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Lessons Learned: Using Google+ Hangouts On Air in a Conference Presentation


A few weeks ago I presented at the 2013 NASPA Western Regional Conference in Salt Lake.  Before the conference I announced the session on this blog, Behind the Scenes with YouTubers: How Their Channels are Impacting Current & Future College Students.

I go into this post with two quotes in the back of my mind:

“There’s a way to do it better, find it.” — Thomas Edison
“The essential part of creativity is not being afraid to fail.” — Edwin H. Land

In this session, I featured three YouTubers, Mike Tompkins, MaryDoodles and EpicLLOYD using a technology called Google+ Hangouts On Air.  This live interactive panel would be projected to the conference attendees, who also would be part of the panel experience asking questions of the YouTubers during the session.  My task was facilitating in person to both the audience and three online panelists.
This tool is connected to the growing social media platform, Google+.  There are actually two options through this site, Google Hangouts as well as Hangouts On Air.  I choose the option that would allow me to not only record the session, but also stream the conversation live to both Google+ and YouTube.

Typically this technology is only used online, with all participants sitting in front of a computer screen to communicate with the other attendees.  In this scenario, we added an extra challenge of incorporating a live audience.
Grace Bagunu, whom I referred to as my behind the scenes (BTS) producer, managed the platform by creating the hangout and troubleshooting.  I prepared for the session starting in the summer and started to realize I could not go into this session without extra help.  Grace and I spoke at least half a dozen times leading up to the conference, in addition to a practice run the day before the session and had ample time directly before the panel began the day of.
Despite our preparations, we had a number of technology hiccups standing in our way.  While we received wonderful feedback from attendees in our session, Grace and I knew we needed to share the lessons we learned in developing and implementing this type of session.
The benefits were obvious, we could stream live three panelist that could not physically attend the session.  In this case, three YouTubers whom the attendees would most likely never interact with, if it was not for the technology.
More professional conferences may be looking toward this type of technology, as methods for session innovations increase while budgets are pinched.
Below is what Grace and I collectively reflected on the pros, cons as well as deal makers when considering using Google+ Hangouts On Air.
Deal Breakers

  • Internet: The conference hotel must 150% guarantee a hard wire internet connection.  No wireless.
  • Sound: Use a USB Boom mic for the session on-site, encouraging all your panelist to wear headphones to minimize outside noise.  Connect the computer to the conference room built-in speakers.
  • Screen: Ensure the screen the conference attendees will be watching is ample size.  Ours was 10×15 feet, which worked well.
  • Tech Rehearsal: Kindly request that you can test all technology on site prior to your session.

For our session, all of these elements were checked off.  Even still, we encountered the following drawbacks.
Possible Problems

IMG_3783 (1)
Hotel and Conference Staff Attempting to Resolve Tech Issues Mid-Session

  •  Number of Panelists:  Google+ failed when it came to having more than 5 users online and the 5th person had to be muted.  Consider no more than 4 total online panelists.
  • Panelist Internet Connection: All the panelists relied on their home internet connection, which was interrupted by each at least once.
  • Conference/Hotel Internet: Despite being assured we were connected to the hotel Internet via an Ethernet cord, it did not work.  We found out after the session that the hardwire internet was never activated for the room, so we were attempting to rely on the wireless, competing with all other WiFi users in our session.
  • Recording the session: Because of our internet connectivity issues, the ‘on air’ session had to be restarted.  This caused significant disruption to the recording.  As a result, there was not a recording what so ever.
  • Staff Support: Don’t go at this alone as the facilitator.  At minimum, have another coordinating presenter to manage the On Air platform.  If possible, request a conference or hotel staff member present in the session for hotel equipment troubleshooting.

Session Highlights and Possibilities On Air

Attendee’s response after announcing I am married to one of the YouTube Panelists

  • Access: This technology introduced a unique group of panelists to conference attendees.  Because we pushed the norm in conference session formats, a level of risk was accepted, but worth the benefits.
  • Cost: There was no cost to the presenters, hotel or attendees.  The YouTubers volunteered for the hour session.  Had in been an in-person panel, a budget would have been required.
  • Innovation: Even with technology challenges, just showing the possibilities of the platform to attendees met part of our learning outcomes.
  • Panelist Engagement: The panelists proved to be very engaging, offering the attendees a unique perspective on social media, education and future/current college students.
  • Session Attendance: We had a great session turnout, with around 40 in attendance and a decent back channel conversation on Twitter.
  • Audience Q&A: The last part of the session included a question/answer from conference attendees.  This was personally my favorite part of the session, where attendees joined the panel on screen and engaged in dialogue.
  • Documentation: If all goes smoothly, a conference session using On Air would have a final product to share forever via YouTube.  This documentation would allow the information, experience and engagement of the session to go beyond the conference.

Additional Suggestions for Future Conference Presenters

  • PowerPoint: On Air has a capability called ‘screenshare’ which ideally would allow a conference facilitator to show their PowerPoint via On Air for their online participants.  However, currently Google does not allow for this.  The workaround is a download called ‘SlideShare.’  By the time we found this it, we did not have time to convert the PowerPoint into Slideshare.  This meant our online viewers would only be able to hear the PowerPoint introduction, which included YouTube statistics and Panelist overview.
  • On-Site Computer: As the facilitator, you want your face in the On Air panel.  Be creative in making your computer screen in a location that you are seen at eye level (when standing), without a distracting background, but also not being blocked from engaging with your in-person audience.
  • Panel Management: With up to four panelists, over-talking may occur.  As the facilitator, call on what panelist you would like to hear from and ask them to mute themselves when they are not speaking.  Ensure all are logged on properly 10 minutes before the session is to begin.
  • Troubleshooting: Here is the reality, just be prepared for problems.  Even if you have all your elements covered on site, one of your panelist could have the same challenges remotely.  Attempt to keep your cool and be gracious to your audience.

There are many (many) more resources available on this platform, which if you are looking to include Google On Air into an upcoming conference session, I strongly encourage you to explore.  Higher Ed Live is another great example of how this technology is being used wisely.  The reality is that next week Google could come out with changes to On Air platform, possibly alleviate problems we experience, but also presenting new difficulties to overcome.  Despite being put in the hot seat from troubleshooting tech during the session, I still believe the risk of innovation is worth the benefits.  The more we can share what lessons we have learned along the way on this platform and others, the quicker we can all reap the benefits of such technology.
Thank you to Grace, Mike, Mary, Lloyd and the NASPA Western Regional Conference Committee for supporting this session!
Please enjoy the PowerPoint created for the session here: YouTube.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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