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Greeting Cards in the Digital Age

With the ease of text messages, email and other means of electronic communication literally at our fingertips, the question arises about whether the custom of sending a paper greeting card is past its prime.

After all, social media formats such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter remind us when it is the birthday of one of our "friends," so that we can post a message on their page or send them an e-card—and we can do it on their birthday for free. If we send a regular paper greeting card, however, it means that we have planned in advance to purchase and mail it in a timely fashion.

So, has the practice of card-sending changed in recent years? Are we sending fewer cards today than in previous decades? And who is typically the card-sender?

A Brief Greeting Card History

First, let's take a look at the origins of the greeting card. Believe it or not, greeting cards, or at least an early form of them, have been around for centuries. These early greetings were mainly created by hand and hand-delivered. This was done on a limited basis by the educated, elite class.

It was not until the second half of the 19th century that sending a greeting card to mark a special occasion began to be more widely practiced. This was due in part to the beginnings of a commercial greeting card industry making mass-produced cards. In the U.S., printer Louis Prang began producing affordable Christmas cards, and he is now regarded as "the father of the American Christmas card." The idea of mass-producing greeting cards eventually caught on and others followed suit.

At first, the printer/publishers produced mainly Christmas cards and some Valentine's Day cards. But as the 20th century progressed, the greeting card industry grew, and publishers introduced more cards for more holidays, special occasions and everyday events. In 1955, about 4 billion cards were sold in the U.S. and by 1995, the greeting card industry probably reached its zenith with approximately 7.4 billion cards sold. Greeting card sales then slowly declined until about 2008. Since that time, sales have remained somewhat level with between 6.5 and 7 billion cards sold annually according to the Washington, DC-based Greeting Card Association, a trade organization.

Who buys the majority of these cards? Women. The Greeting Card Association's data indicates that women account for 80% of greeting card purchases—a figure that has not varied much over time and remains true even now.

The Card Market Today

In this new era, it is not surprising that greeting card sales have declined. The Internet, Facebook, e-cards and text messaging have indeed made it much quicker and easier to send someone a birthday, holiday or other special-occasion or everyday greeting. And many people, especially Millennials, have embraced it. After all, the younger generation has grown up with this technology and is very plugged into it; it is their lifeline.

However, the scope of the decline is not what some of the doomsayers predicted.

"There has been an assumption in recent years that the explosion of text messaging and social media would seriously diminish the tradition of buying and sending greeting cards," said Susan January, past-president of the Greeting Card Association, when interviewed in a leading trade publication. "What we've found is that it has not had a meaningful impact on actual greeting card usage or card-sending for any occasion, and especially for highly personal, emotional card-sending occasions."

Baby Boomers still account for a major part of today's card sales. Greeting cards came into their heyday with this generation, when handwriting notes and using the telephone "land line" to connect with friends and family was a common practice. This was the time when card publishers introduced "alternative" card lines, which were specifically targeted to appeal to this vast generation's funny bone. These humorous cards boosted—and still boost—more impulse purchases. This generation is now aging, and their card-buying has lessened somewhat.

As for the succeeding generations, sending a paper greeting card is a highly personal expression of sentiment. Sales are growing among Millennials according to Hallmark Card's chief marketing officer, Lindsey Roy, in an interview with CNBC's "On the Money." She notes that they are looking for something different and more lasting. "Obviously, they're texting and using social media, and so the card for them has a different benefit; it really kind of breaks through the clutter," she said. "(Millennials) love paper and the tactile experiences."

In order to attract and keep the Millennial card-buyers, card publishers have had to adapt what they offer to the needs and changing culture of this generation, just as they did with "alternative" card offerings for Baby Boomers. New card offerings feature designs, graphics and language that are as progressive, fun and casual as the Millennials regard themselves.

Has all this changed who is buying cards and for what occasion? Not really. Women—both Baby Boomers and Millennials (and even you Generation Xers: everyone else may have forgotten about you, but we haven't)—are the primary card-purchasers. Birthdays and Christmas continue to account for about 75% of all cards bought and sent, with some 85% of birthday card-buyers preferring humor-driven messages. New cards being sold today also reflect our changing culture, demographics and social needs. Such cards address the LGBTQI community and the growing Hispanic population, new made-up or non-occasions, snarky humor and the use of curse words for effect.

So long as we keep celebrating holidays and special occasions, honoring friendship, or just wanting to say "Hello, friend" in a way that is tactile and personal, the simple greeting card will continue to be a chosen means of communication.

Our respect for greeting card history, and our use of a wide variety of printing techniques, let NobleWorks Cards stay at the forefront of the market. That means you'll find some of the best funny birthday cards and hilarious greeting cards on the market. Don't waste time with retail stores—their stock is stale and ancient compared to the fresh humor and deep emotions in our cards.

Greeting Card Association:
Gifts and Decorative Accessories - The Gift Book, "Greeting Cards, p. 80. October 2014
Gifts and Decorative Accessories - The Gift Book, "Greeting Cards, p. 96. October 2018 Wilson, Richard H., "Studio Greeting Cards: Where They Came From, and What They Lead To" (1976). Retrospective Theses and Dissertations. 267.