Washington Post – Beyond the Classic Business Card

– – Press Coverage – –
Washington Post
Beyond the Classic Business Card
By Don Oldenburg, Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 14, 2000

In the most recent Faustian film, “Bedazzled,” Elizabeth Hurley plays a lusty Lucifer whose red dress is slit up her gams like a demonic tail. Her car sounds like hell warmed over. She even sprouts horns in one scene. But nothing nails her satanic identity quite as unequivocally as the classic business card she hands out–embossed with “The Devil.”

Actor Steve Martin reportedly reaches for one of his special business cards when his privacy is invaded by fans and autograph seekers. They read: “This certifies that you’ve had a personal encounter with me and that you found me warm, polite and colorful.”

The business card of the president of the United States? The words “The White House” and “Washington” in the upper lefthand corner and a centered “Bill Clinton” signature across a faint monochrome of the White House.

Whatever the business, there still seems to be nothing quite like the old- fashioned business card for doing business. A good bet in this era of high-tech communications would be that this plain old pocket talisman of professional networking that has been around for more than a century by now would have gone the way of the dinosaur or at least the dot-matrix printer. Out of business–or close to it–replaced in today’s growing high-tech business arsenal by some speedy electronic device.

But, so far, the high-teching of business cards hasn’t happened; exchanging the pedestrian business card remains one of the bedrocks of the business world. Bob Popyk credits the survival of the business card to its integral and fundamental purpose. “It is as basic as the handshake. . . . except you have something a little more memorable that somebody can refer to afterwards,” says the author of “Here’s My Card” (2000, Renaissance Books, $10.95), a book on business-card networking.

“What makes business cards so effective is you can give them to everybody. . . . The whole idea about networking is not who you know but who can you know. The thing is, we don’t want people to throw our business cards away.”

With precisely that thing in mind, flashier low-tech variations of the business card abound. The more exotic the material, the argument goes, the less chance it gets tossed out. Specialty card companies are printing on everything from aluminum and brass to reflective plastic and wood. The Old Time Wooden Nickel Co. in San Antonio even prints business card info on wooden nickels because “wooden nickels are rarely thrown away.”

Other than rubbery magnetized business cards from delivery pizza shops that stick to America’s refrigerators, however, none has come close to supplanting the staying power of ordinary paper business cards. Neither has the handful of high-tech pretenders.

In the past two years, so-called e-business cards–also known as interactive or CD business cards–hit the marketplace promising to be “the revolutionary sales and marketing tool for the 21st century.” Slightly larger than standard business cards, these cut-down CD-ROM disks are designed to look the part on top, but inside they pack about 40 megabytes of a multimedia presentation, including images, audio and video.

Marketed as a means of passing along more than the usual name, number and company info, e-cards come off more as another marketing gimmick than the business card’s high-tech heir apparent. That, perhaps, is because they run from $2.50 to $5 per card–compared with pennies for a paper card–or maybe because it’s expecting too much of casual recipients and even business contacts to load the “card” into their CD-ROM player and sit through a 20- to 40-minute message–when all they really wanted was a phone number or e- mail address. Popyk says the e-card idea, like the cards themselves, has a hole in it. “One of the reasons more people don’t think about CD-ROM business cards, [is because] you can’t carry a lot of them with you,” he explains. “The thinner the business card, the better.”

Business card guru Diana Ratliff, owner of BusinessCardDesign.com, says the CD- ROM cards haven’t taken off because they “are most appropriate for high-tech industries and companies which need to present a great deal of information in an audio-visual format” while, for most businesses, “Web sites fill many of the same needs.”

Yet Ratliff warns that in today’s global, fast-paced economy, thinking less information is more on business cards is also a mistake. “Those that merely give contact details often get ignored,” says the author of the electronic book “Business Card Breakthroughs” ($19.95, http://www.businesscarddesign.com/).

ContactDetails, a London-based company launched last July, believes it provides a reasonable alternative: Members get a “CD-ID”–a unique, short, identifying code such as a nickname or initials–printed on their business cards and stationery that links recipients to more information about them online.

“The code can be entered on the ContactDetails.com Web site, which then provides up-to-date information on the subscriber,” explains Ashley Brady, executive director of ContactDetails. “By having a CD-ID on the traditional business card, you add continuity and dynamism to an inherently static medium. . . . It acts initially as a form of online business card and then over time as an online Rolodex or address book. The information is available anywhere through the wireless Internet–mobile phones, etc.”

Another “nice try” is the Palm Pilot business-card scanner and the infrared function that enables users to share business cards and other information simply by pointing their hand-held organizer at the receiver’s Palm Pilot and beaming the data.

The majority of business-card exchange opportunities, however, aren’t equipped with dual Palm Pilots, at least not yet. “The problem with tech equipment” versus the simple business card, says Popyk, “is that after you have a pager, a cell phone and a laptop, you need a small wheelbarrow to carry it around. This is not networking, this is like having a great big phone book.”

The future of business cards? It’s not here yet but scientists are working on it. Four years ago at the Comdex computer industry trade show in Las Vegas, scientists from IBM’s Almaden Research Center demonstrated early prototypes of their Personal Area Network (PAN) technology that uses the natural electrical conductivity of the human body to transmit electronic data.

One of the applications then under development was an electronic business-card exchanger: Using a small transmitter about the size of a deck of cards and embedded with a microchip, researchers could transmit preprogrammed electronic business-card data to someone with a receiving device via nothing more than a handshake.

Since then, that PAN research has bowed to Bluetooth wireless radio-frequency technology that more than a thousand companies, including IBM, endorse. One of them is Charmed Technologies, a Beverly Hills-based company spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab that develops miniature, wearable computing devices. Its 2.5-inch-diameter “Charm Badge” goes to market by the end of December.

Described as a business card that electronically communicates information, Charm Badges are packed with infrared receivers and transmitters, a 4-bit microcontroller and 16 kilobytes of memory for storing received information.

But don’t throw away your business cards just yet. For the near future, at least, Charm Badges are targeted only for business-to-business sales. “Large conventions and trade shows are the ticket,” says Charmed Technologies publicist Sylvia Ortega, who refers to them as schmooze packs. “As you’re talking to somebody, the Charm Badges are reading each other’s information. And at the end of the conference, you go to your Web site and download the list and data of everybody you met that day.”

Even though Charm Badges are priced right for widespread distribution (under $10 per unit), Ortega explains that they work only when everyone has one. “If you individually used it,” she says, “it wouldn’t do anybody any good.”

Ratliff doesn’t foresee any newfangled technology replacing today’s business card any time soon: “The future is bright for business cards.”