Virtual biz cards won't dethrone paper ones

Increasing trend of exchanging contact information virtually may bring convenience, but phone and app incompatibilities mean paper cards won't be obsolete in Web 2.0 world, says analyst.

Virtual business cards are inveritably becoming commonplace, says one analyst, but that does not mean the extinction of traditional paper ones as the importance of direct communication remains unchanged for business executives even in today's digitally-driven era of social media and the Internet.

In an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, analyst James Roy did not deny that digital business cards are an attractive idea. "Business people are always running out of cards and it's a hassle to get new ones printed [once details are changed]," he explained, citing green benefits and reduced printing costs as well.

Virtual cards enable one to centralize all the contact information at one point in time, said the senior analyst from China Market Research Group (CMR). In addition, he said that digital cards will likely become increasingly commonplace with the rise in smartphone ownership.

However, Roy stopped short of saying that traditional cards will become extinct. Instead, he proposed that digital cards will be used in addition to paper cards in the enterprise Web 2.0 age.

As he elaborated: "No matter how many people use mobile apps, you're always going to run into someone who doesn't have as advanced a phone as you do, or a similar application you use. Then, what do you do?"

Furthermore, there could be compatibility problems of image display because certain phone models and versions of operating systems may not have the same graphics capabilities, he added.

His view is echoed by Elaine Heng, founder of Elaine Heng Image Consultancy. In an e-mail, she advised that it is always best to be prepared for any situation, and with traditional business cards, a user can avoid potential embarrassment when the other party does not have a suitable app to exchange information virtually.

Adam Nash, vice president of product at LinkedIn, however, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that the business card will gradually be replaced by connected equivalents, though not overnight. "Instead, you'll see more and more [paper] business cards include references to online equivalents, like the LinkedIn profile, to help bridge the technology gap."

Direct communication still vital
CMR's Roy argued that "face-to-face communication is such an [ingrained], important part of doing business--and paper cards are an extension of that."Most business people still exchange cards [with each other] when they first meet, even if they've already exchanged e-mails with their information in the signature."

Roy also noted that the trend of exchanging contact information virtually will not likely catch on as much in Asia, where building and maintaining social ties carry heavy importance.

He said that exchanging paper cards physically has become a too important part of introducing oneself, being "the first thing business people do when they meet". It is both an icebreaker and a show of respect, he added.

Similarly, Audrey Quek, principal image consultant at Audrey Quek Image Consultancy, specifically encourages the use of the traditional business card since it is a conversation starter and also gives the recipient a sense of corporate or individual identity. "It is part of one's personal or corporate branding with a name card", she said in an e-mail.

LinkedIn's Nash, on the other hand, felt that the business card is not as ideal because it is static and "doesn't keep the relationship warm". When people connect on LinkedIn, for example, they get access not only to updated information over time, but also a path to communicate easily.

CMR's Roy argued that paper-made business cards have their own advantages over virtual ones. Personalization is something that is definitely lost in a more standardized digital format, he reasoned. "Companies like using paper cards because they can customize them in lots of [unorthodox] ways beyond the text and logo, to communicate a message about themselves or their brand." The same cannot be done with apps on mobile devices, he added.

Pros and cons
Bump evangelist Sadie Bascom agreed that the personal touch is an important aspect to a business card. "However, many people have collected hundreds of business cards over the years, but don't use them as a resource, no matter how interesting the card design. And it's a pain to manually type in all their information.

"So, while it is nice to have a business card with a personal touch, it is more important to make your contact information readily available to whoever you gave it to. And it saves me a lot of time later," Bascom said.

Bump is a mobile app that allows users to trade their personal information with another iPhone or Android user when they "bump" their phones together. The movement triggers an information exchange with the participating Bump user via Bluetooth. A person can also specify how much data to exchange from e-mail addresses to calendar dates or photos.

Sales executive Sally Teo, a self-confessed user of the iPhone Bump application, said she likes convenience and speed when exchanging contacts. But she admitted that there are a few downsides, such as an app that is not yet completely platform-agnostic--there has yet to be a version for the BlackBerry.

She added in an e-mail: "Relationships don't start just because you've exchanged cards. It's what you do to follow up with the person afterward that counts, regardless of how you've swapped information."