic cards, plastic cards, calendar cards and lithographic cards are all popular promotions that supplement the traditional print product.
"Paper business cards may be a dwindling business but our business card magnets offer much more than their more traditional counterparts," said Chuck Smith, marketer for Top 50 supplier Gill Studios, located in Lenexa, Kan. He explained that the magnetic cards have remained popular because they stand out from paper counterparts while still fulfilling the same purpose.
"When held, they have an instantly recognizable contrast in feel and weight. This makes it more likely to make it back to the home or office of it's recipient. Rather than being filed away in the back of a folder or the bottom of a drawer, our products are placed on the metal surfaces that surround them," he said.
Another sign the 2x3.5" cards aren't going anywhere is the cottage industry built around their continued use. Business card holders, carriers and rolodexes are popular for both business-to-business and retail operations, and almost all briefcases and padfolios are designed with business card slots—cards are so ingrained into the corporate world that the most emblematic business accessories include them by default in their design.
Even on the tech side, the alleged grim reaper of traditional business, a market for software based around business cards shows continues to grow. Applications like Business Card Reader for iPhone and CamCard for Android show that even among the e-commerce crowd, business cards are still an important factor. And the recent popularity of credit card-sized USB drives, which are perfect as promotional business cards, complements rather than competes with online alternatives.
As for the threat from the electronic competition, Bartels said there are actually signs that Generation Y is finding increased value in business cards. "While digital alternatives are on the rise, Navitor sees an important trend in even the most trend-forward areas of our economy continuing to not only use business cards in addition to newer innovative solutions, but an actual increased focus on truly customizing and personalizing cards and other identity solutions as truly representative of who they are," she said.
O'Brien agreed, and explained what many in marketing already know: you cannot replace the impact of physically giving something to a client.
"While digital options are becoming more popular, they lack the emotional and interpersonal exchange that occurs when a [business owner] creates and verifies their business with a business card that they designed," she said. "Also, when a small business owner extends their business card and a handshake to a customer, there is a physical and emotional exchange that is unachievable in the digital format."