How to make your business card a smart card

A post by Frank Eliason on business cards got me thinking a lot about the value of such bits of paper.

And they are bits of paper, aren’t they? Name, title, company, logo, address, phone, email, etc, printed on rectangular bits of stiff paper. The format hasn’t really changed in years.

Yet it’s a format we’re accustomed to in that aspect of social intercourse when we meet someone, typically in a business setting and exchange printed cards with our contact information.

But in this day and age, it’s a highly inefficient way of providing someone with a means to connect with you as it requires that someone to take that bit of paper and process it before he or she can get value from the information it contains.

But hang on a minute, there is a way to make that bit of paper provide the receiver of your card with some real value. And it’s very easy to do.

Let’s just accept one reality that printed business cards will be with us for some time and will continue to be the primary means of exchanging contact information for a majority of business people.

That doesn’t mean the cards have to stay as dumb as they are. Instead, let’s make them smart by adding content that can easily be captured digitally and made readily useable, and in a way that’s easy and very low cost.

No, I’m not talking about scanning business cards: that typically requires hardware (a scanning device) and then software to interpret the scanned image to make it usable and searchable.

I’m talking about adding something to your card that you can use with the camera on your mobile phone and which enables you to get far better value from the information it yields.

I’m talking about mobile barcodes.

The image you see at the top of this page shows three mobile barcodes that appear on my business card.

Here’s what the card looks like (click on the image to see the card more clearly).

Each of the barcodes contains the same information – a link to my website (nevillehobson.com) – that you capture by pointing your mobile phone camera at one of the barcodes and interpreting the coded image via freely-available applications such as i-Nigma for mobile phones like my Nokia N95 8GB (to scan the lower two black-and-white codes you see) and Microsoft Tag reader for a wide range of mobile devices including the iPhone (to scan the top coloured code).

Once the software on your phone recognizes the data in the code, it presents you with a link you can click on to launch your phone’s browser, connect to the net and come to my website. You can save the link as a bookmark, email it to someone and generally make far more effective use of the data than that on a bit of printed paper.

You could then dispose of the printed card (recycling recommended).

What I’ve done is a very simple use. I could have made the link even more valuable. A vCard, perhaps, that you could download. Maybe a video. A Google Maps link. Some other useful content that you might find valuable.

You can try the barcodes right now – if you have an app like i-Nigma on your phone, or Microsoft Tag, try one of the codes here with your phone’s camera. I bet it will work for you.

3barcodes

Creating the barcodes couldn’t be easier, either at the Microsoft Tag website or a variety of places for the other two (I use the Nokia Mobile Codes site). And I printed the cards myself using Avery card stock on the HP OfficeJet Pro 8500 Wireless printer that I’m trialling.

You might be wondering what’s with three different barcodes. This Wikipedia entry will tell you a bit about the development of all mobile barcodes including the two black-and-white ones I’ve used known as QR and Datamatrix, and there’s separate information about the newer Microsoft Tag in colour.

And wait until you see what Nokia’s experimenting with in Nokia Point and Find. And, take a look at something interesting that RadarDDB is doing with mobile barcodes with their social media brandscape (ask Matthew Yeomans to explain it).

So barcodes on business cards really are a very simple implementation of something with huge business possibilities.

I was at the IABC World Conference in San Francisco last week, and exchanged business cards with quite a few people. My barcodes prompted a lot of discussion (one of the great benefits right now that guarantee your cards some attention) and I’m sure others will now be experimenting just as I am.

I did encounter one person who was really up-to-date with electronic business cards. That was Jason Falls who had Bump on his iPhone. So I got that free app, too, and after a bit of a nudge with our iPhones, we’d exchanged contacts.

Didn’t see many other iPhones, though, mainly lots of Blackberries.

Meanwhile, I’m deciding what to do with the 26 printed business cards I collected from my exchanges that don’t have any barcodes. Suggestions welcome.

(Hat tip to Pete Blackshaw for his tweet about Frank Eliason’s post.)

  • [Update November 25, 2012:] While QR codes on business cards have still to make a major impact, there’s another technology that offers very interesting possibilities – NFC or near-field communication. I’ve written about some experimentation with this, focusing on what innovative business-card printer MOO is doing with NFC buisness cards in Could NFC make the business card really useful?

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Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Roningirl

    Hi Neville, and thank you for the very nice post! I’m not quite sure about what the uptake on this is going to be, but having just printed out 20 more of my own business cards this morning (!), I would be more than happy to do my part towards “paperless networking.” (And, btw, the next batch will have my own barcodes/tags too!!) What do we do with all these cards after all, anyway??!

