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The Google Hangout Revolution

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This chapter looks at what Hangouts actually are, why they are such a big thing, what drives them, and what you need to get started.
This chapter is from the book

A Paradigm Shift in Action

As you are reading this, a paradigm shift is taking place. People who could never travel see places they could never go to. Complex questions regarding technical issues that require documentation and many emails to resolve are sorted out in minutes. Teachers teach students remotely at next to no cost. Music artists find a global audience before they even have a label. Businesses find customers and establish trust without spending a dime on advertising.

What is happening is that the promise of remote, face-to-face communication, which has been the Holy Grail of businesses for over half a century, is now here. The paradox is that its arrival snuck up on us unexpectedly, riding on the back of a new social network that appeared when there was little apparent need for it, and it was presented as one of the many free features offered, rather than the main one.

Google+ came on the scene at a time when Facebook was the world’s dominant social network. What’s more, in typical Google fashion, it came out in Beta, presenting itself without a manual and with ever-changing functionality and features that were left for its users to discover and put to use.

One of these features was the capability to videoconference with a group of people. Google called it a “Hangout,” and it was designed to be as impromptu and spontaneous as a chat in the street when you run across someone you know. It sounds innocuous, yet Hangouts would turn out to be the “Killer App” of 2011, changing, by degrees, the nature of online communications and, in the process, challenging the marketing setup of every traditional institution and organization on the Web.

The official terminology states that “Hangout” is the name given to the peer-to-peer videoconferencing capability provided within the Google+ environment. To understand the importance of this to the individual online marketer and business entity, it is necessary to establish a distinction: Videoconferencing is distinct from video chat in an important way. Whereas video chat is aimed at transmitting audio and video between individuals, videoconferencing is designed to transmit audio and video between multiple locations.

The distinction is important because costly as it might have been to have a video chat between two people, in the past it was still feasible. But a videoconference was something reserved for James Bond films. The prohibitive barriers that stopped it from happening were determined not only by the cost, which was pretty hefty, but also by the technological difficulties involved, which were considerable. Multiple locations, multiple tiers of equipment, and individuals of varying degrees of video-conferencing expertise magnified the problems rather than the opportunities. So, usually, it was easier not to bother.

As a matter of fact, the level of difficulty experienced was such that until Google came along with its deep pockets, custom-made server base, and stable bandwidth, the only use for videoconferencing was consigned to the occasional gimmicky effect of the odd, high-level board meeting and when there was a real emergency that justified the cost involved in setting up the required network connections.

Fast-forward into the present and what is happening is that ordinary people, celebrities, online businesses, and brands are busy connecting with their audience and the world at large through videoconferencing on a whim. From scheduled slots and regular shows to impromptu meetings—and even the odd occasion of entirely opportunistic connections where someone turns on their webcam just to see who they will be able to connect with—the built-in videoconferencing capability that is offered by Google+ is opening up all sorts of connective possibilities.

Hangouts have been the Google+ “secret weapon,” offering a compelling reason not just for more online marketing and greater connectivity through the Web, but for a different type of online marketing and a different type of connectivity.

The usual response to this is divided equally into “yeas” and “nays”: those who intuitively grasp the concept and get involved become hooked soon enough, and those who are so steeped in traditional marketing methods that they cannot see the possibilities and develop an almost pathological aversion to it that in itself becomes a stumbling block.

Hangouts are a disruptive technology. As such, they offer what every good disruptive technology offers:

  • Lower implementation costs (in this case, to connect using video feeds)
  • Enhanced capabilities (for communication and marketing)
  • Easy integration (for Hangouts, across many different web properties)

It’s worthwhile, for a moment, to look at these three things in a little more detail.

Lower implementation costs: It doesn’t matter how good a new technology may be. If it is expensive to implement, it remains an oddity to be tried only when it is necessary to make a statement about status. Hangouts are a low-cost solution because you can get away with zero investment in the tech required (though I would strongly advise in investing in some tech). Google does the heavy lifting with its servers and massive capability in distributed computing. Because its servers also do a lot of other things, such as support Google search and YouTube, the cost of supporting Hangouts is relatively small for the company. Similarly, as end users, we use our laptops to perform many other tasks. We do not buy them specifically for Hangouts. The built-in mic and webcam typically come standard, so the set-up cost for a Hangout can be very little indeed. This low-entry cost threshold is one of the signs of a disruptive technology. It makes what was previously expensive to set up seem almost incidental.

Enhanced Capabilities: The perfect means of communication is face-to-face interaction. Not only does it allow us to communicate at several levels at once (verbal, tonal, physical), but it also permits us to ask questions and get more clarification of anything we have not quite understood. On the web we have never had this option before, and marketing has always relied on a simple repeated signal precisely because there had to be a little room left for misunderstandings. But that is not how video contact works. A Hangout allows you to see a person’s face, hear their voice, watch their body language, and ask clarification for anything you have not understood. All in real time.

Easy integration: In the past anything that had to do with remote video interaction required a trained team of technicians and expert know-how to pull off. Hangouts on G+ can be used as a stand-alone impromptu app, they can be used as public broadcasts of specific events, embedded on website pages with just a few lines of code, or shown on YouTube. The versatility offered by Hangouts increases their value as communication and marketing tools.

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