The best digital business idea that just never worked


By Mark Schaefer

A paperless society? Not if the recent SXSW conference was any indicator.

I know this sounds crazy, but paper is still the preferred communication method at the world’s biggest interactive gathering.  Every attendee is handed a printed program guide as big as a phone book.  Start-ups and filmmakers paste posters on every column and leave flyers on all the tables. Everybody still wears a paper name tag.

But the strangest hold out of all is the business card.

I probably passed out (and received) 250 business cards at the event. Nobody offered a “digital” card and nobody asked for one, even though that “bump” technology of transferring from one mobile device to another has been around for a few years.

I found this so odd … especially when I returned home and manually had to enter all that information into my contact list. Doesn’t that just seem like the biggest waste of time? “Bumping” a business card is such a great idea. But it never worked.  Why?

It interested me to the point that I posted the issue on Facebook. Some of the responses were illuminating.  Here is what a few {grow} community members had to say about the obvious staying power of business cards:

Gary Schirr YEARS ago businesspeople used to exchange info electronically using their Palm organizers…what happened???

Ahna Rebekah Hendrix I prefer business cards at this point because they remind me of the individual versus just putting a number/name in my phone. The apps where you take a picture are still odd to me – I’m not trying to snap the picture of a new contact just to remember them.. We are somewhere in the middle, but I much prefer b-cards still.

Jason Falls I actually prefer going through the cards I collect when I get home. Helps me remember who the people are and to follow up with them. (Just finished doing that a few minutes ago!

Kristen Margo Daukas At least with physical cards, you can flip thru them and if you don’t know the person, if you’ve written a note it will jog your memory. Once you put it in the phone and trash the card, it’s even more lost in a sea of data. Personally, I like that are one or two things that are still tangible.

Brian Vickery I’ve mentioned just getting a custom QR code for the phone that folks could scan – but it would be so foreign to most people. Secondary consideration is to then include one on the business card to at least save the tech-savvy folks from having to type in the information.

Craig Lindberg Wonder how the etiquette for the card exchange like that in Japan can be updated to mobile? Or maybe they have already. Important rituals sometimes don’t translate into digital.

When I think about the future, I usually assume we will be surrounded by a digital layer that we will literally be able to absorb and record at will with some device. But I wonder if we will always have business cards?

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  • I think the attraction of the traditional business card is because we like to cling to something physical in an ever increasingly digital world. My personal business cards are an extension of my persona and they took time for me to design. Because of this effort, I am proud of them and, as well as the obvious business benefits of sharing my contact details, I also like showing off my b card design skills 🙂

    Just received your book by the way (Unlock the power of influence), literally 5 minutes ago 🙂

  • Well, being the quill pen person that I am living in a digital world, I of course still love paper! I love paper books, paper business cards, paper posters…there’s something lasting and real, touchable and touching about the tangible. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not averse to digital…it’s not an either/or. But like Jason said, the act of physically going through cards (especially since I always take a moment to jot down in pen…oh yes, longhand eegads) on the back of the card a few extra things of note about the person) creates a more lasting memory. Song lyric now…memories…pressed between the pages of my mind… Cheers! Kaarina

  • I see this trens also showing up with vinyl record albums. Although sales are still small, the trend is driven by people who want something to hold on to. Still, 99% of music sales are digital. 99% of business cards are physical! Something strange!

    And thanks for buying my book!

  • Oh boy that song will be in my head all day now. : ) Great comment Kaarina. Thanks!

  • I think nostalgia plays a big part in other areas (such as vinyl) and that some believe the old ways were better or brings back specific memories (the sound of music recorded on vinyl).

    With b cards I still believe it’s more that you have created something physical to share with others, rather than digitally.

    There are probably numerous reasons behind the continued success of the b cards and differs from person to person.