    Fyr, my husband bought me a Cardiris 4 card-reader recently. I guess he sensed I was having a business card-filing problem. That is definitely an option for all those cards you have lying around. But in the end, it’s hardly worth the hassle to scan each and every one of those little buggers. I usually just end up sending a quick email/linkedin invite to the people with whom I want to keep in contact, and the rest is(are), well, history…. ;-)

  2. neville

    Go for the barcodes!

    I used to assemble business cards on the screen of my flat scanner and scan them as images. I experimented with OCR software to extract the text content so I could add that to Outlook contacts.

    What a performance!

    I then started taking photos of complete cards with my mobile and adding them to Evernote. Getting better but they’re still images and involve an awful lot of time and thinking to make use of the content.

    Barcodes are certainly far better. Next best thing to fully-digital cards, imo.

  3. David Ferrabee

    Neville,
    This is brilliant. As usual. I don’t know why my mind quickly wanders to the comic potential. But what about barcode t-shirts? That way you could just walk around and network in a mass of people?
    There was a common routine in the Middle East when I used to work there a lot that had people using Bluetooth to try to pick each other up in shopping centres. I could never read the Arabic texts… but I could tell when I was having a good hair day!
    Arguably you could put these on the back of white vans too, the potential is quite fun to think about.
    Thanks again.
    /df

  4. Paolo Tosolini

    Neville, nice post. I agree that barcodes will decrease some of the pain associated to inputing contacts on your computer. Until tag reader apps will be ubiquitous, tags value will be somehow restricted, nevertheless still a great topic of conversation (like the braille application on my Microsoft cards). Ciao from Seattle!

    • neville

      Braille adds a final touch to make connecting with anyone feasible. Yet you can’t print Braille with DIY cards such as the ones I did with the barcodes. No doubt it will come.

  5. SomeRandomNerd

    It would be interesting to use a slightly different URL for the QR/barcodes/tags and track how many people use them compared to the URL. (Obviously, you’d need to use a different “typed” URL as well to separate from “normal” online activity- maybe a .co.uk where you usually use a .com, for example?)

    I can’t help but think that at the moment, most people would be more likely to use the URL than the QR code- although that’s not to say that there isn’t a branding value from using those codes on your business card and selling yourself as living and breathing digital and technology!

  6. Martha Muzychka

    I like the idea of bar codes because it marries both old and new technology. I also do a lot of work with artists and their cards are quite creative and they are very evocative of the artist themselves, in a way an electronic file can’t manage. I like paper cards too, because I often write on the back re: why I met this person or highlight the area of interest to follow up on in the future. While I know I could do that in my contacts, I also still like my pen. :)

  7. Anyone For Cards? - bpodr UK

    […] business ‘cards’ via Twitter. Yesterday, on his always excellent blog, Neville Hobson posted about using barcodes to turn physical cards into something more suitable for a business world where mobile, remote, and […]

  8. Desiree Ford

    Neville,

    I love your post! It is really informative and I can’t wait to try it out and use it my business, which is business cards. I actually saw the bar code being used at Comic Con 2009 for the “9” movie. It was really interesting and different. I wonder if individuals with Smart Phones could upload the image onto their phones and MMS it to people so they just would have to get the app from there, sort of cut out the step of taking a picture of the card.

    It would be a great way to do promotions and deals for companies as well. The possibilities are endless for this technology, it just has to be made as simple as possible for people to use. I think that might still needs some work.

    Side note: Bump is a great APP, but limited to only two phones. An alternative APP for smart phones is Dub. (http://crackberry.com/free-dub-contact-card-app-easily-sends-your-contact-info)

  9. Rich Weaver

    Great post thanks. I Dl’ed those iPhone apps for the bar codes and zapped your web page “BINGO!” work great, very cool. I plan on using them on my next batch of cards … BOOYA!

  10. Five stories for the holiday weekend — NevilleHobson.com

    […] Beyond Beta: Microsoft Tag Takes Off It has been 18 months since we launched Microsoft Tag, Microsoft’s mobile barcode technology. In that time, more than one billion Tags have been printed by people and businesses all over the world. In the month of April alone, more than 20 million magazines with Tags were in the hands of U…. /continue… [Think also about how mobile barcodes like this can be useful in other areas, eg, business cards.] […]

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    Thanks for posting this! It gives me inspiration. I'm only a junior in college going for my bachelor's of science in Graphic Design. There is no limit as to how far you can push these designs. It's amazing! Great post.

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