The Cardinal Rules of Properly Using Business Cards

It's time to elevate business cards from being perfunctory to a true professional asset.

Male hand giving business card to his colleague.

When designing a business card it's a good idea to utilize the space on both sides, but you should avoid trying to get too cute.

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Regardless of how advanced and digitized our networking and communication strategies become, the paper business card is still an effective ambassador of who we are professionally. This is a shame, because most of us unenthusiastically distribute bare and boring business cards that no one remembers while collecting similarly simple cards from others that we quickly misplace or never use.

It's time to elevate business cards from being perfunctory to a true professional asset. Consider these tips for how to choose and distribute a good business card:

Remember your objective.
Stephanie Shore says business cards should be a statement of who you are and who you want to be. Shore is vice president of global marketing for MOO, a company that makes custom business cards. She describes her company's product as conversation starters. "We hope that when you hand someone your business card, you’re actually hoping to talk to him or her," she says. "Gone are the days when they were a tool to get out of a conversation."

Make 'em memorable. If you're thinking of the business card as an extension of you, then make sure "you" don't wind up in a trash bin. Ditch the same old, same old plain white paper with black scrawl – it's all right for the cards to be innovative, as long as they're also professional. "The size of the type, the color, the use of photographer, your logo, the quality of the materials, the paper – these are the tools that help you instantly share who you are and what you value," Shore says. "You want your card to reflect well on your business and on you. You want to make something you’re proud of. And it's important to look authentic."

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Use both sides. "What’s one of the first things people do when they receive a business card? They flip it over," says Lucy Rosen, president and chief solutions officer for SmartMarketing Communications. Leverage that instinct, and put useful information on both the front and back. One side should explain what you do and display your contact information, while the other could offer a snapshot of your skills and qualifications. Shore also suggests adding your Twitter handle and, if applicable, a discount code for people to trial a product you sell. "When someone looks at your business card a week after they've met you, the question is what do they remember about that meeting and about you," she says.

Ditch the gimmicks. You want to leave an impression on your card's recipient, but you don’t want to make extra work for him or her. If your too-cute font is also too-tiny to read, it doesn’t matter how great your qualifications are. Business cards that are also magnets or stickers might aesthetically appeal to some, but it'll annoy plenty others. Also beware of using QR codes, or the square-grid bar codes sometimes incorporated into brochures and pamphlets that users can scan to access additional information. Rosen says these are more fad than functional. "I can see how people might argue that they're appropriate for some industries, but they take up a lot of space and only appeal to a very small group of people." 

Quit being a cheapskate. Many employers provide business cards for their staff, but you should have a different, separate stash you can use when job hunting. And if you're currently unemployed or self-employed then you definitely want to have your own cards. A printing company might offer free sample cards you could distribute, but those are better advertising for the company that made them – since its name is no doubt printed somewhere on the card – than they are for you. Use those samples as an idea of how you want your cards to look, then make arrangements to purchase the real deal.

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Pay attention to the paper. Speaking of cost, choose the very best paper you can afford, and consult with your printing company on the proper stock. Rosen suggests avoiding the shiny, glossy look, because those cards are difficult for the recipient to write on. Also, "your card should feel good to the touch, because the person is going to feel the card before they see it." she says.

Shore agrees cards that feel memorable will only help you. "A customer told us a few days back that she’d handed her card to someone at an event in a dark-lit room, and the first thing they did was take out their phone to look at it because they were amazed at the thickness of the paper," she says. 

Always ask permission. Once your business cards are printed and perfect, it's time to put them to use. Rule No. 1: Never card-bomb, or hand over a card upon meeting someone face-to-face and before exchanging a greeting. The problem here isn't your intention, Rosen says, but your method. "You shouldn't give a business card out unless you ask first," she says. "It's courteous to ask permission in a world where no one asks permission, and it's a way of not being an imposition. Plus, I've never heard anyone say 'no.' Everyone will say 'yes' when asked this way.”

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Stay away from guerrilla marketing. Don't walk around a parking lot wedging your business card in car windows and windshield wipers. It violates the aforementioned rule of always asking permission first, plus you'll do more littering than generating new business. It's always best to place a business card in the palm of someone's hand. 

Ensure you have easy access. Shore says a lot of MOO's customers opt for a custom case to carry the cards inside, and Rosen recommends keeping the cards – whether in a case, or otherwise – in a left-hand pocket. "You're free to take the card out with your left hand while you shake hands with your right," she explains. 

Return the favor. It's good juju to treat others' business cards the way you'd want yours to be treated. "The worst thing you could do is put cards in a drawer and then have no idea what it's there for," Rosen says. Find an organization system that works for you, and promptly file new cards when you receive them. "Everyone has their own memory triggers," she adds. "The way I categorize is by type of business because that's how I'll remember the person.”