A  few years ago, if you wanted to broadcast educational content from a live event to a virtual audience, you had to hire an A/V team to capture and mix content on-site, pay for a service to stream the content over the Internet and select a Web-based portal where the content would be housed and archived. It typically cost $2,500 to $5,000 per session, with a monthly hosting fee.

Not anymore. You can now log on to Google, push a button and stream conference content directly to YouTube, where it’s archived after the event. For free.

Not only can Google Hangouts create on-demand education and virtual events, they’re being used for client meetings, collaborative teamwork and informal educational chats. It’s an exciting new tool for event designers, meeting planners and marketers interested in hybridizing events and building online communities. But there’s a learning curve, so here’s some help.

Getting started

First let’s define what a Google Hangout is: It’s a free videoconferencing platform for as many as 10 people.

To use it, you need three things:

  1. An Internet connection (wired is best)
  2. A computer (mobile, desktop or laptop) with a camera or USB-connected webcam
  3. A profile page on Google Plus (G+).

If you have a Gmail account, you already have a G+ profile. If you don’t, it’s free to create a Gmail address or start an account with your work email. You don’t need to completely fill out the G+ profile before you hang out, but doing so makes it easier for people to find you and for you to find other people.

Creating Hangouts

There are formal and informal ways of hanging out. “Start a hangout” buttons on G+ profile pages, chat windows and Gmail inboxes allow for spontaneous virtual gatherings — just push the button and invite people to join you.

To alert people about a future Hangout, create an event on G+, click the “Event options” button, select the “Advanced” menu, click the “Hangout” option and fill in the other details. Unless they decline the invitation, everyone invited will see the event on their Google calendar. At the appointed start time, an email reminder containing a link to join is sent. People can join from there or from the original invitation, which displays a “Join hangout” button once the event starts.

If you filled out your G+ profile, are following people or have joined a G+ community, you’ll occasionally receive Hangout invitations or see that people are hanging out from the timeline on your G+ profile page. You can join them by following the links in those emails and posts. If there already 10 people in the Hangout, however, you’ll be told it’s full, and you won’t be able to see what’s going on.

Joining Hangouts

Install the Google Voice and Video plug-in before hanging out or you’ll be prompted, given instructions on how to do so and directed back to the Hangout window the first time you try to join. Once you do this, you should be able to hangout whenever you want.

If you have trouble connecting, or getting your camera to activate, try reloading the plug-in. That solves 90 percent of the issues we’ve run across. Additional problems are resolved by using Chrome instead of Internet Explorer or Safari browsers. If problems continue, search the computer’s Application folder for software from 3ivx or Java and uninstall it.

The differences

Remember how we said a Hangout was limited to 10 participants? If you want to reach a larger virtual audience, enable your chat as a Hangout on Air. When we first published this post, you were able to convert any Hangout into an HOA by clicking a box. Now you have to go to the Google Hangout main page and push the button “Start a Hangout on Air.”

But now you’ve only created an invitation for people to watch your HOA. To start broadcasting, you’ll have to visit this event page when you want to broadcast and hit the “Start” button. Then, invite your guests in.

In addition to streaming live from this HOA event page, the video will stream from your YouTube channel. That’s where it will be automatically archived, allowing for an unlimited number of viewers. The archived video, its keywords and description can be edited afterward. Want to take questions from your viewers? Enable the Q&A app. Then, when people go to the Hangout event page, they can type in questions that you see in your broadcast window.

Don’t have a YouTube channel? Create one using a G+ profile. Just sign in to Google, go to YouTube.com and follow the prompts. If you have an existing channel, make sure it’s tied to the G+ profile you’re using to hang out, otherwise you won’t be able to conduct HOAs.

It’s important to know that until the event organizer pushes the big red “Begin broadcast” button in their Hangout window, HOA content will remain private. Similarly, the content will continue to stream publicly until the “End broadcast” button is pushed.

If you’re the organizer, start HOAs at least 30 minutes before the broadcast begins so you can do a tech run and orientation with your speakers and participants. We’ve discovered that it’s helpful to copy and paste the URL from the broadcast window into an email and send that as well as invitations to join, especially if your speakers aren’t tech-savvy. Don’t try and keep the window open for more than 45 minutes before broadcasting, though. We’ve had technical issues trying to do so.

When you enable Hangouts to be HOAs, a unique URL and embed code is generated that all participants can see and share on social networks and embed on websites. The URL link leads them back to the event page where they can watch and ask questions (and where you can post photos and other notes pre or post-show). Before the broadcast begins, make sure that link box is closed, otherwise it will cover up the area that displays the number of virtual viewers you have. (Note: If you created an event invitation for your HOA, you can go back and edit the “Advanced” settings for the event and include website and ticketing info.)

The other big difference between a Hangout and an HOA is that when you create an HOA event invitation, it won’t send a reminder to participants to join or give them a link to go live the way regular Hangout invitations do. But the people you invited to watch the event will get a reminder. This is where some participants get confused: They’ll RSVP on the event page, but when they get the reminder to tune in, they can’t find their way into the HOA. Organizers must invite all participants into an HOA when it starts. Make sure you communicate to your participants that they’ll be receiving an invitation via email or their G+ page notifications when you want to start the tech or broadcast, and that the event page is just for the HOA audience.

Another important difference: HOAa don’t support most mobile devices, with the exception of a few Android phones/tablets. So you can hang out with someone using an iPad, but they can’t be part of a broadcast. Google won’t even deliver HOA invitations to people unless they’re using a laptop, desktop computer or one of the few Android devices it likes (they don’t currently have a list of what those are).

Bells and whistles

Desktop/laptop computer users have another huge advantage over mobile Hangout participants because they can access a vast array of apps. Once one person opens an app, non-mobile participants get the option to “allow” and use it too.

Here are some of the more useful — and fun — apps:

  • Hangout Toolbox. A must for HOA users. Tools include lower-third company identification for professional-looking titles, real-time URL comment and hashtag-moderation and A/V controls that moderators can use to mute or eject participants.
  • SlideShare. Lets participants share PowerPoint presentations with each other. Can be used to create an interactive webinar in a solo HOA.
  • Screenshare. Good for troubleshooting and online demonstrations. Once enabled, you select which screen viewers see.
  • Google Drive. Share documents, forms, spreadsheets, presentations and drawings for collaborative work.
  • Symphonical. Collaborative project management software that can be exported from the Hangout.
  • Chat. Opens a chat window for participants only.
  • Google Effects. Add sound effects (like applause) and visual overlays (like fake mustaches and pirate hats) to your image. It’s silly and fun.
  • Capture. Lets you take photos of the Hangout.
  • YouTube. Lets participants watch videos together.

Want more best practice and troubleshooting tips? Download this PDF: Tips for Hanging Out by @PYMLive, which is based on our tip sheet for PYM LIVE panelists. It includes information on connectivity, technical requirements and other essential information.