Photo by Elle Ko

“Friend” me; “like” this; “follow” that guy.

In this age of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, the concept of business cards might seem like a dated one. After all, how can you hand someone a cardboard rectangle when you communicate almost entirely online? And isn’t all of your relevant info already out there on your profiles anyway? We’re going “green,” which means LESS paper, remember?

As it turns out, there’s still a need for business cards in the 21st century. John Wheeler of wrote an interesting blog post about the use of business cards today, and we’ll paraphrase it here so that you have the info you need to merge the real-world and online-world components of your business in the best possible way.

First, let’s clarify what a business card is. It’s a small, rectangular or square piece of card stock that’s printed with your name, title, contact info and company. A logo and/or a brand message can be found on some of the better business cards out there. But that is, quite literally, all there is to a business card. No bells, no whistles, no interactivity; just a card that has your relevant info on it.

Wheeler notes that, in his decades of experience in the corporate world, he got his hands on a lot of business cards, and he graded them by a fairly simple system. He kept the cards of people he regularly did business with up front in his card holder – this included his CPA, attorney, IT guys and other frequently-called people (of course, in this mobile era, most of the contact info we regularly use is stored in our phones, computers or social networks, so we don’t need cards for this reason anymore). Wheeler also kept cards for people he might do business with in the future (those with an interesting product or service), and he held onto some cards because the people presenting them offered goods or services that he might eventually be able to suggest to other people, even if he never used the goods or services himself. Finally, some cards that came from people who rubbed him the wrong way, or who offered a product or service he’d never use or recommend, ended up in the trash.

Today, business cards perform slightly different duties than they used to. We don’t keep Rolodexes of cards on our desks anymore, but here are the reasons that Wheeler says business cards are still a good idea:

They make you seem legit – For some reason, businesses that have business cards appear to be more stable, solid and legitimate than those that don’t.

They let people know that you’re in the business – Business cards are essentially a visual reminder for the recipient that your company offers a particular good or service. Your potential customers might not realize or remember that you’re in a particular line of work without a business card to spell it out for them.

They are vital to branding – In any business, building and maintaining a solid brand is key. Having a business card with a clear brand, logo and tagline helps your company become more recognizable and memorable. Just as the golden arches make people think of McDonalds, you want people to think of your company (and what your company offers) if they see your logo or read your tagline. Business cards help with this.

They make it easier to spread your contact info around – Business cards let you easily give your contact info to potential customers, but even better, they make it possible for those potential customers to share your info with OTHER potential customers. Wheeler calls this “the holy grail of most networking groups” – many people do indeed carry around business cards that they’ve received and share them with their own contacts. I’ve done that very thing myself: “Oh, you’re looking for a kennel for your dog? We board our dogs at a great kennel near here… Wait, I’ve got their business card in my purse.” Just like that, the kennel gets a new client without having to do anything except have a business card.

So those are all the good reasons to have a business card. But Wheeler cautions that there are some things a business card CAN’T do for you. Here’s the list of areas in which business cards fall flat:

They can’t sell for you – Wheeler calls this the first misconception about business cards. If you hang up some cards on a bulletin board or set out a stack on a table somewhere, people are not very likely to actually pick up your card and go buy what you have to offer. A business card isn’t an advertisement; it’s just contact info, and if people don’t have context for that contact info, they won’t be contacting you.

They can’t network for you – I’ve met businesspeople who constantly want to trade business cards. “Here’s my card…. Did I give you my card?…Have my card!” Trading cards is not networking, Wheeler notes. It’s simply giving each other a means to contact one another. In general, simply having someone’s card doesn’t give you a whole lot of incentive to contact them.

Most of the time, people won’t be sharing your card with others – Think about what you do when someone gives you a business card. Usually, you probably either throw it away, or bury it in your wallet until you eventually clean out your wallet and THEN you throw it away. You have to give people more of a reason to hang onto your card and share it with their friends; simply thrusting the card into their hand or putting it out on a table somewhere won’t cut it.

So what’s the lesson here? The key with business cards is to treat them as a networking tool, not as the be-all end-all of networking. Wheeler likens them to a handshake: they’re a good way to get a conversation going, but you can’t stop with a card exchange. You need to talk to your potential customers, explain who you are and what you do, and give them a reason to care about your offering. If they like what they hear, they’ll be more likely to keep, use and share your card. I’ve seen this work well when two business people start talking first, and then, once they’re both intrigued, the moment comes: “Let me give you my card; then we can talk further about this.” The card exchange comes as a result of a connection that’s begun to be made; it’s not used as a replacement for actual networking.

Not everyone you give a card to will buy what you’re selling, and that’s okay. Like handshakes, business cards are merely an introduction to get the ball rolling on successful networking connections. If you want your business to gain legitimacy and brand recognition, and if you intend to use business cards as a PART of your networking efforts (instead of the whole of those efforts), then definitely get some business cards.