February 4, 2013
Networking apps are bumping off the business card
The business card has long since left the realm of the office Rolodex and entered the world of the Web.
Business acquaintances and meeting attendees now transmit contact information between cellphones, and websites and mobile apps can connect that information to social and business networks.
Sandy Avvari, a digital and social media analyst at a Canadian automotive manufacturer, says she met about 15 people a week in her job but exchanged paper business cards only about 20 percent of the time.
Avvari says she used CardMunch, a free app, to take a photograph of a business card and send it to a service that transcribes the information and adds it to her phone's address book. CardMunch is owned by LinkedIn, and as the information is being processed, a photo and basic profile of the business card's owner appear on Avvari's phone, allowing her to connect with the person on LinkedIn.
Attaching a LinkedIn profile to the business card "makes the contact dynamic, showing job changes or new phone numbers when they happen," Avvari says. "It becomes more than a static piece of paper or address book entry."
With the free app Bump, users can bump or tap their phones together to share contact information. The phones vibrate when they, or the hands holding them, make contact, and information is exchanged between the users' address books.
If both users are signed into Facebook or LinkedIn, a list of acquaintances they have in common on those sites and in their address books will be displayed. Users can also transmit a photo, for example, of a product they sell if they are meeting at a trade show. Once two people have exchanged data, they can stay in touch using a messaging feature in the app. Bump works across platforms on Android and Apple devices.
With so many contacts flooding into business travelers' address books, the details of how they met, what they talked about or why someone may be a good contact in the future can fade. Apps like Contacts Journal ($7.99 for iOS, or a free trial version) help users keep track of interactions. Documents like contracts or brochures can be attached to contact information, and users can see a map with pushpins denoting their contacts' locations.
Many networking apps go beyond electronic business card exchanges and mobile contact databases. LinkedIn is the largest player in the business networking market, with more than 187 million members around the world. In addition to displaying their resumes online, LinkedIn members "connect" to people they know on the service, creating a virtual who-knows-whom map. Job seekers can look for a specific hiring manager and see if they have any connections in common. An employer evaluating a job candidate can get a trusted reference from someone they both know.
The basic functions of LinkedIn are free for individual users. For a monthly fee ranging from $16 to $500, users can gain access to additional search features and contact other members directly without waiting for an electronic introduction.
To network while on a business trip, travelers can use the free Planely website to type in their flight itineraries and see who else is traveling at the same time, with overlapping flight plans. Conference- or conventiongoers might find other attendees to share a taxi to the hotel, for instance. Nervous fliers might find someone to take their mind off a long or bumpy flight. The app lists all the Planely travelers on the user's flight and those who are passing through the airport at the same time, to create a "social flying experience."
Some networking apps use the phone owner's location. The Friendthem app works with Facebook, displaying all members who are nearby and have signed up to be visible. This allows two people who meet at a conference, or perhaps at a hotel bar, to become Facebook friends easily, without having to search through a list of similar names to find the right person.
Friend requests can be sent to people who appear nearby, but no instant messaging is available because "our users don't want creepy people sending them messages like, 'I see you across the room,'" says Charles Sankowich, chief executive and founder of Friendthem. "We want our users to have total control of who communicates with them." Friendthem also allows users to specify "hiding places," like home or work, where they want to be invisible.
At home or on the road, the MeetMe app can offer two people convenient locations to meet. Users can choose the type of restaurant they want and use a slider bar to specify whether the meeting place should be equidistant from the two people or closer to one of them. The app also displays user reviews of meeting places and information from Yelp.com, along with directions.
There are, of course, downsides to the constant tracking of business colleagues. Networking apps make it harder to excuse not getting in touch with people by claiming you lost their card or did not know they had changed jobs.
''The location-aware apps can also be tricky," says James Sun, chief executive of Pirq, a mobile-app developer in Seattle, "because once someone knows you are in the area, can you avoid having coffee with them?"
And the convenience and abundance of digital contact can be overwhelming, says David Domke, a communications professor at the University of Washington. People can become almost numb to the constant stream of data.
''That's why face to face, human interaction between people has become even more valuable in the digital age," he says.
Users say social media can make initial business meetings less awkward. When she was applying for her current job, Avvari found the hiring manager's Twitter stream and noticed they shared a love of baked goods. During the interview, Avvari brought up her own passion for food and her food blog, which she might not have mentioned otherwise, and the two hit it off.
''Whether it's an employer or customer, I think few people realize how valuable researching them on social media can be for business," she says.
Twitter also offers in-person networking on the road. At conferences, there might be a Twitter hashtag, Avvari says, like #CIAS for the Canadian International Auto Show, so attendees can see one another's posts.
''Sometimes I'll see a funny or interesting tweet and ask to meet that person for coffee during one of the breaks," she says.
Krista Canfield, a spokeswoman for LinkedIn, says she used the site to meet people when she traveled for her job.
''If I am going to Japan or Brazil and I don't know anyone," she says, "I try to connect with people who know someone in my network and meet them for a meal, instead of eating alone."
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