The business card is one of the most important marketing tools ever invented. Seriously, the small piece of paper tells others a lot about you and the quality of the services you provide. A well-done card is your first lasting impression with a potential business partner, a representation of you, and a reflection of your brand.
Today, business cards simultaneously act as a professional networking device and your promotional go-to. But how did the business card gain this status in the professional world? What does your business card say about you? And what are the best business card practices to grow your business network?
A Brief History
Business cards are nowhere near a modern-day invention. Since as early as the fifteenth century, historians have traced several predecessors to our marketing tool.
The first predecessor, called visiting cards, were used as a status symbol by fifteenth-century China. Sent via servants, aristocrats used visiting cards as a self-promotional brochure to introduce themselves and provide notice of their arrival. With strict social etiquette to follow, a simple and tasteful card provided access to many of China’s elite establishments.
By the end of the sixteenth-century, a similar practice appeared in England and France under the name bearer cards. However, where visiting cards were employed exclusively for personal relationships, bearer cards served as a legal document and communicated trade, finance, and other business obligations. Bearer cards were often produced from elaborate playing cards to make a memorable impression and then, written and signed by the individuals conducting business.
By the mid-seventeenth century, visiting cards used for personal affairs gained popularity with Europe’s elite for all occasions from business to personal relationships, congratulations to condolences. However, Europeans departed from the simple Chinese designs in favor of something more elaborate. About the size of a playing card, European calling cards were engraved, embossed, and often embellished with gold elements to display the sender’s class, then handwritten with the purpose of the sender’s visit.
By the eighteenth-century, many European households had dedicated dishes for visitors to leave their calling cards. And by the nineteenth century, calling cards landed in America and began looking like modern business cards. Designs started to include the sender’s name engraved, intricate designs on luxury materials, such as gloss black stock.
However, because street addresses were uncommon in the seventeenth-century, many bearer and visiting cards were sent to the wrong place. To solve this, craftsmen started producing trade cards. Trade cards provided, similar to modern business cards, information to find a business. These cards would sometimes include promotions, a drawing of the shop or sign, and a map to the establishment as well. And as technology improved, trade cards evolved from handwritten sketches to prints of elaborate color designs.
Why are business cards still a thing?
I’ve heard the argument that handing out business cards is a dying, antiquated practice. Yet, 27 million business cards will be printed today, and just under 10 billion this year. Even though 81 percent of Americans own smartphones, most people prefer to take something physical away from a conversation that discusses business. In this way, business cards reflect their predecessors.
But, business cards continue evolving to meet the needs of professionals, making them an essential resource for conducting modern business. Today, business cards serve as more than just a professional networking tool. They legitimize your business by providing means to contact you, assure your credentials, and establish you as a professional.
Sure, you can also send a follow-up email to provide additional information on your business and demonstrate professionalism. But, a follow-up email can be planned and strategized to reflect the previous conversation. When potential business partners ask for your business card, they are conducting an on the spot check that you are serious about business and mean what you say.
Imagine that a potential client or investor asks for your business card. You hand them a lackluster card, or worse, you don’t have any business cards. Both responses reflect poorly on how you conduct business, and likely, they will opt to work with someone else.
Match Your Cards to Your Reputation
I cannot emphasize this enough: every decision you put into your business cards matters.
By marrying design and psychology, business cards represent your company while quickly conveying your brand’s mission and values. And every design choice communicates something about you and your company, including the quality of material, color, and white space. With each decision, you must consider what it conveys about you, rather than relying on personal taste alone.
Imagine if the CEO of a recycling company handed you a red gloss cover business card with raised lettering. Sounds beautiful, right? Yet, it would be difficult to take this professional seriously or trust their expertise, even if you weren’t sure why.
It’s because the card design doesn’t mirror the psychology of the industry. The first signal to your unconscious would be the color red. Although eye-grabbing, we associate red with toxins and poison, not sustainability. The raised on gloss cover would then only reinforce these feelings because together, these materials are ironically hard to recycle.
What Your Business Cards Say About You
So, now the real questions: What do your current business cards say about you? And what choices should you make so your business cards say the right thing?
Medium, or the material on which your cards are printed, is one of the most forgiving places to insert taste. Business cards can feel glossy, silky, granular, or suede-like. And for most industries, all these mediums are viable options. For a longer-lasting impression, plastic, wood, and metal are also mediums available.
