3 Reasons Business Cards are Dangerous

Traditional business cards and CDs-as-business-cards are dangerous because:

1. They assume old-style communication: I have a message for you.

This is a transactional view of communication. If you simply put your card in someone's hand as a way of marketing, chances are it will end in the trash can when your back is turned.

To ensure your card becomes a treasured artifact and entered into someone's Rolodex you must generate value on the spot, interacting with the other person and creating something they can use. This is what I call generative communication. When you want to hand someone your business card, ask first, "Have I generated value for this person?" If you can't answer that question in the affirmative, why should they take your card other than politeness?

2. The act of giving a business card is almost always about the person who is giving it.

I believe there will be new smart business cards that will reflect the relationship and the circumstances rather than the giver. Think about that! These intelligent credit card like devices will provide different information to different people, taking into consideration what you can achieve together. You can't predict this in advance. It is situation and context dependent.

So smart business cards of the future will generate new possibilities. In the meantime, while we wait, what are you doing to generate new possibilities with the people you meet?

3. Traditional business cards are about a limited number of roles.

How many titles can you put on a business card? One, three - I have seen fifteen, but only in jest. Smart business cards will be responsive to multiple contexts and even promote innovation; ie, identify hidden potential and facilitate its emergence.

Until these wonder cards arrive, you must scan for emerging possibilities. You must inform your stakeholders of all that you can create together, and do it in a way that is compelling, exciting, and fruitful. Do you know when a new idea is ripe for the plucking? Are you cultivating the emerging reality of new possibilities with the people you meet?

When you meet someone for the first time, try asking these questions:

  • Have you thought about what is new in your field? What excites you most? Where is the highest potential? 
  • What kind of media attention is your industry getting? Is that an accurate reflection of your situation? 
  • What has to be fixed for your sector to really grow? Is anything holding you back? 
  • What trends have emerged that have real impact on the way you do business? How are you keeping in step with them? 

Make interactions about more than exchanging unwanted information. Step them up to a new level. Have a conversation that matters and will be remembered. Then, give them your business card. They will be sure to file it in their system. Better yet, you may get an appointment to talk in greater depth about how you can help them achieve their goals.

Seth Kahan (Seth@VisionaryLeadership.com) is a Change Leadership specialist. He has consulted with CEOs and executives in over 50 world-class organizations that include Shell, World Bank, Peace Corps, Marriott, Prudential, American Society of Association Executives, International Bridge Tunnel and Turnpike Association, Project Management Institute, and NASA. 

Seth's next book, Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out, will be published in May by Jossey-Bass. Visit his other blogs,GettingChangeRight.com for more info on the upcoming book and FreelanceFortune.com for tips on how to succeed as a free agent.  Follow Seth on Twitter. Learn more about Seth's work at VisionaryLeadership.com.

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  • Seth Kahan

    Thanks for your reactions - looks like I stirred up a hornet's nest. Keith Dugdale picked up the central message. Don't take your business card for granted.

    Ok, you love that little card, that piece of graphic design you have worked on so carefully, ensuring it's blank space is appropriately inviting for a note or the image fits your brand - but, don't forget the "business" in business card. Are you adapting to the moment, refocusing your strengths and applying them to generate something your potential partner/client will treasure?

    While you are busy defending your use of a little piece of paper, others are scribbling on torn bits of napkin because the value is radiating from the conversation and the stained serviette is serving successfully, probably better than a pre-designed note because it is an artifact of an experience where real worth was created.

  • Keith Dugdale

    I have a slightly different take on this. I think Seth's key point, and few people have picked up on it, is "generate value on the spot". We talk about this as giving value in every interaction. The rule we have in our company and we impart on our clients, is you can never talk to a client unless you are going to add value in that (and every) conversation. Not value in the product or service but every time they have talked to you they need to go away with new value. This is really hard to do and changes totally the way you frame up conversations. Think about the last meeting you had with each of your clients and see if you can determine the value the client went away with. If you do manage to do this then they will ask for your contact details - and then you hand over the business card. Many people however thrust their card upon the unsuspecting client and think that mean they now have a relationship.

  • Jym Allyn

    This article is not only wrong, it is foolish.

    Anyone who thinks that they are going to "get business" just because they have a card will likely be foolish enough to believe anything (such as this article) just because it is in print.

    THE function of a "business card" is so that the other person has your name spelled correctly and your contact information. (This is presuming that YOU have your name spelled correctly. There is a host of anecdotes about that.) Titles or any other information about you or your company on the card is irrelevant and often misleading.

    That contact information (and the credibility you hopefully generate with the other person when you exchange that information) is the only thing that is important or useful with that card.

  • Varun Arora

    Agree with Tom and Melissa. This article reads like one that was written for the sake of getting a piece in. I don't see business cards going away any time soon, nor do I see their utility (as a recipient as well as a "giver") diminishing.

    What I *have* seen is innovation, some of which we've shamelessly copied here at HomeCamera. E.g. instead of wasting room on a postal address - which someone who's appropriately inclined can find on our site - we use the rear of our card as an elevator pitch: what HomeCamera is, how we're different, some media and industry commendations, and how we're looking to work with partners. This reminds the recipient of the context we met in - particularly useful when meeting dozens of potential customers and partners during a conference etc.

    Everything else ("When you meet someone for the first time, try asking these questions:") is basic - you need to do these things to demonstrate value and industry leadership. It doesn't take away from the need or value of business cards.

    'nuff said.

    - Varun Arora
    Founder, HomeCamera

  • Simma Lieberman

    I agree with you Seth. It is a waste of a card when consultants hand someone their card as soon as they meet. It's a great way to be forgettable.

  • Andrew Shell

    With my business cards they are very simple, just my name, phone number and e-mail address. The customization you speak of can be accomplished with a pen, writing information on the back of the card. There is no title printed on the card so there is no limitation there, you can write whatever on it you need.


    Wow. And here I was thinking they just were a simple-yet-interesting means of passing along business contact info when I didn't have either my netbook, pda or a piece of paper in my pocket. I used to admire the simplicity, even elegance, of the medium -- not to mention occasional cleverness. And, yes, I save business cards that acquaintances have taken the trouble to give me.

    I'm with Tom. Sometimes a business card is just a business card.

  • Tom DeSantis

    Oh come Seth, so much BS. Elegant somplicity is the key - we human beings are overloaded with meaning and message every second...we're pounded into the pavement on par with a Hanna Barbera cartoon. Quality stock, clean design, to-the-point information...where the old media newspaper fold meets new media Google home page. Doesn't need batteries or a usb. Serenity now.