  • I am amazed too that certain aspects of digital have not taken hold. For the longest time I was helping companies reduce their amount of paper (e.g. extracting accounts payable invoicing information & ‘pushing’ data directly into a database via OCR & then tossing the paper). I found there was way too much of an education cycle behind the solution, and suspect the same with the ‘business card’ situation. Perhaps the technical illiterates don’t know about the bump technology, and the tekkies that know about it, haven’t (for the most part) attempted to even test it’s functionality. Maybe the perception of ease-of-use is the stumbling block, and maybe when people find out about the simplicity (and value) it will be their ah-ha moment. Perhaps?

  • MrTonyDowling

    Hey Mark, I must say I prefer a digital exchange
    I’ll probably text a new contact while we talk to ensure they have my number (and I’ve got their number correctly stored)
    Just seems easier and quicker? I’ve lost count of how many cards I’ve lost over the years, but I take my contacts on my phone with me from device to device and network to network!
    By the way, sales of music in a physical media form still outsell digital, at least as of Oct last year. Interestingly, Vinyl was up 16% too – go figure!

  • I hate to enter data and in many ways love the idea of digital cards, or being able to scan cards directly into a database. There are a lot of us who still like at least some things being on paper. In my work a lot of people still ask for brochures. Yes, everything they could possibly want to know is on the clients’ websites, but many still want that paper brochure in their hands. Maybe that will change with the generations but for now, it is what it is.

  • Steve Boney

    Mark: The two tasks I least enjoy when returning from a trip are: 1. Manually entering expenses. 2. Manually entering information from business cards. I would much prefer to give and receive digital cards, but related to your comment below, my 17 year old son has taken me back to vinyl. SB

  • This doesn’t help the paper issue, but either upload a picture of each card to Evernote, since it will OCR them, or use Linkedin’s CardMunch ( You won’t ever have to type business card info again.

  • Vicki Kunkel

    Wow, Tony. That’s an interesting statistic about music sales! Would you mind sharing your source? All the articles I’ve read say that digital (barely) outsells CDs,( and I always found that a little suspect, as I have several friends who still buy the physical product.

  • Great post Mark!

    As digital as we all are today, I still take notes with pen and paper, I still draw out flow charts and ideas, I still use pen and paper to make (some) calculations, and I still hand out and receive business cards.

    I often tend to forget about contacts on my phone as well. Most of the interactions I do now are on social – when someone hands me a business card, I usually connect with them on LinkedIn and Twitter, and interact with them there. I save the business card in case I need their phone number or email address.

    Tech can go wrong – systems crash, transfers fail, etc. Handing out a business card is something tangible. There’s no fail there (unless you leave it in your pocket while doing laundry).

    It’s funny, because I’m in my early 20s, and grew up in the digital age. There are still things that I prefer using pen and paper for. Most of my classmates when I was in university would type out their notes on laptops – all I had was pen and paper, and that’s the way I preferred it!

    I wonder though how the NEXT generation will interact? Will they still be using paper/business cards?

  • Hey Mark, I too was surprised by your post on FB. I even repeated it to others… (yes, you are quoted in the real world too).

    I think it’s a matter of the right technology, the right ubiquitous app, we all need the same app.
    LinkedIn could add a ‘bump’ functionality. This would go a long way in digitizing the business card. Especially if you could instantly connect and add data as to where and when.

    A combination of Bump, LinkedIn and the Hello app by Evernote (another bright idea by the {grow} community, heh).

  • Tech illiterates … at SXSW? : ) You had me up to that point buddy!

  • Thanks for adding to the conversation Tony.

  • Well said Brad.

  • Agree on both points!

  • A great question. Will there be a backlash on digital? Or, will you be forced to be digital to be relevant and operational?

  • Boy, I LOVE that idea!!! A LinkedIn bump. Go patent that now!!

  • I like taking a business card in one hand while I shake hands with the other. It feels more personal to me.

