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SharePoint Communication Sites – your questions, answered

ClearBox Consulting > Communications  > SharePoint Communication Sites – your questions, answered
Communication site gif

SharePoint Communication Sites – your questions, answered

On 25th July 2017 we held a joint webinar with Bonzai to take a look at the new Communication Sites feature in SharePoint Online.

We were thrilled to receive so many questions during the live webinar, but we couldn’t attend to them all. Hopefully, my following answers will address the most common and most relevant questions that came up.

Availability

Why can’t I see communication sites yet in my SharePoint?

You need to meet these criteria:

  • On Office 365 (not on SharePoint 2016 yet)
  • Have it rolled out to your Office 365 tenant

At the time of the webinar, only ‘first release’ tenants had it. First release means you get new stuff early, but run the risk it doesn’t work perfectly. The good news is you can nominate individuals to be first release without changing it for every user.

Communication site

A SharePoint Communications Site.
Click to enlarge.

Where do I go to create a Communications Site?

Pick ‘SharePoint’ in the waffle icon on Office 365 to go to the SharePoint Home page. You will see ‘+ Create Site’ at the top. This will give the choice of a Team Site or Communication Site if it is enabled.

Create a site

Once enabled, the ‘Create Site’ button gives a choice of Team or Communication sites.

Is there a certain Enterprise level E1 or E3 that you need to have to get Communication sites?

All levels will have this feature.

Do we really get all this without any extra add-ons? Responsive design, video, images etc.?

Yes, everything we showed is out of the box Office 365. No add-on products, invisibility cloaks or CGI effects were used during the webinar. I wasn’t even wearing make-up.

Purpose and Publishing Sites

Can this replace your intranet homepage?

Only if your needs are very, very simple. There is nothing dynamic about the page, so it will soon look stale if you don’t keep adding to it. It has no personalisation or aggregation features. If you need those, we recommend looking at some of the Intranet in-a-box products.

Will communication sites replace publishing sites? Do they have a future?

For the moment they co-exist, and for legacy reasons they probably will for some time. Publishing sites are much more versatile but also harder to get up and running with. Long term, I expect Microsoft to add enough features that Publishing sites will only be needed for the most complex scenarios and most sites for departments, divisions etc. will be communication sites. I do think comms sites are here to stay though – read more in my post SharePoint emerges from its ugly duckling phase.

Can we schedule publishing?

No, this requires a publishing site.

Can we switch off the News part?

You can remove the news section from the site, but you can’t stop people adding that specific web part.

Can news be tagged with metadata?

Sadly not. Anything around a central news store or personalisation will still require a Publishing Site (there is a certain pattern to the answers here, sorry!).

Can you embed a communication page in a main SharePoint page?

No, they are a separate site.

How can we migrate old intranet pages to this new Communication Sites?

There’s no official route, it would be a manual process.

Can we have multiple languages?

Each language would need its own site. Anything fancier needs a publishing site (or better yet, an in-a-box product).

Can a team site be converted into a communication site?  When I look at web parts in my team site I actually see all these new options…

What you see are the ‘modern web parts’ shared by both tools. However, the main differences are the menus and what is on the site by default. You do get the multi-column layout though. As far as I know there’s no way to move between them, but you can reconfigure a team site to look very close indeed.

We have so called ‘Communities of Interest’ that are local disciplines but that have global access across the company, is this possible with communication sites?

Yes, you could embed they Yammer web part to give the interactive element and use the other publishing features for things like guides and image sharing from the Community. Note that this isn’t the same as the ‘Community’ sites introduced in SharePoint 2013.

Design and publishing options

Is everything responsive?

Yes, this is an area Microsoft have made significant progress in. It works well on tablets, smartphones and laptops. On very large screens it is hard to zoom out without elements over-compensating (see the first screenshot where the hero images are too wide for the rest of the page). Note too that it relies on having ‘modern’ web parts designed to work in this way. You can’t mix and match older web parts. @WonderlLaura has an excellent full list of modern web parts. 

Can you change the menus?

Only a horizontal menu is available. This can be edited, but it isn’t so easy to extend as a vertical sidebar menu. It also doesn’t show within the SharePoint App.

Can you brand comms sites?

Only in a minimal way as a site owner. Like Team Sites, you can change the title, description and logo. You can also change the overall theme colours, and add a background image, but in general we wouldn’t recommend it from a usability point of view.

Does Microsoft provide guidelines for ideal image sizes to use in the various component areas?

