SharePoint online communication sites explained

Image of blue background with illustrated sharepoint site

At this year’s SharePoint Virtual Summit, Microsoft announced multiple improvements to SharePoint Online and OneDrive. One of these improvements is the addition of the new Communication sites.

Designed to broadcast information to other teams or to an entire organization, these sites are coming in with some major improvements to the SharePoint content editing experience.

We’re glad to hear there are yet again some new solutions in SharePoint Online for our users. But what are they really ? How do they work behind the scenes? Are we really looking at something innovative?

Let’s take a look at the answers to these questions together.

What Is a Communication site?

Much like a team site, a Communication site is a SharePoint site that anyone in the organization can create from the SharePoint home (in Office 365 only).

Creating a Communication site in SharePoint Online

Basically, it creates a site collection that is mobile friendly and adapted to display information in a dynamic way.

Some notes about site creation:

  • Site creation is really fast!
  • You can’t really disable it, unless you remove the Create site button from the SharePoint home.

As the image when choosing a site to create suggests, a Team site is really more for a group of people to collaborate, and the Communication site to share important information with others.

Most importantly, it comes with preset designs to help users get started, faster.

Communication Site Designs

Choosing a Communication site layout in SharePoint Online

  • Topic: A template designed to present a large amount of information such as news, events, and other content.
  • Showcase: A template designed to showcase a product, a team, or an event using images.
  • Blank: Well… Start from scratch!

The first two designs will provision preconfigured web parts to your site acting as a starting point, which makes it really easy to get started.

The Topic Design

Communication Sites on desktop in SharePoint

This site comes with a complete landing page that looks a bit like an intranet home page. Here’s what you get:

  • *NEW* Hero web part: This is a new web part that I will be explaining further on in this article. It looks like a news web part and presents a set of tiles (links) to pages, external links or to a specific document.
  • News web part: This is an existing web part that is pre-configured with the “side-by-side” layout.
  • *NEW* Events web part: This web part presents upcoming events. It’s not 100% new, it’s basically just a display web part for a good old SharePoint calendar list.
  • Documents web part: An existing web part preconfigured to show 10 items of the current site’s document library, in a card-style layout.
  • Quick links: A web part that aggregates quick links to documents, pages or to external URLs. This web part is actually empty (which means it’s not visible upon site creation) but will show up once customized.
  • *NEW* People web part: A new web part that I’ll talk about later. This web part is empty (so not visible upon site creation). It presents people cards linked to user profiles in Delve.

The Showcase Design

Showcase Design Communication Sites

This site is really more simplistic. The home page contains only the new Hero web part and a classic Image gallery web part in the home page.

Its purpose is to hold information that is more “static.” Like the description suggests, it’s a perfect layout to present a product, a team or an event. You could use it for the Christmas party web site, for example.

New Web Parts Explained

The Hero Web Part

Hero web part in Communication sites SharePoint Online

This new feature is a full-width tile web part that comes with multiple layouts, and is adapted for mobile.

Mobile Communication site in SharePoint Online

It’s actually adding quite a wow factor to this release, because it’s easy to edit and manipulate. It makes for great-looking home pages. But how does it work ?

Each tile in the web part is not an item. It might look like a news web part, but it’s not. Every tile has a set of configured properties that either link to a page, a document or an external link.

Note that not every tile needs to have an image! This can help you keep the focus on the message and avoid looking around for an appropriate picture.

Hero web part in Communication sites on mobile

This means that for this web part to be updated, a user must edit the properties manually. It’s a good thing it doesn’t have that many!

The down side is that you don’t really preserve a history of the tiles. In fact, changing the headline consists of replacing the existing tile and republishing the page.

Also, we need to be careful when using this type of web part. It’s pretty to look at and it’s interactive, but it might end up being quite static if it’s never updated.

There’s a great Microsoft support article on the subject if you’re looking for more information on the SharePoint Hero web part.

Events Web Part

Events web part for Communication Sites in SharePoint Online

This web part is included in the “Topic site” design and presents four upcoming events. The nice touch here is the “Add to my calendar” link, which enables you to add the event to your own schedule.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many options that can be configured with this web part (Out of the box).

Event web part in Communication sites

Some notes about the events web part:

  • Events are stored in a classic SharePoint calendar (this list doesn’t have a modern UI).
  • SharePoint now offers a full-event page that has the modern editing experience.
  • An event page includes a Bing search integration for the event location (you can use this as a web part in your pages).
  • Events won’t show up in the search results.

