Networking, marketing, and leadership experts lay out what makes an effective business card, business card style taboos, and the importance of design versus delivery.
The necessity and relevance of business cards is waning in the digital age, but since no single alternative has gained enough momentum to replace them, you should still keep a supply in your wallet and make sure they look good.
Two factors you should balance regarding your business card strategy are a unique design and an engaging delivery. A snazzy card is no good if you hand it out left and right without an exchange of pleasantries and ideas, but a poor quality card can undermine even the best rapport or the most persuasive conversation.
"The card is designed as a way of following up with someone about a topic the person is genuinely interested in, so that requires some sensitivity," says Seth Kahan, CEO of Visionary Leadership, a Bethesda, Maryland-based management consulting firm. "You can be proactive but you don't want to be aggressive."
Learn more about business card alternatives, how to tailor your card to different desired outcomes, and what information must appear on your card.
How to Choose the Best Business Card for Your Company: Making Your Card Effective
For Sean Kinney, the owner of Digital Fresh, a New York City-based marketing and communications firm, the most important qualities for his business card were that it be memorable and that it be sharable. Kinney can speak with some authority on the latter subject; his card was so sharable that it was not only passed from hand to hand, but photos of it got picked up online including in Inc.'s "10 Most Creative Business Cards" slideshow.
Kinney's first thought about how to make his card unique was to use atypical materials. His sleek metal card is shaped like a razor blade, as a result of some serious brainstorming about how to encapsulate the company's identity. In fact, Kinney feels that unless your card can make a strong statement about who you are, you might as well not have one. He says, "there's a lot of people who just have [business cards] to have them and they're generic and simple; I don't think they hurt or help them."
Another tactic to make your card more effective is to tailor it to different situations or needs. For example, Kahan has two broad groups of clients: those that hire him for speaking engagements and more straight-laced government agencies. His card reflects that dichotomy.
"I actually created two different sides to my business card: one side is very colorful and intense [with photos and] I've got this light pattern there. It's eye-catching," he says. "The other side is modeled on a very straight, old-fashioned business card. It's just black and white, just the facts."
You would also design your card differently if your business provides a product or a service. If you sell a product you might have a link pointing to your online storefront, or an image of the product or a tagline about it. You approach the act of telling a narrative about yourself and your company differently if you're selling a service, according to Kahan. You'd want to "typify or convey through a story what it is that someone can expect when they follow up with the person on the card."
How to Choose the Best Business Card for Your Company: Design Versus Delivery
Obviously designers believe that a card's aesthetics are of primary importance and networkers will tell you the same is true for what you say and how you get the card in the other person's hand.
Bonnie Ross-Parker, for example will not hand over her card unsolicited. If the CEO of The Joy of Connecting, an Atlanta-based networking consultancy for women entrepreneurs, believes there's a genuine connection with someone she meets, she'll ask for their card and if they don't ask to exchange it might not make sense to anyway.
"Coming home with 30 or 40 cards is not nearly as effective as having half a dozen [that were from] really good quality conversations where having the business card and the ability to reconnect was important to you," Ross Parker says. "I think people miss that."
Similarly, Kahan believes that context is king. Handing out the same exact business card can result in a positive or negative experience depending on the interpersonal interaction that takes place. "The way you give it out overrides what it is," he says.
But Kinney is inclined to disagree. He thinks design is 90 percent of the battle and delivery a mere 10 percent. "If you have a memorable business card you can just leave them on a table and people will take them and keep them," he says.
One way to make your card memorable is to have it reflect your business in some intuitive and engaging way. Kinney gives the example of creative ideas he's come across such as a barbershop with cards shaped like scissors, and a landscaping company with Astroturf-backed cards. These types of cards aren't as wallet-friendly as a more traditional card but hope is that it will say what your business does at first glance and it will be tactile and new enough for the person to want to keep it around.
However, Kinney acknowledges that these types of cards are not for everyone. Depending on what line of work you're in, and even your personality you may want a more traditional design.
"When there's multiple employees you have to take that into consideration, but when it's just you and it's a small business, you should look at it from the aspect of representing yourself first and then the business in parallel with that," he says.
