Back when Google first unveiled Google+, Hangouts looked to be the company’s secret weapon. One week after Hangouts first debuted, if you’ll recall, Facebook looked foolish when it unveiled its one-to-one Skype video chat integration. Google+, it seemed, had the power of the group in its pocket.
It has been a year, and Google’s so-called killer feature hasn’t taken off. The Google+ team is having a difficult time getting users to widely adopt the product, according to sources familiar with the company’s service. Part of the trouble isn’t necessarily getting Google+ users — or “Plussers” in platform-enthusiast parlance — to use Hangouts, but to actually keep them coming back.
Think of it in real-world terms: Gather a bunch of people in a room together who may or may not know each other, and it’s difficult to sustain an active conversation without direction. Similarly, as time passes in a Hangout, the novelty of a group video chat wears off. In the lack of direction, the retention rate suffers.
Thus the dilemma of Hangouts on Google+. Sure, it may be a cool feature, but in the long run, is cool enough?
Google is trying to combat this lack of direction, as the Google+ team heavily pitches directed ways to use Hangouts to anyone and everyone who will listen. If users can actually commune around a focused activity, the idea goes, they’ll want to continue coming back to Hangouts.
I spoke with Google for this article. Though the company did not comment, I was directed to the existing uses of Hangouts on the company’s Google+ page.
At the top of that list are the most obvious targets: Content destination sites that people already visit on a daily basis. That means publications and brands like the New York Times, Wired Magazine (which, disclosure, I previously wrote for), CNN and other major news and entertainment outlets.
It’s good for the news orgs, because they’re essentially given a lightweight, embeddable tool to host live video discussions on their sites, completely free and powered by Google. And it’s obviously good for Google in raising the Hangout brand awareness, and hoping that will extend to “Plussers” using Hangouts on their own.
There’s also the more obvious media play, pitching celebrities on Hangouts as a way for stars to get closer to their fans, similar to amassing a healthy Twitter following or a host of new fans on a Facebook page. Get enough fans to hang out with their favorite celebs, and perhaps those fans will keep coming back.
One of Hangouts’ most promising features, however, is perhaps one of the most difficult to convey: In-Hangout apps. As of now, there are a handful of applications that you can launch from within a group chat session, essentially giving the Hangout an activity to focus on.
Though the current selection is weak, Google debuted a number of games at its I/O conference in June, possibly foreshadowing a larger push into Hangout-based games in the future. And now that the Hangouts API is out of preview, developers could potentially bolster the selection over time (granted, I’d expect that would require some heavy Google lobbying).
This could be especially important for Google, given that a number of major game developers are already pulling titles from Google+, citing a “much larger following on Facebook,” and a much more “active” user base than Google+. If standalone games aren’t working, perhaps Hangout-based games could do better.
Finally, there’s the looming possibility that Google could incorporate communication across properties, rather than continuing to isolate products like Talk, Google+ Messenger and Hangouts. At the I/O conference last month, Google product manager Nikhyl Singhal hinted that we could see an integration of the three separate products soon enough.
This looks to be the direction Google is pushing in. After all, Larry Page speaks of Google+ as a “social spine” across all Google products, and Vic Gundotra’s most recent Google+ usage statistics are measured by activity across all Google products, not just Google+.
Will directing users on how to use Hangouts be enough, or will it take the more forceful approach of injecting Hangouts across other Google properties? Whatever the case, Google needs to convince users that however novel Hangouts may be, they’re worth more than just an initial test drive.