  • Awesome. The fact most people have a picture in their LinkedIn profile helps as well. Cards help me remember the person because each card is somewhat unique (well, most are). Integrating LinkedIn might be just what I need to get past cards…

  • How timely – I was just at a large networking event last week (C-Level at a Mile High), and everybody was handing out business cards. The one QR code I had the chance to read…worked fine for the iPhone but not the iPad.

    Can’t afford to have tech derail a business opportunity, so the business cards prevail.

    I did take a more proactive approach this time. After the discussion with a C-Level exec, I would take my business card and write the couple relevant points on the card before handing it to him/her. They then have more context when deciding whether to keep the card or throw it in the circular file. Luckily, I have enough white space on the card to write those bullet points.

  • I don’t think a patent in Belgium would stop anybody… hihi… You can have it though…

  • Foster D. Coburn III

    I am one who likes the physical cards because they can jog your memory after the event. This can be especially important when you meet hundreds of people. From the design standpoint, I think people should make sure to include a good headshot on themselves to help jog the memory of the person receiving the card. Lastly, I agree with Brian Vickery’s comment about including a QR code. I did exactly that on my most recent card and a lot of people are confused. Others love it as it adds all my contact info into their smartphones with a quick scan. It was something I wrote about in a blog post at

  • I don’t have the energy for a startup : )

  • Great. point. It’s failsafe. : )

  • I really love looking at and collecting business cards from the people that I meet. I’m not sure why — but I guess it’s just a comfort thing. The logistics of getting everybody using the same technology or app seems overwhelming. I have to admit, however, that I love Rogier’s idea of using an existing network like LinkedIn somehow. We all have that on our phones anyway!

  • I love that idea of “comfort.” I think there is something to that. It’s a timeless tradition : ) Maybe everything WON’T go digital after all.

  • RandyBowden

    Mark, I am still in the card swapping camp, it’s the designer in me, about the last paper trail I leave. But, like you I hate to input them into contacts! However I have found a helpful app for that, works great unless one of those way-out creatives gets a bit to arty with their intro piece. I suggest you give it a try… Snap a photo of the card and in a few hours, all info is in your directory along with the photo. I tried that Palm exchange years ago, just never caught on in mass…

  • I like the idea of a business card with a QR code that just updates your phone book. Business cards are very individual, I think that is why people still enjoy using them!

  • As much as I don’t like entering data (or scanning cards), I think the business card exchange is more personal. And, business cards are more memorable. Heck, I have stacks and stacks of cards in my office – I just can’t seem to throw them away!

    Personally, I just invested in nice, thick letterpress business cards. Why? Because everything I do is so digital, it’s nice to have a tactile, beautiful printed piece to give people. I think people are starting to crave paper and printed pieces again because of the scarcity of it. I think business cards – depending on how you design them – give you a nice branding opportunity and a chance to stand out. That’s hard to do with a phone bump.

  • Thanks for taking the time to comment Foster.

  • I have tried that Randy and it just did not work very well for me.I know others have been disappointed in it too.

  • Many thanks for commenting Andrzej!

  • Great points Laura. It is nice to give away little pieces of art, isn’t it?

  • Card munch has worked great for me!! Love the app

  • sbc111

    I had a Japanese classmate in business school many years ago – he described exchanging cards as part of the business etiquette. It’s a ritual that’s called ‘meshi’ – complete with bowing (your head) and the correct way to offer your card and receive one.There must be some great reasons behind it.

  • mimmordino

    The Bump app already supports this functionality. Along with sending your contact information it allows you to automatically send connection requests through LinkedIn, follows through Twitter, and friend requests in Facebook. You can basically send your contact information and resume all in digital format with a single bump of a phone. People just need to start adopting it.

  • I think that @fetchly has a simple solution that addresses several of the comments of the users listed here. Once you create your SMS based business card, you can send and fetch others cards and add notes at the same time. Go home and browse all your transactions in your activity feed and download VCF attachements into your CRM

  • What did you find disappointing in Cardmunch?

  • anonymous


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