Batteries not included: Why business cards still matter in the 21st century

Article written by me for Xerox’s Digital Printing Hotspot Blog.

Having just returned from the ‘South By South West Interactive’ (SXSWi) conference in Austin, Texas, I was struck by the volume of press that followed on the topic of digital business cards and the threat of a world without print. “The business card is dead!”, their articles exclaimed. But, whilst the journalists seemed excited by the idea of this digital future, the reality amongst conference attendees couldn’t have been more different.

SXSWi is one of the largest technology conferences on the planet, bringing 10,000 internet geeks together from around the world to hang out, eat great BBQ and talk tech. It’s a mecca for technology professionals, and as a result you’d expect it to be all about rejecting analogue and embracing digital. However, in this, my 4th year at the conference, I’ve never seen so many amazing business cards and amongst them, not one digital business card exchange: zero, zilch, zip.

It seems the rumors of their demise have been greatly exaggerated: even amongst the world’s earliest of early adopters, business cards are very much alive, and kicking!

As a forward-thinking online print company moo.com has spent a lot of time rethinking and reinventing the humble, 300 year old, business card. We’ve driven innovation in print technology and design and have set new standards in product quality and community marketing. Whilst many push the limits of print to drive down costs, increase automation and sell ever-increasing quantities at low, low prices, we see things a little differently.

For print to survive this digital revolution we have to stop competing with ones and zeros, stop trying to match the cost and distribution dynamics of digital and get back to our roots: bold, beautiful, high quality print: premium and proud. It seems to be working for MOO: almost 50% of the cards I was given at SXSWi were printed by us. This audience of technophiles represent the future, the cutting edge of society. So what can we, the print industry, learn from them about how the world is changing and seek out new and lucrative opportunities?

Well first, we have to admit that the world is changing. We’re all living increasingly virtual lives, spending almost all of our days in front of our computer screens: talking on Skype, listening to music on Last.fm and sharing links with friends on Twitter. Our social and professional lives are now playing out over the web, where our profiles are rich and dynamic. We’ve created these vibrant virtual identities on the internet, but what about the real world? With this virtual migration you would think that the opportunity for print would be diminishing, I couldn’t disagree more.

With all this online interaction, when the opportunity arises to meet people in the real world: more than ever before we need to make an impression, and nothing impresses more than great print design. However, to keep favor, print needs to meet the needs of this new generation: digital has set a standard of dynamic, high quality, custom design with the likes of WordPress and MySpace. As leaders of the print industry we need to focus our efforts on creating exciting new, customized print products, that compliment our virtual lives and work in harmony with the web. The big opportunity for print is here, and it’s best friends with the web.

SXSWi is the perfect metaphor for the physical/virtual opportunity. Why do all these self-confessed geeks fly half-way round the world to meet up? Why don’t they just do the conference in Second Life or on Cisco’s amazing TelePresence technology? Why? Because despite incredible advances in technology we’re all still human beings. We like to meet people face to face, shake their hand and chat over a beer. In business, as in life, you only get one chance to make a first impression and the real world is still where it’s at.

A digital business card is just data, it lacks any personality; whereas a well-designed, physical business card speaks volumes about the owner: it’s design, color, paper, size, shape, fonts and other flourishes make everyone different from the last. Business cards make a lasting, memorable impression in a way that no digital product could ever match. In a tough economy, where small businesses need to stand out, and where every new business relationship matters, just like for the attendees of SXSWi, the world needs great print. Let’s give it to them.

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