“Very few people will say to me, do you have a business card?” says Lauren McGoodwin. She’s the founder of Career Contessa, a professional development site geared toward women, which means that depending where you are in your career and what kind of career you have, this fact may or may not come as a surprise.
“And if you say to them, I don't have a business card but I can give you my Instagram account, then you can do it right then and there. It's instant, whereas business cards can get lost, or go into your wallet where you forget about them and then it’s too late to ever follow up with the person.”
Potential reasons for this natural phasing-out of business cards abound; they’re stuffy, they’re bad for the planet, they cost money. They’re also incongruent with how many of us — especially, fine, I’ll say it, millennials, but also just professionals more generally — are living our lives and connecting with one another. Why fumble around for a card when you’re probably already holding your phone in your hand? And why risk letting that great connection proceed to lose said card at the bottom of their handbag when you can show them so much of who you are, beyond just your job title and email address, with a few clicks?
To be fair, in certain (more corporate, less youth-oriented) circles, business cards are still as standard as the office coffee machine. McGoodwin recalls a recent incident where she felt unsettled after an editor she was meeting with asked her for a business card and she couldn’t produce one. “I felt very millennial,” she admits. “I was embarrassed, especially since I run a career site. Like, I should definitely have business cards.”
Others say social media has afforded them opportunities they never would have had via traditional networking. For example, when Kelsey Formost, a freelance copywriter living in L.A., posted an illustration she had done about getting through Father’s Day following the death of a parent, she never expected it to go viral, much help her professional life. But when her post was shared by @mindbodygreen, a wellness account with over 784k followers, that’s exactly what happened.
“In a day, my DMs were full of new clients wanting to work with me. I got more business from one, non-business-related, super personal Instagram post than from all the networking events I went to last year combined,” she says. “Business cards are exactly that — business — while social media is, you guessed it: social. Having someone see your daily life cultivates the all-important "know, like, trust" factor we all need to succeed in business.”
This is an example of all that social media should and could be, if only we could get rid of all the bots, trolls, and mens’ rights activists. And the idea of briefly meeting someone IRL and then developing the relationship further online — as opposed to through a stiffly-worded email or, god forbid, some anxiety-inducing coffee date is also a wonderful function of modern technology. It levels the playing field between introverts and extroverts and gives two people an organic jumping-off point. Even if that’s just a heart-eyes emoji beneath a picture, or a casual “so nice to meet you last night” DM.
It also serves a generation of workers who may have two or more careers. According to a 2017 study from Bankrate, reported by CNN, 44 million Americans have a side hustle. Some go hand-in-hand, like social media management and copywriting, while others wouldn’t exactly make sense together on a business card. Apps like Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn allow us to show the nuances of both our professional ambitions and our personalities. (Which of those three you’re most professionally active on is likely correlated to which field you’re in; what works for an aspiring fashion stylist probably isn’t going to be the best thing for a Wall Street stockbroker.)
It’s understandable that freelancers or people trying to change career fields wouldn’t want to shell out their own cash for business cards, but some companies are saying goodbye to them as well. Richard Ramsuchit, who owns Reverse Karma, an upstart brand that sells incense and resins, says that his company initially printed “about 100 business cards, to be traditional and ‘professional,’” but found that no one was really using them and decided to nix it going forward.
“It’s a waste, no one keeps them,” Ramsuchit says. “Consumers and people in general want to reduce waste and paper. Most people ask for our social media handles or input my number directly into their phone in person with additional contact methods.”
According to Carolyn Cox, director of Green Business HQ, in the US alone more than one billion business cards are printed each year. “Even with the most optimistic calculations on use of recycled paper that’s about 30,000 trees per year or about 500 hectares of forest,” she says. “If these were all printed on virgin — unrecycled paper — they could use up to 500,000 trees.” She notes that 88 percent of cards printed are thrown out within a week.
For companies that still want business cards for their employees, Cox says using cards that are made out of recycled fibres, are carbon neutral or positive, and are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council or the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification are an important step.
“We do still have printed business cards meeting these environmental criteria,” she says of her company. “Why? Because it just takes one new business contact for us to have a hugely positive environmental impact.” She does add, however, that they “don’t hand out many these days.”
But there’s a difference between networking with someone else in your own age bracket, who is likely to be active on the same social platforms as you in much the same fashion that you are, and attempting to make a connection with someone much more senior than you. In those cases, it’s likely they’ll prefer the formality of an old school business card. But will the same thing be true in ten or 15 years, when we are the ones in the C Suite? It seems unlikely.
I think I’m now of the mindset that you should have both, because you want to tailor the communication you're going to have with a person to what they want, especially if you want something from them,” explains McGoodwin.
She also cautions that if you’re going to use social platform to promote yourself professionally, you should consider the kind of image you want to project and figure out what kind of content is going to help you do that. There’s nothing wrong with posting a bikini selfie -- especially if your career involves something like fitness, wellness, or fashion -- but if you’re going to give out your handle to a potential business contact, be sure you’re cool with them seeing it. But if you’re able to cultivate a presence that feels distinct, or even, like Formost, stumble upon an idea that resonates, you can make not just your business card but potentially even your resume obsolete.
“I used to joke on the website: a job’s not going to just knock on your door,” McGoodwin says. “But actually, it could — it could land in your inbox.”