Secrets to success of lowly business cards

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 October, 2004, 12:00am

Advertising is one of the most neglected aspects of small business - probably because it costs money and it is often difficult to tell if the expense was worth it.

But one type of advertising that most agree is worth the expense is the lowly business card.

When you need something - insurance, parts, lessons, personnel - your first action will be to recall who you know that provides that service. Did Bob say he did that? And then off you go, thumbing through your Rolodex, looking for Bob's card and his contact information so you can give him some money.

I used to have a business card that listed all of my skills - artist, inventor, engineer, sculptor, columnist, poet, philosopher - but, as entertaining as the card was, it did not bring in much business. This, I learned, was because people want to do business with a specialist. They do not want you to get their engineering project confused with a philosophy lesson. In retrospect, I can see where that might make people nervous.

I have recently learned lots of secrets to having the perfect, productive, business card. This week I acquired an IRIS Business Card Reader (version II) to get all my contact info in order. I have thousands of business cards and can rarely find the person I want without a major desk reorganisation. This device was meant to correct all that.

The IRIS Business Card Reader was predominantly a PC-only gadget until recently. The people who developed optical character recognition (OCR) software made a version for OSX that turned out to be the best Mac OCR software. As a result, Mac people used it on their flatbed scanners to put business card data into their contact databases. Recently IRIS came out with a USB mini-scanner like its old PC serial port scanner, only this is Mac friendly. The scanner is pocket-sized - being less than two business cards long and 25mm thick - and perfect for travel.

Traditionally OCR applications have difficulty differentiating between the thousands of fonts found in business cards. They also confuse artwork and textured backgrounds with text, and produce spotty duplication. I will not say all that is behind us but I was impressed with the results I got from the IRIS. If a card was a new white business card, the scanner and application read it perfectly. If the card was heavily worn, the application read about 50 per cent of the data correctly.

Fortunately, mistakes are easy to correct. The application window shows the card and the database info one above the other. If they do not match, it is easy to type in corrections or copy data from one line to another.

The application had trouble with cards with a black background and cards with photos for backgrounds. It also had some trouble with coloured cards or cards that boosted graphics or textures. I scanned three cards in a row that it would not read, so I restarted the application. After that, it read all three. So if your results are not impressive, try this remedy.

It takes about seven seconds to scan a card and another three to six seconds to recognise its content and fill in the appropriate spaces.

For the speed test, I pre-selected corporate-style business cards in good condition. In one hour, I scanned in 100 cards and had that data entered into my contact manager.

After you confirm the data for a card is correct, the OCR application enters it into Apple's Address Book, Microsoft's Entourage, or PowerOn's Now Contact with the click of a button.

It might take longer to scan your cards because you will have some exotic ones requiring special attention. But the bottom line is the setup is highly usable and, although not perfect, impressively accurate. It is also important to note it recognises 53 international card formats and languages, with optional support for traditional and simplified Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

So what did I learn about business card advertising? Obviously, the card should focus on what you do best and should be white without texture or excess graphics. The type should be easy to read by a person or machine. Do not use fonts that are too styled or small.

The real secret to making business cards into a successful marketing tool is to get to know as many influential people as possible, impress them with a virtue or two, then present them with your business card.

E-mail Dave Horrigan at with your Mac queries.