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How to Create Google+ Hangouts On Air: A Complete Walkthrough

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Overall, from a timing perspective, sending viewers to the specific YouTube page is the worst option, since you won’t know that URL until 30 minutes before the event. Murphy's Law caught me on this one; my plan was to send viewers to the YouTube page directly, and my email manager went down for “unscheduled maintenance” just after I sent the email about 25 minutes before the start. As a result, some registrants got the email, some didn’t, and attendance really suffered.

Table 1. Pros and cons of the various Hangout On Air viewing alternatives.

Viewer Interactivity

The second factor to consider when determining where your viewers should watch the On Air broadcast is interactivity, which is often key to engagement. As mentioned above, the Q&A function that lets On Air viewers ask questions to Hangout participants only works when viewing on the Google+ page (Figure 6); not when viewing from a YouTube page or embedded page. For viewers who like to interact, this is the optimum viewing experience.

Google Hangouts 8

Figure 8. The only viewers who get to ask questions are those that watch from the Google+ page.

While YouTube viewers can use YouTube’s comments features to ask questions, these don’t appear in the Hangout, just on the YouTube page. While you can obviously watch the page and respond to comments, it’s not as integrated into the overall experience. The embedded player gets neither option, it’s watch-only, so it offers the least opportunity to interact with the presentation.

If your website content management system has a comment function, you can advise your viewers to use this, though again, these won’t appear in the Hangout and you’ll have to watch the page separately. If you use your own comments function, consider disabling comment moderation (unless you have someone who can moderate during the session), and also CAPTCHA or similar security, as either of these hoops may discourage questions and comments and frustrate your users.

Other Factors

Other factors to consider when choosing where to send On Air viewers to watch the stream are detailed in an article entitled “6 Reasons to Use a Static Web Page for Your Google+ Hangout On Air.” To summarize author Stephan Hovnanian, if you direct users to watch the video in an embedded player on your website, you control distractions around the video, and can add niceties like a link to download the presentation. Viewers also trigger pageviews reflected in your analytics package. In contrast, Hovnanian advises, both Google+ and YouTube may have too much distracting eye candy for many participants to resist, causing them to click away from your presentation.

What’s my take? As mentioned, I opted for the YouTube viewing page the first time around, which was the worst alternative, but will direct viewers to the Google+ page for subsequent broadcasts. Though I recognize the distraction risks posed by Hovnanian, I feel the enhanced interactivity is key. That said, for more permanent viewing, I’ll also create a page on my website with the embedded YouTube video. If you want to avoid YouTube entirely after the event, of course, you can download the presentation video from YouTube, upload that to your website and display it directly within your own player.

For administration purposes, note that you get the embed codes/YouTube viewing page information by clicking Embed on the top left of Figure 1, which I’ve cut out for display as Figure 9. Note that you can send the Google plus URL on top of the browser window to those you want to participate in the Hangout. I’m not sure why you’d prefer this to inviting them at the start of the Hangout (Figure 5), or by using the Invite people button shown in Figure 6, but there it is.

Figure 9. Grabbing the embed codes and YouTube URLs

Regarding your Google+ page URL, all Google+ pages have a home page (https:/plus.google.com/accountnumber/posts). The URL you get when you log into Google+ won’t work (https://plus.google.com/u/0/); to find the right address, go to your Google+ home page and select Profile from the drop down menu on the left (see Figure 3). This opens the page to a numerical URL like https://plus.google.com/u/0/114339185640058543911/posts that should work. Perhaps some day Google will move to a name-based page like YouTube, but for now, it’s a numbers-based address.

Hanging Out 

OK, now few words on the webinar itself. First, from a gestalt perspective, the Hangout felt less formal than a webinar; just David and I chatting with a few folks watching. So I didn’t feel as compelled to perfect the background and lighting. I also didn’t feel compelled to break out my $3,500 camcorder and wireless lavalier system for audio. Instead, I used the Logitech Broadcaster webcam, which has a video light with just enough oomph to remove the shadows from my face. Rather than use the Broadcaster’s embedded microphone, I plugged a no-name wired lavaliere microphone directly into the webcam, which worked well.

