I have come up with a simple idea that will have a positive, global environmental impact. I’m talking about the end of the business card as we know it. Have you ever had a box of 500, maybe 1,000 business cards, handed out a few, then thrown the rest away when your title or contact info changed? Maybe you’ve done that a few times, or several. How much did that cost you? How did it impact the environment? How did you feel when you threw them away? What if no one ever did that again? Here’s a story about how we can make that happen.

A good friend of mine was asking for advice about business cards. He was going to be traveling in Europe for 6 weeks, meeting a ton of people, and wanted something that would stand out, something creative and memorable. But he also didn’t have a lot of time. My answer was simple. First, when you’re traveling for an extended period of time, hitting a lot of locations, you want to keep it light. The last thing you need is to lug around is a box of business cards.

My advice was to create a single, sturdy business card that simply had a QR code on it. People would scan it with their phones and you’d take it back. It’s both memorable and green, which I think a lot of Europeans would respond positively to. Especially the, ahem, female Europeans whose acquaintance he wanted to make. Moreover, it goes right into their contacts, saving them the trouble of transferring it, which won’t happen if it gets lost (even at the bottom of a purse).

Then another thought hit me – why do you need the card? You can have it as an image on your phone! Their phone photographs your phone and you’re done. To test this out, I went to an online QR code generator, capable of making a vCard/meCard. I took out my relatively new HTC Evo 4G and photographed the screen.

Nothing happened.

Turns out, even though Japanese cell phones have had built-in QR code readers for several years,1 Google and Apple still want you to download a separate barcode reader app for this.2 I’ve been seeing these codes all over the place: business cards, movie posters, real estate signs. I’m sure you have as well, although maybe you didn’t notice them or know what they were called. I was quite surprised to learn that they all rely on a 3rd party app.

All you need to read a QR code is a camera and bit of processing power. There are several free readers for iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone 7, Palm OS, and probably several others. You can create several images representing each virtual business card you want to share: work, personal, work + personal, etc.. You can store them in a folder in your photo gallery app, or use it as your phone’s background image so it can be viewed and captured without even unlocking the phone.

Breaking Down The Branding Defense
I know, many people use business cards as part of their branding. My brother David is a talented graphic designer who has done this for many clients. But as I sort through a stack of about 30 collected business cards, very few people are doing this. What I’m seeing:

  • 1/3 are nice. Here I include the traditional Fortune 500 business cards. Those have good layout, fonts, print and paper quality, and enforce the brand message (solid, traditional), but don’t differentiate them. Maybe 2 or 3 actually looked kinda cool, but none blew me away.
  • 1/3 are meh. They don’t look like they were created by experienced designers, more like professional amateurs. Or, as is often the case, the client’s choice overruled the designer’s.
  • 1/3 are just bad. Cheap paper and printing, ugly design. These actually hurt the person who hands them out.

While it’s a small sample size, it feels about right. Most people think their card helps them, but most people are wrong. The best defense for paper business cards is that your potential clients are primarily dumbphone owners. For most professionals, that’s a pretty small group. If you take down their info instead of giving yours, you gain a measure of control over the transaction. If that’s not feasible, you can ask your designer about small batch printing and eco-friendly materials.

In contrast, what does the paperless business card say about you or your company? At a minimum, it says you’re tech savvy, even cutting edge, and that you’re environmentally conscious. Some don’t care about the environment, but I can’t think of cases where that mindset makes you look bad.

You’re sold, right? So, where to go from here? First, make one or more QR codes. You can do that here:3

QR Code and 2D Code Generator
Allows you to create many different QR codes, including vCards and meCards. You can also choose format. I chose PNG (an image file, like GIF or JPEG), then saved it and mailed to to my phone.

ZXing QR Code Generator
From the maker of the free, open source Barcode Reader app. I tested this with a couple generators and it works fine with contacts. It also generates QR codes for you from your contact list, although I don’t know how compliant they are with the vCard or meCard formats.

Google Infographics
Allows developers to create QR codes with a simple HTTP GET or POST request.

Google will find you many more options. After that, you need to find one for your phone. Instead listing them here, just go to your favorite app store. There are many quality, free apps to choose from. My only caveat is that I first tried Google Goggles and discovered it can’t read embedded phone numbers (I tried two different generators, and both vCards and meCards). Pretty major limitation for getting contact info.

How to Help
If you want to help, request that your phone maker or carrier provide this feature natively.

Android barcode reader integration – You can directly vote for this feature in Android by “starring” this request.

iPhone Feedback Form – Ask Apple for QR code reader to be integrated into the camera.

Postscript: Alternatives
There are alternatives to QR codes. One is near field communication (NFC), but most phones, including my relatively new HTC Evo 4G, don’t have an NFC chip/antenna. Another is the app Bump. Bump’s mechanism is extremely clever, and the company appears to have some brilliant, highly credentialed people working there. I think it’s a good idea and it’s on my phone. However, it’s only available for iOS and Android, and the Android version is missing some critical features like multiple contact cards or custom contact cards (it uses Android’s contact info, which doesn’t have a field for your web site). And, of course, neither works with printed advertisements like movie posters.

  1. This article, published in 2004, stated that 60% of all mobile phones came with QR code readers: http://www.hypulp.com/entries/more_qr_codes.php []
  2. Some carriers provide this. A friend of mine has a Windows Phone 7 device and AT&T bundled a barcode reader with it. []
  3. I’m not associated with any of these companies, people, or products. []