Microsoft released the new ‘Communication Sites’ into the SharePoint environment for First Release customers in late July 2017. The release of these new and eagerly anticipated site types underlined the need for a good SharePoint architecture, especially when moving from on-premise to online in Office 365.
What are Communication Sites?
To quote Microsoft, Commmunication Sites ‘… are perfect for internal cross-company campaigns, weekly and monthly reports or status updates, product launches, events and more.’ (Source: https://blogs.office.com/en-us/2017/06/27/sharepoint-communication-sites-begin-rollout-to-office-365-customers/)
But what are they and how do they fit into your SharePoint architecture? What the relationship between Communication Sites and other sites using the publishing features of SharePoint?
Communication sites are, essentially, a new type of online-only site with three different top-level site page designs:
- Topic. Use when you have ‘a lot of information to share, such as news, events and other content’.
- Showcase. Use when you want ‘to feature a product, team or event using photos or images’.
- Blank. Build your own.
Depending on the architecture of your current SharePoint environment, topic-based SharPoint sites have the ability to replace the top-level site of a publishing-based intranet site. The default layout of topic-based sites makes use of the ‘hero’ web part that presents information in several ’tiles’ on the screen as well as other web parts such as ‘news’, ‘events’, ‘documents’ and ‘contacts’. Multiple columns can be displayed on the page and various other options are possible, including by using the SharePoint Framework.
Showcase-based sites, on the other hand, allow you to promote and showcase parts of the organisation, events or products. The default layout also uses the hero web part that allows content to be displayed in one to five layers.
The blank design allows you to create your own site structure.
To quote Microsoft on the link above (which includes lots of screenshots), ‘When you create a page on a communication site, you can embed documents and video, and dynamically pull in real-time data from across Office 365, including documents from SharePoint, Power BI reports, Microsoft Stream videos and Yammer discussions. The resulting page is a rich and dynamic communication’.
How do you create Communication Sites?
Communication sites are created in the same (new) way as Office 365 Group-based sites, by clicking on the ‘Create Site’ option in the SharePoint portal (https://(your company).sharepoint.com/_layouts/15/sharepoint.aspx).
Clicking this option presents two options as shown above: (a) team sites and (b) communication sites. Only authorised users who can create O365 Groups can create a Group-based team site or a Communication site.
Creating a new Communication site using this option does not create an O365 Group, unlike a Group-based team site.
Note: The path for both new Group-based and Communication sites is set in the SharePoint Admin portal. In our experience most Group-based sites need to be created in the /teams name path, while Communication sites should be created in the /sites name path. It can take a little while (we found up to 20 minutes) for the changed option to appear in the SharePoint portal, ‘create site’ option.
When the ‘Communication Site’ option is selected, the authorised user must (a) select which design (topic, showcase, or blank) and (b) give the site a name (which becomes the URL address). We found it was very easy for a use not to select the correct site design because it appears on the left, whereas all the other options including the name appear on the right of the site creation process. The new site is created quickly after ‘Finish’ is selected – in a matter of minutes.
Note: The new sign designs are only available at the top level of the site. New sub-sites are standard sub-sites which, depending on your set up, are probably going to be ‘classic’ site pages with modern libraries and lists. The site pages can of course be easily swapped over for a new modern page, but these pages do not include (or do not seem to inherit) the same design options as on the top level topic and showcase based sites. There may be an architecture or design reason for this – see below.
Using Communication Sites
As noted above, Communication sites have two primary potential uses:
- Replacement for top level intranet sites that are usually built on sites with publishing features enabled
- New ‘showcase’ sites, that may also already exist as publishing sites
The meaning of ‘intranet’ in this context may vary, but in our context the intranet is a standard top-level site, with multiple sub-sites, with publishing features enabled and common organisation-wide centralised information such as news, organisational structure and information, and policies and forms. It may also include extensive customisation. Other types of ‘intranet’ might include:
- The top level in a hierarchy of team and publishing sites, all known as the ‘intranet’.
- Any other SharePoint site that is known as the ‘intranet’. This might include team sites.
Considerations when using Communication Sites
As noted above, the ‘topic’ and ‘showcase’ design elements of Communication sites are restricted to the top level site only. However, many ‘intranet’ sites include at least one level of sub-site. Therefore, careful consideration needs to be given to the architecture of the proposed ‘intranet’ if a decision is made to use Commmunication sites instead of traditional publishing sites for this purpose.
Communication sites include the following default elements:
- Top level site page, using the ‘hero’ web part that provides links to other information.
- Site pages (includes the top level page and any news pages)
- News (pages)
- Events (calendar)
- Documents (library)
Other apps that can be added to these sites include:
- Custom list
- Site mailbox
Organisations may also make use of the SharePoint Framework to add other types of content on the pages.
Clearly, this may limit the potential to use a Communication site to completely replace an existing multi-sub-site intranet.
The lesson that may be drawn from this is that Communication sites using the ‘topic’ design are not intended to be a complete replacement for a multi-sub-site intranet. The inference is that replacement intranets may actually be made up of multiple different sites.
A possible structure (based on a typical intranet site) might be made up of the following elements:
- Organisation ‘home site’ using the ‘topic’ design. This would typically be the first ‘go-to’ place for users to learn more about how the organisation works, the latest news, and policies and forms. It may also include multiple links to other applications or content. ‘Hero’ web part links may point to content within the site, or to other Communication sites (topic or showcase).
- A dedicated sub-site for policies and forms.
- News pages
- Multiple ‘showcase’ design sites for each organisational area or event, to promote their work, instead of using sub-sites from the main site to do this.
- Multiple sites under the ‘/teams’ (includes Group-based sites) and ‘/sites’ name paths.
How do you find anything?
A possible concern to separating elements of existing SharePoint sites into completely separate sites is finding the content; if the information forms part of the same site, it should be possible to find it relatively easily.
The simple answer to this is that the ‘Search’ option in SharePoint Online no longer points to the same site by default, and instead searches across all SharePoint content, regardless of its location.
Organisations that continue to host their SharePoint sites in on-premise servers will need to consider and plan how to migrate their sites, including their intranet, into the new SharePoint Online environment, with the following options:
- Team, publishing and other ‘traditional’ site types created via the SharePoint Admin portal, under the ‘/sites’ or ‘/teams’ paths.
- Office 365-Group based sites, created from the SharePoint Portal, which also creates a Group and all associated elements. Alternatively, O365 Groups created in the ‘Groups’ section of the Office 365 Admin portal, that create O365-linked SharePoint sites. The latter option is preferred to maintain naming conventions and restrict uncontrolled growth and inconsistent naming of both Groups and SharePoint sites.
- Communication sites, created from the SharePoint portal.
Traditional, multi-level intranets will almost certainly need to be discarded in favour of multi-site based intranet content, unless the organisation is prepared to use standard sub-site (modern) page layouts to present information to users.
Organisations that continue to want to have complex intranet sites may need to explore the SharePoint Framework and engage third-party vendors who can support this model.
Whichever option is selected, an important element not to lose sight of is the ability to access (and if necessary, add to or edit) content via a mobile device. The more complex the site, the harder it will be (without considerable extra cost) to present it on a mobile device.