My in-flight reading for last week’s trip to Cleveland was Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith. (Yes, oh FTC inspectors, that’s an Amazon Affiliate Link.) I don’t buy hardcover books by just anyone, but I’m a big fan of Chris Brogan’s, and increasingly impressed by what I hear of Julien Smith on the Media Hacks podcast, f-bombs notwithstanding.
The subheading on page 169 on this guidebook for “how to be human at a distance” is “You Live or Die by Your Database.” I’ve talked about backing up your WordPress database on this blog, but the database Chris and Julien mean is the one you store contact information in.
There are several online applications that people use for contact management. Some use their Gmail account. Others use Plaxo. Still others consider LinkedIn a great place to store professional information. Software built specifically for contact management includes Highrise from 37 Signals, BatchBook from BatchBlue Software, and beyond that, there are several other applications. (p. 171)
It’s no surprise that authors who co-wrote their book on Google Docs should mention online contact management tools. In the next breath (or at least the next paragraph), however, they remind readers of the importance of keeping a local copy of that online database—in other words, a backup. “If, as we say, you live or die by your database, why would you trust a third party with its ultimate integrity?”
Exporting to CSV
Of the tools they mention, the only one I use is LinkedIn. (I have a Gmail account, but I almost never use it, so I don’t have any useful contact information stored there, and Plaxo developed such a reputation for spamming everyone in your address book back at the turn of the millennium that I still won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.) It’s quite easy to back up your LinkedIn contacts as a group. In the bottom right corner of your Connections page, there’s a link that says “Export Connections.” When you click it, you go to the export page:
If you would like to back up your LinkedIn connections to Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, Yahoo! Address Book, or Mac OS Address Book, please select your application and file type from the menu below, then click “Export.”
The file type for Outlook, Outlook Express, and Yahoo! is CSV, which stands for “Comma-Separated Values.” That’s a very old format for storing data in a plain text file, and while it looks like gibberish to the human eye, you can import it into almost any kind of contact manager, from Outlook or Entourage to Excel. You can even upload it into another LinkedIn profile if you’ve made the mistake of creating two of them, or into an e-mail service provider. (Don’t even think of doing that without permission.) Sometimes you’ll have to manually match up the names of the data fields in one program with the field names in another, but a CSV file is an almost universally usable form of backup.
In fact, if you want to back up your Outlook contacts, go to File|Import and Export and select “Export to a File.” Comma Separated Values is your first choice—and also your second, since you get both DOS and Windows flavors. This is what you do if you want to move your Outlook contacts to LinkedIn, instead of the other way around.
I’ve just produced CSV files from both sources and put them into my Dropbox. CSV files are quite small, since they’re “flat” files: just text, nothing else.
The only problem with creating CSV files from these programs is that you can’t automate the process. If I want a backup of my LinkedIn connections, I have to remember to go in and make one; likewise if I want my Outlook contacts in CSV rather than PST format.
Where Else Are Your Contacts?
Once upon a time, there was a thing called a Rolodex. You filled it with cards on which you had written people’s contact information. Maybe you pasted in their business cards.
These days, not many people have one. Instead, they have cell phones. And the easiest place to store a phone number someone gives you when you’re away from your desk is inevitably your cell phone.
A cell phone leads a dangerous life, thanks to being carried around everywhere. And you don’t have to be in a high-tech business to depend on yours. My mother’s phone recently suffered an unfortunate encounter with a glass of water in the middle of the night, and Verizon couldn’t get her contacts back. (Verizon does offer a backup service for its users, but doesn’t make a big deal out of advertising it.)
If you have a smartphone, you probably sync it with your computer. If your iPhone or BlackBerry dies, you most likely have a copy of the phone numbers and e-mail addresses it contains right on your PC (or Mac). But those of us with “dumbphones” either need to sign up for programs like Verizon’s Backup Assistant, develop an unfailing habit of manually copying phone numbers from the phone into the computer or a paper address book—or find ourselves digging through scraps of paper and old appointment books in an attempt to reconstruct the information. (My mother actually ended up driving to a client’s house instead of returning his call because she couldn’t find his phone number and he had Caller ID blocked.)
Is Paper Best After All?
Personal productivity and brain style expert Eve Abbott used to print out all her ACT! contacts once a year just in case the computer crashed, but using paper to back up your contacts gets to be unwieldy when your contacts number in the thousands. (I haven’t seen one of those printouts since she switched to Outlook a few years ago.) And with so many people changing jobs these days, the information on those printouts can get to be obsolete pretty quickly.
So while the business cards in plastic sleeves or even the scribbled numbers in the appointment book might save you in the event of a drive failure or drowned phone, they’re no substitute for regular electronic backups. Create a cell phone backup plan, automate any contact backups you can, and set yourself reminders to create CSV files from your online databases on a regular basis.
Because the important thing about your contact database isn’t where you store it, but being able to reach the people you keep in it.