Hangouts are almost without a doubt the most touted feature of Google Plus, especially when it comes to business use of the platform. So if you follow my Google+ for Business column here, you might be wondering why it’s taken me so long to write about them. I’ve had two reasons for holding off until now: I wanted to bring you vital tips and information that you won’t find everywhere and anywhere, and I was convinced that many improvements and new features that I’d want to include were yet to come for Hangouts.
Well, “yet to come” is now here: Google Plus Hangouts has indeed become a feature-rich and versatile platform in its own right, one very worthy of your consideration for expanding the reach and influence of your business.
Let’s start with an overview of the features and variations of Google+ Hangouts.
Hangouts and Hangouts On Air
Hangouts were originally introduced as a feature of Google Plus that allows up to 10 people to participate in a live video chat. When we use the term “Hangout” (as opposed to “Hangout On Air” which we’ll discuss below), we are referring to this “small group” version. Hangouts can be either private or public:
- Private Hangouts are by invitation only. One person initiates the Google+ Hangout and then invites others, either by name or by Circle(s). Only the invited participants can enter and see the Hangout (although once in, any Hangout participant can invite others in, up to the capacity of the Hangout).
- Public Hangouts are visible to and may be entered into by anyone who has you in their Google Plus circles or who happens to be watching your public Google+ stream at the time you activate the Hangout.
Later, Google Plus added Hangouts On Air (HOAs). At first available only to selected brands and celebrities, Hangouts On Air is now available to all US Google+ users, and other countries are being included regularly. A Hangout on Air adds a couple of key features that greatly expand the usefulness of Hangouts:
- Hangouts On Air are live-stream broadcast, both within Google Plus and on YouTube, so they can be watched by any number of people. In essence, an HOA is like a live TV program, but with much lower production and distribution costs.
- A completed Hangout On Air can be automatically turned into a permanent YouTube video. So you end up with instant content that keeps on being valuable long after the original broadcast.
- Automatic Main View Switching: The main view window in the Hangout automatically switches to whomever is currently speaking.
- Screen sharing: display anything in a window on your desktop to the other hanger participants. Anything you do in that window, they see in real time.
- Edit Google Docs: Do live edits of Google Apps documents shared by the group right in the Hangout. Great for collaboration!
- Watch a YouTube video: Start a Hangout from any video on YouTube while logged in to Google+, then invite others into the Hangout. You can discuss the video as you watch it.
- Lower Third Banner: This app allows you to create a branded name banner that sits below your face during a Hangout, just like the name banners TV news shows use when interviewing someone. You can even add your company logo, or go full tilt and design an entirely custom banner that you can load in any Hangout with one click.
- Text Chat: click the Chat button at the top of the Hangout screen and you can chat by text with the other Hangout participants. This Chat is not seen by anyone outside the Hangout participants, even if the Hangout is “On Air.” The chat can be useful for such tasks as asking someone to mute a mic that’s causing too much background noise when others are speaking, or cueing up who gets to speak next in a panel discussion.
Each of the types of Hangouts can be used in a number of ways to build your business. Let’s explore some of them.
Business Uses of Regular Google Plus Hangouts
Businesses are successfully using non-streaming Hangouts for:
- In-house company meetings: Have a multi-location business or a far-flung sales staff? Hold your staff or department meetings in a private Hangout. (Pro Tip: Businesses with Google Apps for Business accounts can now get their own private Google+ network that includes increased privacy and security features).
- Client meetings: With screen sharing and document editing, you can do full presentations to clients or prospects, or collaborate on your latest project with them.
- Crowd Sourcing/Focus Groups: Invite some of your customers into a private Hangout to get a sneak peak preview of a prototype product or idea, in order to get their reactions and suggestions.
- Customer Service: Though Hangouts are designed for groups, there is no reason they can’t be one-on-one. Have a customer whose problem is too difficult or delicate to handle over text messages? Invite her into a Hangout. The face-to-face contact will greatly heighten the personalization of your service, and you can take advantage of tools like screen sharing to better diagnose and solve a problem.
- VIP Customer Perks: Invite your most valuable customers to exclusive Hangouts where they can get to meet with you and get special attention. Or set up a private Hangout meeting with a respected expert or celebrity as a perk for those customers.
- Help Desk Hours: Publish regular hours when your staff will be available in public hangouts to answer questions from customers or prospects.
Business Uses of Google Plus Hangouts On Air
When you broadcast your Hangouts in live streaming form, you extend the power of Hangouts exponentially, as your potential audience is as large as the Internet itself. Try out some of these ideas (and don’t forget: each can become a permanent YouTube video!):
- Panel Discussions: Bring together a group of experts in your field and produce a live Hangout show centered around a topic of interest to your customers and prospects. Even better if you make this a regularly-scheduled show that your audience can look forward to. For example. I’m a member of the weekly TekPersona Power Panel, a group of seasoned business and marketing professionals who discuss a relevant business topic each week.
- Ask the Expert: Bring in a recognized expert or put one of your own “on stage” for a public Hangout. Allow participants to get their toughest questions answered.
- Quiz Show: This one is more on the entertainment side, but can actually be quite educational as well. Invite a panel of experts in your field to a live quiz about topics related to your area of business. Make it fun with lively competition and prizes (even if the prizes are just goofy), and use tools like screen sharing to enhance the visual aspect of your questions.
- Product Demo/Introduction: Introducing a new product? Want to show off creative uses for an existing product? Do it in a live Hangout On Air. Similarly, you could conduct a live training session. Don’t forget that you’ll also have a live video to which you can refer future customers to help answer questions.
- Testimonial Interviews: Have a customer who’s crazy about your product, or has a creative use for it? Arrange to interview her in a live Hangout. Don’t forget to embed the resulting video on your site so it keeps on selling for you!
Pro Tip for Hangouts on Air: Practice with a private hangout of friends or colleagues before your first “live” show. Get familiar with how Hangouts work and with the various tools available to you. Hangout expert Ronnie Bincer has a great list of best practices and moderator tools for Hangouts On Air.
The World Wide Web opened up the possibility for everyone to be a publisher. Now Google+ Hangouts enable anyone to be a broadcaster. The possibilities are as wide as your own imagination. What are some creative uses of Google Plus Hangouts that you’ve seen, used yourself, or would like to try out?