It's all in the cards

February 1, 2011

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

A generation ago, a business card was a printed product. If you were in business, a business card was essential, and it was printed. Period.

When I opened my new printing company 24 years ago, the first thing I did was order letterhead, envelopes and business cards. That is what everyone did. (I didn't print them myself because I was not in the stationery business.)

Here in the 21st century, the first thing a new business does is put up a website and establish its e-mail addresses. Business cards might come after that, but then again, they might not.

There is much more to the story than this. Whether or not you sell or print them, there are lessons for us all in the saga of the simple business card.

Nice while it lasted

There was a time when not only businesses but anyone of any social standing had a calling card, beautifully engraved at considerable expense.

When visiting a home, the butler would bring your calling card to the master of the house on a tray. Not many of us have personal engraved calling cards anymore. Of course, not many of our friends have butlers.

Those days went out with the carriage, the corset and the quill pen.

Every story has a lesson

In the latter half of the 20th century, many of the business cards in circulation were cheaply printed at little or no profit to the printer, and they looked it. Some firms wisely continued to spare no expense on the cards that represented their corporate image, but many cut corners, viewing their business cards as a necessary evil rather than a marketing opportunity.

Even before the World Wide Web, most commercial printers had exited the business card business.

Today, a company called Vistaprint has taken the value of business cards to a new low. Vistaprint gives business cards away, and their cards sometimes look like it.

On the bright side, many people still use business cards and pay well for them. The full-coverage, full-bleed, process-color card — once priced beyond the reach of most — is now standard, and card printers are using the Internet to build new business.

Value vs. price

We can moan all we want about “price pressure” and competition from new media, but it is within our power to establish the value of print.

As I mentioned, I am not in the business of printing stationery, but every now and then we print business cards at Copresco.

It is not a specialty, and it isn't something we seek out. It costs roughly $250 to print 500 of one card with us, which is roughly 10 times higher than you'll typically pay online. That price is deceptive, because you will pay us about the same total price for 500 each of 10 cards, putting us right back in the ballpark.

But price isn't the object. Anyone who comes to us for business card printing isn't overly concerned about price. So, what are they looking for?

Quality and service, yes, but what do these clichés really mean? Our clients are looking for trust, control, comfort and consistency. They won't pay an outrageous premium, but neither do they care about saving nickels and dimes.

In short, these clients believe in the value of print and are willing to pay.

Do you have a business card on you right now? How does it look? What does it say about your company?

Does it show that you believe in the value of print?

Feeling sociable?

Steve Johnson's Twitter handle is copresco. Follow him to receive a daily dose of printing and publishing news, combined with wry wit and interesting, useful links. Marvel as Steve compresses his famous Johnsonian verbosity into 140 characters or less per tweet.