How to Choose the Best Business Card for Your Company: What to Include
So you have limited space to represent yourself above and beyond any networking conversations that you'll had with the people you meet. What should stay and what should go?
The consensus is that your name, company name, title, phone number and e-mail address are the bare minimum. Some crucial additions if you have the resources are your company logo and your Web address. Physical address is increasingly less relevant though in some industries it might still be advisable to include.
You'll also want to adapt it to your industry, for example, if you're in the social media marketing field, you might include links to your accounts on various platforms.
As a consultant, Kahan is selling himself, and his book, so he includes a picture of both on his card. "I'm a visual kind of person and I like to have a visual image of the person [I met] because, when I call someone back, I like to see their face and this is one way for me to do that," he says.
In addition, as the popularity of card scanners grow, you'll want to make sure your card is scanner friendly. Here's some other options to consider:
• Don't place text over images
• If included, keep images simple
• Avoid shading, italics or underlining
• Use a clear, readable font such as Times New Roman or Helvetica
• Make sure there's enough space between different lines on the card so they remain legible
How to Choose the Best Business Card for Your Company: Avoid Style Taboos
The same way you wouldn't walk into an important meeting with your shirt untucked and your tie askew, you should make sure to avoid grievous style faux pas in your business card's design. Here are some aesthetic choices to avoid:
• Don't be Cheap – "I will not do business with anyone who has a business card that says 'printed free by Vistaprint,'" Ross-Parker says. It looks unprofessional if you're not willing to invest anything in making a good impression.
• Being Unoriginal – Even if you don't have a fat wad of cash to spend on your business card you shouldn't get a template because it's less memorable and less effective.
• Don't go for Shock Value – "I've seen business cards that really are like shock value business cards," Kahan says. "I used to do street theater and the first thing that you have to do when you do street theater is you have to get somebody who's on their way somewhere else to stop and look at you. The easiest way to do that is to just do something really bizarre. That will work, people will stop and look at you, but if what you want is engagement, and if what you want is follow-up, then there's a different set of rules that you have to follow."
• Don't Laminate It – A surface that the recipient of the card can write on makes it easier for them to take notes on your meeting to help remember it.
• Don't Overcrowd It – Some people get business cards that fold out just so they can squeeze some extra information on the card but you're better served by keeping it simple. "I don't like when it's so busy that people are trying to get all the information all in one place at one time," says Ross-Parker. "That's tacky."
Dig Deeper: 6 Rules for Website Design
How to Choose the Best Business Card for Your Company: Business Card Alternatives
The days of the rolodex are over and the environmentally-unfriendly business card will likely disappear in the next few decades. Kahan recalls that, "when I was in my twenties, when I went into business for myself, you absolutely had to have stationery and a business card. Those times are gone." Now must haves for starting a business include a website and an e-mail address at the very least, but Kahan asks, "who knows what it will be 10 years from now?" Here are some options for business card alternatives:
• Create a Stamp – While this option is not high tech, it is environmentally friendly. Creating a stamp with all the information that would be on your card allows you to differentiate yourself and if you have a business with an environmental bent, it shows that you practice what you preach.
• Send in the Smartphones – The iPhone's Bump app, which allows paperless exchanges of contact information by touching two such phones together is only one of many digital methods for transmitting your vital stats. The only problem is the person you're meeting with has to have a similar phone and app.
• Give it a Home Online – BusinessCard2 lets you create a professional online card. It can be encapsulated in a single link but once your new contact visits the site, they can see things like your experience or the social networks you're on.
Dig Deeper: Using Different Social Networks for Different Occasions
How to Choose the Best Business Card for Your Company: Resources
Kahan says his card was designed by Heatbrain, a Chicago-based Web development and design company.
Two additional design studios, whose work was featured in our 10 Most Creative Business Cards slideshow are the Kansas City, Missouri-based Reactor and InterFUEL, a Ventura, California-based firm.
The Joy of Connecting, is an Atlanta-based networking consultancy for women entrepreneurs
Visionary Leadership is a Bethesda, Maryland-based management consulting firm.