How to Banish Business Cards: A Ranked List of Digital Options

Business cards are the scourge of anyone trying to go paperless. Sure, the basic concept is brilliant: a business card provides a compact, easily transferable storage location for all of the key data about another person. But it’s a mystery to me why the traditional paper business card, a descendant of the 17th-century visiting card, seems to hang on so tenaciously, at a time when other manifestations of our old paper culture—snail mail, personal checks, faxes, newspapers, magazines, books—are fading away so rapidly.

For more than a decade now, the digital world has offered perfectly good—in fact, better—alternatives to the paper business card, yet companies like VistaPrint and MOO keep churning them out, and people keep exchanging them. Just in the last three years, the time I’ve been working at Xconomy, I’ve collected a stack of business cards 14 inches high, and have given away at least as many.

I’m open to all arguments about why paper business cards still proliferate. Maybe they’re the last relic of the gift economy that, according to anthropologists, is so important to the social fabric of some cultures. Maybe, to get all neuroscience-y about it, there’s something physical about business cards that facilitates spatial or tactile reasoning about our social connections—sort of the way air traffic controllers still keep track of incoming planes by sliding around little blocks of wood.

I have no idea. But in this column, I’m going to write about a few of the ways I’ve explored for digitizing and managing my own mess of business cards, in hopes of helping others escape the madness. Here they are, in order of my least favorite to most favorite:

The worst option: Card scanners. When I joined my previous employer, MIT’s Technology Review magazine, I found a business card scanner in a desk drawer. I hooked it up to my Windows laptop, loaded up the software on the accompanying CD-ROM, and scanned in a bunch of cards. The software used optical character recognition (OCR) to digitize the text, and spit out a vCard file that could be imported into my Outlook address book. The system did a pretty impressive job of assigning each piece of information—name, title, company, phone number, address, e-mail address—to the right data field.

Wade Roush's Business CardBut there were two problems. Feeding the cards into the scanner was a tedious, manual process. (I know there are card scanners with automatic feeders, but the magazine hadn’t sprung for one of these). On top of that, the OCR accuracy was terrible. Every single vCard file required manual corrections. This was back in 2002, so I’m sure the technology has improved somewhat. But I gave up in the end. The chances that I would actually need to refer to the data someday, I reasoned, weren’t high enough to justify the amount of time required to scan the cards and correct the entries. Plus, it seemed to me that if you’re going to buy a machine to automate something, you’d really like it to handle the whole process, without constant tending by a human.

A somewhat better option: Flatbed scanning and/or photography + Evernote. When the online notekeeping service Evernote came along in 2008, one of its signature features was the ability to do OCR on images and PDF files. That meant you could upload a picture or a scan of a business card, and Evernote would index the text and make it searchable, just like any purely digital document. I experimented with this feature by lining up a bunch of business cards on a … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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