But, some materials are favored over others, and you should recognize why before you commit. Business cards are typically printed on 100-pound gloss cover, 14-point cardstock, or 16-point cardstock.
100-pound gloss cover is the easiest to print on. Often, these business cards are inexpensive and thin, suggesting a budget-conscious mindset. However, this medium is often cautioned against because it can be misinterpreted as an unwillingness to invest.
In many industries, cardstock has become the professional standard. The thicker 16-point cardstock provides a greater sense of luxury.
Which colors you choose affects the emotions, mood, and state of mind of your potential customer. It even influences how that customer interacts with your business. Knowing which color best aligns with your values allows you more control in evoking your intended response. This is true of your logo and branding, as well as your business card.
Warm colors (such as reds, yellows, and oranges) appeal to the logical side of the brain and are related to passion, dynamics, optimism, joy, and youth. In some contexts, however, these colors can instead signify warning, danger, jealousy, weakness, or cowardice.
Cooler colors (such as greens, blues, and browns) appeal to the logical side of the brain. These colors relate to strength, dependability, control, nature, integrity, and wisdom.
Metallic colors (such as white, silvers, blacks, and purples) are associated with royalty, luxury, premium-quality, and higher-end services in general. Most customers assume that businesses that employ these colors in their branding are more expensive and possibly unaffordable.
White space, or empty areas, is vitally important. When you have too much text and images, the business card becomes illegible and overwhelming. Often, potential customers won’t read your business card if they have to search to find essential information.
Instead, only print essential information, including your name, position, company name, and general contact information on one side. On that same side, provide enough white space for potential customers to write notes on your conversation.
If your business has a tagline or branding graphic you want to include, put it on the opposite side of your contact information.
A principal indicator of quality, for both your business cards and your business, is the font. Similar to how your teacher judged essays in Comic Sans harsher than those in Times New Roman, your customers assume your business’s quality from your branded font.
There are thousands of fonts available, but you want one that is easier to read and recognize as your brand. You want to use a font that stands out but is professional.
Generally, san serif fonts are understandable. The further you diverge from a san serif font, the higher risk you run of losing a sale. If a potential customer can’t read your business card, they won’t do business with you.
The finish protects the paper from damage and helps your business cards leave a lasting impression. Spot UV and gloss finish are most popular because they suggest professionalism. You can effortlessly glide your hand over these surfaces. To stand out amongst your competitors, you can use a matte finish to suggest creativity or a silk finish evoke a sense of luxury.
10 Rules Of Business Card Etiquette
Once you have a well designed business card that accurately represents you and your business, you just need to know how to trade business cards. Here are the ten rules of business card etiquette:
- Always have your business card with you. You never know when you are going to make a new connection, and you only have one opportunity to make a first impression.
- Keep your contact information up to date. This one should be self-explanatory.
- Treat your business cards well. House your business cards in a case so that they are always pristine when you give them out. A crumpled business card makes a poor first impression.
- Do not offer your business card randomly. Save it for the people you have conversations with. This will help to ensure that your business card is not thrown away and is reserved for people you actually want to follow-up.
- Use situational awareness and only hand out your business card when appropriate (No one wants to hear about your business at a wedding or funeral).
- Give your card to anyone who asks for it and ask for theirs in return. This will keep you from seeming aggressive.
- Perfect your presentation. Give and receive business cards with your right hand, the same way you would perform a handshake. Pass it nicely but confidently, face up so the recipient can read the card without turning it over.
- Don’t put their card straight into your pocket. To be respectful, take a moment to look at their business card before putting it away. Although seemingly small, this will signal that you recognize the time and effort your contact took to make it and meet you.
- Comment on every card you receive. Whether commenting on the logo or asking what the business name means, taking a moment to comment on the card places value on their work and shows you are interested in building a relationship.
- Ask permission before writing on someone else’s card. And if you do, make sure the note is relevant to the conversation, not a reminder to follow a potential sales lead. These notes include how you two met, an overlapping connection, or shared interest. Ideally, you want these notes to help you foster the relationship later.
Business cards continue to be one of the most effective ways to advertise and communicate your business. Well-Done business cards allow you to make a memorable impression. What choices you put into them suggest to potential customers who you are and what it’s like to work with you while providing the necessary information to reach you.