The Born Freelancer makes a case for business cards

I was at a professional development seminar the other day and doing the  usual networking thing with fellow freelancers. When it came time to exchange contact info, I began to frantically look for a pen and paper. (As an economy measure I’m currently still operating cellphone-less.) One of my new-found colleagues calmly took out his business card from a nice case with a flourish: “No problem, email me when you get the chance,” he said.

How very old school, I thought. But how very cool. And memorable.

I know the more contemporary standard protocol these days is to exchange contact information digitally on your cell phone or Blackberry or similar e-device where it is easily recallable but also, IMHO, instantly forgettable. One of the hardest things for a freelancer to do today is to stand out from the crowd and be memorable as an individual. I’m making the case for the renewed use of the old-fashioned business card to facilitate all this and more.

First of all, what is a business card? Not what most folk think it is. It is not really a sales tool, per se; rather it is an easy reference for contact. By the time you pull out your card you should’ve already made significant headway on your sales pitch. So it shouldn’t have too much information on it. How many cards have I seen over the years that looked like a menu for a messy lunch? Of course, it’s nice to have some personalized content (which we will get to in a moment) but I think less is more with business cards. Too much clutter, too much detail, too much conflicting and confusing information and it is just one more advertisement destined to end up in the bin.

You want your name, contact information, and some memorable but minimal personalized content presented using a style and formatting that communicates who you are. In days gone by, you’d also include street address, phone number, and fax number. Today I think your name and your website (if you have one) or your email address is probably enough for an initial contact–type card. If you have a website, this should drive them to it so they can see all your achievements listed there. Your website therefore becomes a primary sales tool.

The Japanese have made the exchanging of cards part of a formalized greeting etiquette. The card is offered and received with great respect and dignity when you meet someone for the first time. It may seem over the top compared to our less formal Western attitudes, but it has its merits. Right away you know with whom you are dealing, the pecking order, and everyone’s interest in the job. To the Japanese a card is not just a card but an extension of the person and must be thoroughly read and treated well in their presence. Their exchange signifies the beginning of any professional relationship.

Here in the West I think cards are usually offered (if at all) at the end of a discussion or meeting when it is clear that further contact would be a good idea. In effect,  you’ve made the good impression in person, and the card is the method of obtaining the necessary contact information for the followup. But it is also a lasting physical reminder of your (hopefully) good first impression and something you want the other person to keep for easy reference.

Some people have some form of filing boxes or cases for their received cards; others have booklets with plastic sleeves for them. I have a wall of business cards (mac-tacked in place) in my hallway leading into my home office. They are arranged by categories and in priority order (which frequently changes). I usually make notes on them at the time of contact to remind me about our conversation and my impressions. It is amazing how fast such memories can disappear when you meet so many people. But I look at those cards every day. Who do I need to contact or follow up with? Who has been impressive and who has failed to follow up in turn? I have turned an otherwise empty, boring wall space into an entertaining (for visitors) but functional low-tech prioritized contact information flowchart (for me).

If you haven’t looked at business cards lately, you’re in for a very pleasant surprise. They are no longer necessarily the old fashioned white card with black print that your parents used to have at work. Today cards can come in every colour, in every finish conceivable, with any number of photographs or logos and font/print styles to match your business needs. You can use your own photos or logos or colour schemes (to match existing letterheads for example). The danger I think is too much choice. It can drive you mad! But spending some time going through the various options is time well spent, IMHO. I agree to some extent with the Japanesea card is not just a card but also an extension of you and your personality. How do you wish to be perceived? Serious and with great integrity? Or warm and friendly capable of great human-interest focus? Your card can say all that about you and your work in your absence.

I’d suggest you go on line to sites such as or to see what’s out there. You can choose these sites or others and order online or go to a big office supply chain and order in person. (I especially like that offers you 10 free cards you can custom design online and order gratis to see how they will look if you choose to order more.) The point is to get an idea of what is out there and see how it can serve you and your professional image/reputation/brand.

Personalizing your card is also important. This has several subcategories. First of all, cards are cheap enough these days that you can have different cards to serve different career functions. If you’re a freelance cartoonist as well as a freelance wordsmith, you might consider two separate sets of cards. Otherwise, you may blur the brand you are trying to project. A photo or logo can be another personalizing feature if it is appropriate for you and your brand. Finally, a phrase or memorable quote from some famous person or satisfied client or two could also help make your card memorable. These features, plus your choice of overall style and concept will give you a solid advantage next time you are networking and wish to leave a positive lasting impression.

As you can probably tell I’ve become a big fan of business cards for the freelancers all over again. If you’ve never thought about them, you should definitely look into them. You will be pleasantly surprised. And if you’ve already had one for years, perhaps it’s time to upgrade?

Tip #1 A small trick I sometimes use that might be of help: I will often add my email address to my card in the presence of a possible client. I say, “Here’s my personal contactI keep it for my most important clients only.” It’s a small act of personalization, but it can have a big impact. In reality I’m giving them whichever email address is appropriate for the work I have on offer. Different types of work or different stages of prospective work inquiries go to different addresses so I can keep contacts separate and tidy.

Tip #2 Avoid the free cards. They may look like a good deal, but they have the printer’s information on the back. It looks cheap and cheesy. My advice is to buy as professional-looking as you can afford without going crazy.

Tip #3 Use gimmick cards sparingly. You can get cards now that turn into lock pick sets, that glow in the dark, that are 3D, etc. They are fun and, yes, they might be kept around for their novelty value, but in the end they won’t really help your career. You want the cards to reflect you and your work. Unless you are (1) a locksmith (2) a ghost hunter or (3) a 3D film technician, the examples I just gave you may be amusing but don’t communicate your skills and value. The card you give out should be relevant to you. It’s up to you to make your work relevant to your prospective client.

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer will share personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.

Posted on October 11, 2011 at 11:21 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , , ,

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  1. Written by Amber | Print Business Cards
    on October 13, 2011 at 4:03 am
    Reply · Permalink

    Brilliant.These are really good points to consider for those who are inclined to business or even those who plan to start a new one.

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