Mat Stringer used to hand out 250 business cards a year.
“I would take a batch of 50 with me wherever I would go,” said the UK-based operations manager. “It is just a quick and easy way to remind people of your details.”
Then Covid-19 arrived in March last year, and over the past 18 months Stringer hasn’t handed out a single one. “All of my work has been online,” he said.
Before the pandemic, a vast amount of business cards were being printed around the world. One estimate put it at 27 million per day, or more than seven billion each year.
But Covid-19 has made many of us more nervous about spreading germs. Even as we return to workplaces, or get back to networking face-to-face, will the habit, or for some – the ritual – of handing over a paper business card become a thing of the past? And what technology could fill the gap?
Edward Senju appears on the computer by video link from Singapore. On the screen above his left shoulder is a QR (quick response) code. Amid the pandemic, these black, barcode-like squares have become increasingly common, and can be scanned to open up a webpage, such as a restaurant’s menu.
“If you can, scan the code shown here,” instructs Senju.
After hovering a smart phone over the code, a web-link opens with his contact details and an option to save them.
“If we can have these QR codes that show who you are, and what kind of role you have, the conversation goes much easier,” he said.
Senju is regional chief executive for a Japanese tech firm called Sansan Global, which supplies database software to help businesses to manage and share customer and supplier contact details internally.
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 cards in June of last year.
Since then around 4,300 companies are now paying a subscription to use its QR-code based system.
In addition to being able to add the code to your video call, it also works in person via your smartphone – the person you meet just has to scan the code on your screen for your details to appear on their handset.
Jason Alvarez-Cohen argues that traditional business cards are old-fashioned and ripe for replacement.
“(Physical) business cards get forgotten, they get mixed up in your wallet,” he said. “And you still have to manually enter that information (if you want to keep it digitally), which is time consuming and not efficient.”
Alvarez-Cohen is the co-founder of Popl, a California-based contact-sharing app. It uses NFC (near-field communication) technology via a small round tag that you stick to the back of your mobile phone, to beam your details to another person’s handset.
“All I have to do is hover my Popl next to your phone and it sends the information.” The other person doesn’t need to have either the firm’s app or tag installed.
Popl launched in February 2020, just before the start of the global pandemic, and it says that it now has more than 10,000 business customers.
“Now we’re in this more contactless world, I think these kinds of systems will stay in place, even after we get out of this pandemic,” said Alvarez-Cohen.
One company that has switched to digital business cards is Capital International Group, an investment firm on the Isle of Man.
“They (the old paper cards) were just gathering dust in a drawer,” said its chief executive Greg Ellison.
Staff now carry a single, reusable NFC-based card, made of bamboo, to transfer their details to a recipient’s smartphone.
“It’s literally a tap as if you’re paying for goods at a shop,” said Ellison.
At the firm – where the management have electric cars – the shift to digital was driven by efforts to be more sustainable.
“Obviously it saves lots of paper being wasted,” said Ellison.
Global firm Vistaprint is one of the world’s largest printers of traditional paper-based business cards. It has more than 17 million customers, and business cards account for roughly a quarter of its sales.
Its International President Florian Baumgartner admits that Covid-19 hit sales very hard.
“(During the) Second half of March 2020 and early April, we saw some really severe impacts.” said Baumgartner.
“Business cards sales were down 70% globally during that time. If you don’t meet, you don’t share business cards with your customers. At least not in the traditional way.”
However, he said that sales have since recovered, especially in North America, as lockdown restrictions have lifted. Although orders are not yet back up to pre-pandemic levels.
Baumgartner added that its customers are now increasingly embracing QR codes printed on its paper business cards, which link to their contact details in digital form.
And it will soon be launching contactless plastic business cards, based on NFC-technology.
“Business cards are definitely not dead,” he said.
This is likely to be particularly the case in some Asian countries, where the exchange of physical business cards carries great significance.
“There is a lot of importance to it, especially in countries like South Korea, China, and Japan,” said Singapore-based etiquette and networking coach Shireena Shroff Manchharam. “I think that in southeast Asia, it’s definitely almost ceremonial. It’s a ritual. It’s really a chance to see the hierarchy, the position of somebody. It sets the tone for a meeting.”
Yet Shroff Manchcharam believes that’s changing, and the pandemic has been instrumental.
“It was the first thing that you did when you met somebody new,” she said. “(But) as people return to offices here…I don’t think people would expect it anymore.”
Yeong Lai Lai, who works in media relations in Singapore, said she will continue to hand out business cards. “It still represents good business etiquette and professionalism.”
Yet she added that she has noticed that others now reciprocate less often, because they don’t carry them.
Back in the UK, Mat Stringer is keen to start handing out his business card again. In fact, he has just ordered a new batch of 500.
As a personal touch his new cards are claret and blue in colour, to represent his favourite football team, Aston Villa. “It can be a little conversation starter,” he said.