Bing search integration for Communication sites in SharePoint Online

There is also a new page to present and filters all events. This page cannot be edited.

Web part in Communication sites

People Profile Web Part

This web part allows you to add a list of people cards to a page. These could represent a team or a committee, for example.

People Profile web part for Communication sites in SharePoint Online

When you click on a face, you can see the person’s profile information. These are directly linked to the Delve profiles.

Delve profile in SharePoint

The funny thing about this web part though… it has no properties. So, what you see is what you get!

Comments on Pages

Now, if you created your site page through the page templates in a Communication site, you’ll get this little switch in your page:

Comments in communication sites

Comments are a good way to encourage bidirectional communications. We could say it’s a must in a “Communication” site right?

Comments integration for Communication sites in SharePoint Online

You should know a few things about this feature before getting too excited:

  • This option is only available if you create a page with page templates (more on that in a minute).
  • It’ll appear only after you’ve published a first version of the page.
  • It’s NOT linked to Yammer. Comments are stored in the site page item in SharePoint (in a column).
  • You can delete your comments, but you can’t edit them.
  • This is specific to Communication sites (not available in team sites).

I wouldn’t say this is an extraordinary discussion feature, but will most likely be practical in specific use cases. What do you think?

Note that you can also use the Yammer web part.

Modern Content Editing

Now that you know a little more about the Communication site, let’s take a look at what has changed in the SharePoint we know. In order to get contributors to feel more comfortable using SharePoint as a Communication tool, Microsoft has made some nice improvements to the editing experience.

Page Templates

Modern team sites were a big step forward in terms of usability for end users. Unfortunately, it lacked flexibility because only the single-column layout was available for sites/wiki pages.

Now, when creating a page, the user can choose a preset layout.

Page templates for Communication sites in SharePoint Online

In addition to providing suggestions on what layout to use for what purpose, the created page comes with dummy text to help the user get started.

A few notes about page templates

  • They don’t seem to be available for Team sites right now, but I assume it’ll come eventually
  • They aren’t available when creating a page from the Site pages library, only from the home page

Creating a new page in Communication sites SharePoint Online

Flexible Page Layouts (Finally!)

Personally, I think the best thing that’s happened for contributors, is that SharePoint pages now support section layouts. We can now have multiple column layouts in the same page!

Flexible page layouts in Communication sites

This is definitely my favorite improvement. Users now have the flexibility they need to present information more efficiently, and the way THEY want to present it.

Set Focal Point

In the modern UI, a site page has a top image. Microsoft has added a really nice touch to this page header; a way to reposition the focus on the image. In edit mode, you’ll find a “Set focal point” button on the top right.

Button to set focal point on hero banner image Focal point on image in hero banner

Everything Else you Should Know

What Happens Behind the Scenes

Basically, a communication site is a standalone SharePoint Site Collection.

  • It goes under the /sites managed path
  • It’s NOT associated with an Office 365 Group
  • Whatever the type of site you create, the site template is “SITEPAGEPUBLISHING#0”

How Navigation Works

In a Communication site, the navigation is exactly the same as any SharePoint site. Links must be managed manually by a contributor. The only difference is that visitors will also see it in every page as a top navigation menu (horizontal).

Navigation in Communication Sites

Note about the navigation:

  • This menu can only have one additional level. You can either “make a sublink” or “promote a link.”
  • Click here for more information.

Who Can Access Your Communication Site

Once you’ve created your site, you can easily share it with a team, or with the entire organization. Sharing with external users is also possible.

Shareing communication sites in SharePoint Online

Bonus: Learn everything there is to know about external sharing with the The Definitive Guide to Office 365 External Sharing.

What’s Happening with Publishing Sites?

With all of this being rolled out, we still have to figure out if these Communication sites are going to complement or compete with the current Publishing infrastructure. What’s the difference between those two? What are they good for?

Unfortunately, I won’t answer these questions in this blog post, but I’ll definitely cover that in my next one!

Hope you’ve learned a thing or two.

What did you think of this article?

Recommended by our team

Getting started is easy

Try ShareGate free for 15 days. No credit card required.

Gif Transparent

LIVE WEBINAR Harmonize your SharePoint sites with Teams