The Pschology of Business Cards
Recently I was asked to speak on BBC Radio Scotland about the use of business cards: does anyone still use them
and, if so, what role to do they play?
There's no denying that there's something very old-fashioned about business cards. The days of calling
cards are long since past. Having spoken to people who remember them being in use, they recall butlers being
handed cards that were carried on silver salvers to a waiting householder.
I'm told that if the person the caller wanted to see wasn't available the inclusion of an address on the card
meant that etiquette necessitated a letter being sent: these days people don't always reply to emails containing
To date technology hasn't replaced the humble business card. It's still the best way of quickly giving
someone your contact details. And it's an uncomfortable moment when someone gives you their card and you are
not equipped to reciprocate.
I suspect a desire to avoid this discomfort is part of what keeps business cards in use. We acquire them
to avoid feeling bad when we can't reciprocate the gesture of someone else, but then, having ordered on the basis
of pricing that encourages you to buy larger quantities, find ourselves with so many of the things that we get into
the habit of giving them to people. So it is that the cycle is repeated.
There are some important psychological dimensions to the use of business cards. So here is my 7 point
guide to the business card:
- If you are a supplier, wait until a client offers you his or her card, or requests your contact details
(such as 'do you have a website'). Handing someone a card uninvited, when you have no basis for knowing
that the recipient will be grateful, will almost certainly be perceived negatively. If you're a potential
client of a supplier it's fine to give your card because it reflects the fact that your contact details are
- The opportunity with a business card, in psychological terms, is the chance to create a positive
prime. It may not be the very first impression, but it's likely that your card will be handed over before
you are well-known to the recipient. Consequently, it will trigger associations in the mind of the person
receiving it: it makes sense to optimise that impression.
- There is considerable evidence that people misattribute tactile stimuli: in other words, if your card feels
good, people are more likely to think positive thoughts about you. People given the same water in a more
flimsy plastic cup think it tastes less good. Make sure your card feels right.
- Good design is clearly a subjective matter, but again, there is lots of evidence that people do judge books
by their covers. Studies with wine show dramatically different reactions when the label is changed (but
the wine remains the same). With a business card you can benefit from having a design that is
well-crafted and, most importantly, fits with the general image you want to portray.
- It is possible to go over the top. As with personal clothing their can be a fine line between
individually stylish and uncomfortably weird.
- Be practical: people have to put a card somewhere. It's one thing to stand out in someone's mind,
quite another to stand out in their pocket because your card is an awkward shape.
- Consider the specific contents requirements for your industry and your own brand's proposition.
Increasingly only your name, email address, web page and phone number are required: and less information can
make for a more elegant-looking business card. However, if you're in a trade that has a less than
positive reputation it can be very helpful to include a physical address so that people know you aren't going
to take their money and run.
It's worth a small investment to get your business card right. Although the investment might need to be
larger if you're not completely clear what your proposition is or if you don't yet have a well-designed brand
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