No. Images are automatically re-sized for the device, but bear in mind you can’t change the image within SharePoint, all you can do is reposition it to fit a pre-cropped area. It’s best to manipulate the image outside SharePoint first using your favourite image editing software.

Banner

Positioning an image within the banner area for a news story on SharePoint.

Can you color and format text?

There are no color options. There are pre-sets for headings and pull quotes, bold and italic etc.

Text formatting

Text formatting options for Communication Sites.

Can I show photos easily?

Yes, the Image Gallery web part will let you select multiple images and configure them as tiles, a carousel etc. You still have to upload them first though.

Image gallery

Configuring an image gallery web part in SharePoint

Can I embed a table?

You can paste a table into the text editor web part from Word (thanks to Adam who both asked this question and answered it for us!), but be aware of any formatting issues.

Governance and permissions

Is there an approval process for News?

No, there is zero workflow. The model is that only site owners can edit and that most people would visit in read-only mode. Under ‘Site contents’ the ‘Site Workflows’ section is still there, so perhaps that indicates future plans?

In theory you might also be able to use Flow to trigger an approval email after a news story has been created, but it won’t prevent it being published. If you need it, we recommend publishing sites still.

Can I show the site owners?

Yes, add the ‘People’ web part manually and put your profile in. Add somebody else’s name if you get lots of complaints 😉

Can we disable Communication Sites? Can we control who gets to create them?

That’s harsh, they’ve only just arrived! But I know what you mean, there are governance issues that need serious thought. At the moment a global admin can enable or disable the ‘create site’ button. This will also block team site creation and make it an admin-only privildge.

Where do Communication Sites get created? Can I choose? Can I make it underneath another site?

Not currently. Each site gets its own site collection, though this isn’t visible in the SharePoint Admin panel. As with Team Sites, Microsoft is pushing for a flat topology rather than a hierarchical approach to sites now. There are rumours of a ‘content rollup portal’ that will aggregate news from Team and Comms sites, a little like the ‘News’ section on SharePoint Home in Office 365.

Can you control access to comms sites? Are they public by default?

Newly created sites are visible only to the creator. Like other SharePoint sites you can add and remove individuals or groups using the familiar ‘Site permissions’ screen.

Search

If there’s no site hierarchy, how do people find the sites?

It’s a similar challenge to Team sites. I suspect Microsoft thinks a combination of Delve and choosing to ‘Follow’ a site will give everyone their personalized list. The news aggregation in the mobile app and SharePoint home will then roll things up. That’s the Microsoft story. I think in all but the most organized of companies it will be a big spaghetti mess. With meatballs.

Can search be restricted to the site?

Yes, that’s the default. Users can change the scope to be ‘All sites’ from the results page.

Does content appear in Search?

Yes, a search across all sites will find news, documents etc. (on testing, it’s not clear that events or comments show up though).

Social and other features

Do comments show in Yammer?

The comments feature is new and appears disconnected for everything else in SharePoint. For example, it doesn’t show on your Newsfeed, Delve or recognize @mentions or hashtags in the term store. You can add a Yammer feed to the bottom of a news story, but you’d have to manually paste in a URL to a group every time. If you’re thinking it sounds a bit rubbish then you’ve summed it up perfectly. Well done you.

Does this replace the Community Site?

No, it has very limited social capabilities

Can you restrict comments to certain users or groups?

No, there are no moderation features yet other than ‘Delete’. You have to actively add a comments web part to each news story though, so you can leave it off for stories where you want no comments.

Can you add video?

Yes, this is one of the most flexible features. You can embed from Office 365 Video or the new Microsoft Stream. You can also use embed codes from YouTube or Vimeo and they play nicely on smartphones.

Can you archive calendar events and keep them after the event date?

It’s a regular SharePoint events list. All events stay in the list until you delete them. There’s no way to unpublish but keep them in the list.

Can the calendar send a .ics invite?

Each event has an ‘Add to my calendar’ button that creates a .ics. Happy days!

Do events sit in a Group Calendar?

No, SharePoint calendars are separate for the moment.

Creating an event looks good. Is this available anywhere in a similarly editor friendly way on team sites? Or is it totally different approach to editing?

Click on Site Contents > Events and you will see the regular Events calendar and ribbon, just like a team site.

Can you get notifications?

If you follow a site, you’ll see things in SharePoint Home and Delve, but you won’t get emails. A more technical user could use Flow to set them up on the Site Pages library, but then they probably thought SharePoint 2007 was the bee’s knees too.

If you missed the Webinar, it is available to view on demand along with the slides courtesy of our Bonzai friends.
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Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 18 years, working with organizations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Standard Life. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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