Why business cards have survived against all odds

Recently three of Steve Jobs' old business cards were sold for $US10,500. Ironically this happened as Apple spearheads a push towards the use of e-cards which could effectively make hard-copy business cards obsolete.

The fact traditional business cards can sell for such a premium on the collectors' market proves they still have currency. But they still endure as a useful business device, too.

"While there's a place for electronic networking and e-cards, the role of the physical business card seems set to stay."
James Rose, Newsmodo freelance journalist


Business cards as we know them today had their genesis in China around 500 years ago. They were used then as notifications of an impending visit, which may have been business or personal, much as an email, text message or telephone calls might be used today.

Western traders likewise embraced the idea and used them more to enhance trading relations across the globe and to maintain something of a presence, even though they might be located thousands of miles away and many months across the seas.

Three central protocols for engaging with others you want to do business with in Asia:

  • Use handwritten notes
  • Know how to present and receive business cards
  • Communicate on personal stationery

Those early efforts were quite rudimentary in design and fairly thinly dispersed. It probably wasn't until post-World War II and the innovations in mass printing that cards became widespread and individual touches became possible.

In the West the boom in trade with Japan and the rest of Asia, especially from the 1960s onwards, bolstered the use of the business card.

Click image to zoom Tap image to zoom


Today, online printing has added immediacy and customisation to business card production and this appears to have aided their survival.

US-based Moo is one company to successfully capture the mass customisation trend and has helped regenerate the humble business card.

In 2012, its CEO told Bloomberg business cards are “a large, profitable sector" for them. Almost half of Moo's business is in the US and the business of using the internet to print out real, actual business stationery, including cards, is worth around $US3 billion.


According to business etiquette expert Anna Musson, connecting with a real human is perhaps even more important in the internet age.

“Nothing will replace personal contact and the more we rely on the internet, the more we need the personal touch," she says.

For those doing business in Asia especially, the culture of cards is very much here to stay.

Martine Letts, National CEO of the Australia-China Business Council, doesn't think cards will go away any time soon.

Spending a lot of time in China particularly, she finds “the exchange of cards is an important ritual of introduction, to establish contact and rapport".

For Musson, the basics of a good card are name, phone number and postal address. It's important the card design is somehow relative to the industry – plastic cards for a plastics company for instance.

All this seems straightforward. But why might a physical address be more important than say an email address? Or website?

Musson suggests your work location is a good icebreaker, as it allows the card recipient to comment on your home town, especially if they've been there, and thus get a conversation flowing. It also helps to show you are not a fly-by-night and have a real place of work that can be checked if need be.

It's just as important, she says, to know what to do with a card once given one. Men should place it in an upper pocket, say in a breast pocket, and never in their wallet or a back pocket. Women should have a card-holder handy for cards.

While there's a place for electronic networking and e-cards, the role of the physical business card seems set to stay. In fact, it would appear many of us crave the human touch, the tangible.

The humble old business card embodies this. Robots and e-networking devices can do a lot. But they rarely facilitate eye contact and engage in a chat about the weather.

James Rose is a freelance journalist with newsmodo.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

editor's picks

09 Jul 2015

Is Hong Kong still a home for business?

Ivy Au Yeung | Chief Executive Officer ANZ Hong Kong

As HSBC mulls the relocation of its headquarters back to Asia Hong Kong has been slated its likely destination of choice, spurring a debate on whether the city is still considered a preferred headquarters location for businesses.