Skype Skype it's not...

A Google Plus Hangout, for those of you who don't know, is a video conferencing facility within the Google+ platform which allows up to ten people to talk to one another in the same space at the same time. (See this in action in the video.)

The integration of this Skype-type facility within a social network cannot be overestimated.

As well as speaking to friends and family, you can talk to anyone on the network face to face quickly and easily. I don't use headphones or a microphone - just my laptop's in-built mic and webcam. You could, for instance, respond to a status update more personally via your webcam, instead of typing in a comment.

So why should journalists care?

Well, because this kind of face-to-face interaction is more real, more personal and more social, if you will, and could produce deeper engagement with your audience - engagement that will cultivate loyalty to you or your brand.

Until recently, Google Hangouts did not provide the kind of controls that broadcasters wanted - crucially, the ability to decide who can come in and out of the session. Now, however, with Google Hangouts On Air the host can choose the participants and livestream the session to particular Google+ Circles or to the public on Google+.

Once the Hangout is finished, a recording is sent to the host's YouTube account, allowing for editing and redistribution.

In preparing this blog, I asked the Google+ community for the hangouts they thought were the most innovative. I didn't expect the response I received. It was overwhelming: gameshow hangouts, dating and divorce advice hangouts, and wedding, birthday celebration hangouts were all among the ones shared. Explore them for yourself.

And there are broadcasters in there, too. Sarah Hill from local US television station KOMU has been trying hangouts in earnest since their inception. Initially they were used to reveal the 'behind the scenes' process to the G+ community, but now they are a daily on-air feature in a section called 'U News'.

In the segment, each participant in the hangout shares a news item that interests them from their part of the world. For this reason Sarah terms them "co-hosts" rather than participants.

During a breaking news event, the team now use hangouts to inform the story (as with the Oslo bombing). Since participants can 'hangout' on iPhones or iPads, they use them to reveal what's going on around them. And if they're at home they provide vox pops to a station that just wouldn't be able to get this kind of content any other way.

In the film above I speak to Sarah and the KOMU production team, as well as some of her regular co-hosts. The hangout in the film was livestreamed at the time to Sarah's 418,704 followers.

You can watch the full 40-minute version.

There are already plenty of other hangouts, bringing together all sorts of groups:

- If you're into photography you'll have heard of Trey Ratcliff. Trey regularly hosts hangouts with his team and other esteemed photographers.

- If Astronomy is more your bag, you could join Fraser Cain. In his 'Astronomy cast' he is talking to a professor about the Carina Constellation.

- For sports fans, X Games invites athletes and their fans into a hangout and films the entire interaction.

- Peter MG Dermott has started a 'series' called 'G + Interviews' hangouts with people he finds interesting. (This example is with Chee Chew - Google Hangouts engineer.)

- Daria Musk has become a bit of a musical sensation on Google+. She has spent the past six months performing and interacting with her new fans in hangouts. Daria was recently invited to Google HQ to talk about her experiences.

It's not yet possible to embed a hangout onto a site - but here's hoping.