Wednesday, July 23, 2008

IM sorry

Yesterday, we had a live trade show held entirely online for a large group of businesses. It was attended by visitors from as far away as the United Kingdom. A virtual trade show is a combination of several elements, many features and web-based tools. They all have to work in unison; they have to flawlessly, predictably and simultaneously. Among the more prominent features is the instant messenger (IM) at the virtual booth. Many of our clients simply call it the Booth Chat. This allows a live interaction between the booth hosts and the attendees, one of the crucial elements of any event.

The booth chat requires no downloads. Which can sometimes be a problem, because we do not take control of the online visitor's browser and their computing environment. That is a choice we made, and we are trying to stay true to that choice. It allows for easier participation by any attendee without requiring special permissions from the Corporate IT staff for download of a plug-in etc.

For 3 exhibitors the chat feature did not function well (even if it were 1, that's unacceptable). This started happening right when the event went live. On the rare occasion, one learns of system incompatibilities in live environments - this was one such occasion - they are difficult to predict and difficult to recreate swiftly, especially with the Internet being as dynamic as it is, and amid the ticking clock of a live online event. The event was in live mode for 3 hours. Trouble-shooting during a live event environment is like trying to figure out why your parachute is not opening in the midst of a free-fall.

While although exhibitors and attendees have a variety of other tools to exchange meaningful information and leads, the Booth Chat happens to be the most popular and visible feature for instant gratification. When the UK visitor chatted online with US based exhibitors they all were delighted. So there is something special about the bond-building capability of the online chat, even though this may seem primitive to the modern web users who routinely play with a lot more interactive and immersive technologies than good old text-chat.

When a booth chat feature in a virtual booth hiccups, it is like a smooth flight interrupted by severe turbulence. Even after a safe landing, one tends to remember the turbulence when one's life flashed before one's eyes.

All 3 affected exhibitors were very gracious and understanding of the quirks of the Internet and our tireless efforts to get to the bottom of the issue to see if it was something specific to the user's system. One exhibitor did not mince words when expressing their frustration. We deserved it -- this morning we have been revisiting our processes. They are time-tested, but obviously not infallible.

Live Booth Chat is just one of many features, so its stalling does not render the virtual booth useless, but a live trade show is not a good time to explain that, lest it be misunderstood as an excuse for the malfunction.

We suggested a simple workaround, while we went back to investigating the issue, and finally resolved it by the end of the day. We kept the exhibitors and the event producer updated on the issue. Our client was very gracious with the reaction that "the good thing is people will still get the contacts and follow up in real time at another occasion.They are part of the technological future. At least we did not lose anyone in “space”... think of how the astronauts feel who put their life on the line."

This perhaps unintentional use of the space-mission metaphor is right on. No one gets lost in cyberspace with our system because even if the chat had a hiccup, their footprint is tracked and available to the exhibitor.

We have offered yet another live-day for the event at no cost. We are revisiting our event-rollout process. We appreciate every programmer's work that has gone into the making of our software, running it and resolving any technical issues. Keeping up with the changes in internet environments is no mean task. We appreciate the patience of the handful of exhibitors who faced Booth Chat issues, and know that we will find a way to make it up to them in the near future. Virtual trade shows are breaking new grounds, so we appreciate your taking this journey with us. To all, we extend our apology, and take this as yet another lesson learned as we continue to grow.