During the webcast itself, Hangout will automatically switch participants into the center frame based upon audio. As you recall, this center frame is the region actually broadcast to On Air viewers. While this audio-based auto-selection generally worked well, it sometimes worked too well; for example, when David was talking, if I clicked my mouse too loudly, I was brought back into the center. The moderator can control this by muting the microphone of non-speaking participants, while individual participants can stop this by muting their microphones when not talking. This is particularly critical when showing a PowerPoint presentation via the Screen Sharing function; a loud click from David would have put him in the center frame. To avoid this, David wisely muted his microphone during my presentation. 

Regarding the presentation, you have two options with the Screenshare feature; you can choose an application window, or broadcast the full screen. Unaware of the latter option before the event, I used the former, which unfortunately resulted in the editing controls shown around my presentation in PowerPoint Mac 2011 (Figure 9). Perhaps there’s a way to view only the presentation in that program (there is in previous versions), but I couldn’t find it before the event.

Figure 10. Showing the application window showed the application controls.

As I later learned, if you choose the full screen option in the Screenshare, you can enter full-screen slideshow mode in PowerPoint and the Hangout will broadcast the full screen view without the controls. If you go full screen, consider customizing the layout of your PowerPoint presentation to the resolution of your screen, since any letterboxing will appear as black bars in the broadcast view. If you go full screen, however, you lose the view of the Hangout, so you can’t adjust controls or see any questions that come in. Whichever view you use -- application window or full screen -- your mouse movements over the screen also appear in the broadcast, which is nice, since it lets you direct your viewers' attention to details in the slides.

The main negative of the Screenshare view is that you can’t create a view that combines the speaker and the slides -- it’s one or the other. There’s a nice summary of the benefits that presenter video adds to a webinar, which include enabling viewers to lip read to enhance comprehension and the ability to use gestures and facial expressions to emphasize information delivery. I prefer a mixed video/screen view for webinars, and would have liked the option.

As a practical matter, you’ll get the best results using a headset, which both David and I used during the event. There are no controls over video resolution, though both the live and on-demand YouTube streams have a 720p version available. Quality didn’t seem quite as high as that experienced when I broadcast via YouTube Live, but I was using a $200 webcam as opposed to a $4,000 camcorder, which could account for some of the difference. The background was also less compression-friendly; rather than opt for the plain blue background I’ve used for other webinars, I went au natural to promote the Hangout feel. You can view and listen to the webinar and draw your own conclusions.

Overall, once you get going, you’ll find the system easy to use, and the quality more than sufficient to present to and engage your audience.

Final Thoughts

Once the broadcast is complete, YouTube automatically converts the On Air broadcast to an on-demand file you can edit, watch, embed, and link to just like any other YouTube file. You also get the standard analytics that YouTube provides for live and VOD videos. 

During the broadcast, I didn’t test mobile compatibility. In subsequent testing, I was able to participate in Hangouts with two iOS 6.0 devices, an iPhone 4s and an iPad 2, but not my iPad 1; the Hangouts+ app requires iOS 6.0 or better, which the original iPad doesn’t support. I couldn’t connect to a Hangout or watch the broadcast with my Toshiba Thrive tablet running Android 4.0, but my debugging efforts weren’t exhaustive and I am an Android novice. I was assured by my colleague José Castillo, who has used Hangouts On Air many times (and who provided lots of helpful information presented in this article), that you can participate in a Hangout in many Android devices. If mobile participation and mobile viewing are important to you, I suggest that you flesh out iOS and Android compatibility for participating in Hangouts and watching On Air broadcasts, and advise your potential participants/viewers of your findings.

Overall, the ability to host and broadcast multiple speakers is a killer feature that few webcast providers can match without significant upfront preparation and cost. While these services supply a laundry list of features that Google+ Hangouts On Air does not, including registration capabilities, security options, quizzes, polls, monetization features, branding, and post-webinar indexing, Google+ Hangouts On Air provides several critical functions that can help many businesses with their marketing, sales, education, and other efforts. If you’re looking for a vehicle to reach customers, employees, and partners, Hangouts On Air is definitely worth a look. 

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