Since the launch of Google+ brand pages last week, businesses have joined politicians and entertainers in experimenting with "Hangouts," the social network's group video chat feature.
Hangouts have been available on personal Google+ pages since the product launched in June and have been used by news-makers from Newt Gingrich to will.i.am, though Google declined to say how many Hangouts have been programmed and whether the usage has increased over time. Hangouts have been pointed to as a possible differentiator for Google+ ever since it launched, because it's a functionality that 's both simple to understand and that 's missing from Facebook and other social platforms.
"To get people to interact with Google+ who haven't been there before -- this is one of the most compelling ways," said Noah Mallin, VP-group director of social marketing at Digitas.
How it works
Anyone with a web cam can start a Hangout -- essentially a video chat for up to 10 people -- on their Google+ page and either invite specific users or make the Hangout public and open to the first nine people who enter, leaving people who come later to queue up and wait for one of the initial participants to exit.
Macy's was among the first to host a Hangout on a brand page last week with Fashionista blogger Leah Chernikoff talking to nine Google+ users. But the fact that only 10 participants are allowed per session is a severe limitation for brands who might be thinking about Hangouts as a new way to engage their audience. Some early adopters have found ways to circumvent that rule. Fox News held a Hangout with Mitt Romney on Tuesday that only three people were chosen to participate in, but also broadcasted it on TV and then published it on their website to increase the exposure.
"The best usage [for brands] is where you have an influencer or a taste-maker or perhaps a celebrity who comes in and drives whatever's going on inside the Hangout," said Jeff Semones, president of the social-media agency M80. He added that the end goal would be for participants to generate social buzz about the Hangout after the fact. In the case of an entertainment client, such as a studio, the ideal set-up might be a Hangout hosted by a show creator with a mix of ardent fans and members of the press invited in as participants, he said.
The potential audience reach of "Hangouts On Air" -- where the Hangout can be viewed by anyone who has the brand in their Circles, even if they're not among the nine selected to actively partcipate -- is attractive to brands, but programming one requires coordinating with Google to set it up on the back end, and Google has only done a handful so far, including a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in October and a session with "The Muppets" on their brand page to promote their upcoming film last week. Christian Oestlien, Google's head of social advertising products, said the ultimate goal is to make Hangouts on Air a feature that brands can program independently.
While it's safe to say that just about any major brand planning a Google+ presence will experiment with Hangouts, Dell was notably using them for customer service and to deliver product news via employees' personal pages months in advance of the launch of brand pages. CEO Michael Dell has hosted several Hangouts personally, inviting his followers on Google+ to join him.
According to Richard Binhammer, Dell's director of social media and community, company employees have hosted a minimum of 50 Hangouts collectively on their personal pages, including a member of the consumer sales group who held one to talk about a new high-end laptop, which Dell also live-streamed on its YouTube channel. Members of the business purchases team have done Hangouts to talk about issues like virtualization and cloud computing, and a customer service rep from the @DellCares team has hosted group video chats to address technical issues.
Dell will host the first Hangout on its brand page next week, featuring the company's "Entrepreneur in Residence," but will continue to have employees coordinate group video chats from their personal pages.
"We will continue to do both," said Mr. Binhammer. "Part of our involvement in Google+ involves a number of our subject matter experts across the business and getting them involved actively."
David Berkowitz, VP-emerging media at 360i, observed that video is often difficult for brands and agencies to execute well, especially when the content is around a vertical like consumer packaged goods as opposed to entertainment. But he also noted that Hangouts open the door to new storytelling possibilities.
"If you sit down with community managers and see what they have to do to come up with something to say every single day across Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms, anything you can do that opens up possibilities is really, really welcome," he said.