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SharePoint communication sites – your questions, answered

Communication site gif

SharePoint communication sites – your questions, answered

We’ve now held two joint webinars with with Bonzai to look at the new communication sites in SharePoint Online.

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


◉ Why can’t I see communication sites yet in my SharePoint? [Updated]

You need to meet these criteria:

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

Communication sites should now be available to all. If you don’t see it, try using the ‘first release’ setting. 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.

When will communication sites be available on-premises? [New]

It’s not clear. SharePoint 2016 (the on-prem version) recently got Feature Pack 2 and this included the SPFx framework needed for the ‘modern’ look used by communication sites. Sadly it didn’t include either comms sites or modern team sites. Most likely it will appear in SharePoint 2019 due out in late 2018, but all that was said at Ignite in September was “We’re thinking about it”.

Can any user see the ‘create site’ option or is that just for admins? [New]

By default, any user can create a communication site. But see the ‘Governance’ section below.

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 difference to Team Sites, Publishing Sites etc.

◉ Can this replace your intranet homepage? [Updated]

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. The recently announced SharePoint ‘hub’ will introduce some simple aggregation too.

Can a communication site be used as an extranet or as part of an extranet? [New]

It might be hard to stitch it together as part of an extranet because each communication site is its own site collection. However, you can share a communication site with externals. Microsoft says “communication sites will support external users for extranet use cases. Initially, Office 365 admins would need to enable it at the site level via PowerShell. We are working on the admin user interface to enable external sharing in a similar fashion as is done today for team sites.”

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 you embed a communication page in a main SharePoint page?

No, they are a separate site.

How can we migrate old intranet pages to these 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. 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.

Why might a communication site be any better than a team site when they both have the same web parts? [New]

The main thing to bear in mind is that when you create a team site, you will create a Group, with membership permissions, a notebook, Outlook conversations etc. If you don’t need all that clutter, then a communication site keeps thing simpler.

Beyond this, it is true that you could make a team site look very much like a communication site, they are really just templates to give you a useful starting point.

You mentioned SharePoint Home challenges with Comm Sites News? [New]

The SharePoint Home page will aggregate news from all the comms and team sites that a user follows. Without discrimination. This is good as a user-driven view on their world. However, if a comms team wants to make sure you see a news story, you will need a channel that has more control (such as a publishing site).

Are news pages good for blogging? [New]

On the plus side, they are easy to edit, versatile and allow comments. You can also see basic stats on page views. However, they don’t offer a rich blogging tool – you can’t like comments or aggregate them. Also, as far as I Can see there’s no way to show more than the 5 most recent news stories in an attractive way.

Don’t forget that buried deep in your delve profile, there is still a personal blog option. This offers a modern editing experience which is even simpler than comms sites. The issue is making the blogs visible, as that currently requires manual intervention, such as sharing the link on Yammer.

Can communication sites help with sharing policies and procedures across the organisation? Are they better than PDFs? [New]

For simple scenarios, they have potential. You could create a single site for all policies and use a page for each one. This is much better than using PDFs . Do remember though that it would get messy to divide up publishing rights, for example to prevent HR from modifying Finance’s policy documents, you’d have to do it on trust.

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 the 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.

What are your thoughts on using a communication site for knowledge management, or a simple knowledgebase? [New]

Right now I’d probably use a team site in preference, as they are more intended for lists and document libraries that would be useful in a knowledge base. The exception might be if your knowledge content was highly visual – perhaps architecture or marketing topics, for example.

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 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!).

Does the communication site inherit global navigation from its parent site? [New]

No. Communication sites have no parent site, each one is stand-alone. The forthcoming hub sites will offer this though.

Is it possible to control how URLs are generated from the article title? For instance, can the URL use dashes between words rather than spaces? [New]

There’s no global setting. You can go to the page properties under site contents and re-name each one manually. The web part links are preserved.

Is there a ‘film strip’ view for links? [New]

Like this you mean? Then yes! The problem is that you only see the left-right scroll when you mouse over the web part, and even then the other filmstrip links are likely to be missed. It’s poor UI design – there should be a secondary cue that some content is hidden like a half-frame at the edge.

Film strip

A ‘film strip’ of preview images for links.

Is it possible to import classic wiki pages? [New]

Unfortunately not. None of the markup would be recognised.

Can I embed a table?

If you inset a text web part and click the ‘…’ for more options, you’ll see a way to add 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.

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.


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

Can you color and format text?

There are pre-sets for headings and pull quotes, bold and italic etc.

In the text web part, you can also click on the ‘…’ and a side panel will appear with more font, layout and highlight color options.

Text formatting

Text formatting options for communication sites.

Does the Site Owner have to update the ‘Hero’ image and associated link when publishing fresh news? [New]

When you edit anything, you generally put the whole site in edit mode. When you hit ‘Publish’ then all changes are visible. You can save a new news story without publishing, and publish it later via the ‘Pages’ menu.

Images / video

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

Is it possible to add images and pages from other SharePoint sites? Or just directly from the communications site I am working in? [New]

You can paste in a link from any SharePoint site or OneDrive folder. Just remember to check that the permissions are set so everyone can see it.

If an image is added into the body of a news article, is it possible to link that image to content elsewhere? So people can click the image and be taken to another page or site. [New]

Unfortunately not. You could use a link web part in filmstrip mode, or a hero web part with a single image, but then it would be single-column, so text wouldn’t wrap around it.

Do you need to have images prepared with certain dimensions, or ratio? What image dimensions should be used for news article headers? [New]

There’s no technical constraint on this. For the header images the challenge is that their aspect ratio changes depending on where they appear, so we’d recommend a minimum width of 2000px. Some experimentation with the ‘focus’ positioning will be needed.

Once you’ve added an image, can you edit it / amend how it is displayed? [New]

You can only change the focus area (assuming it is cropped by the image frame) or replace it with another image.

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 video be used instead of an image for the big ‘hero’ image? [New]

You can put a video web part at the very top of the page, but you can’t make one of the tiles in the hero web part a video file.

Can a carousel or image slider be used instead of the big ‘hero’ image? [New]

There are ‘filmstrip’ and ‘carousel’ modes for the ‘Highlighted Content’ web part. This won’t auto-scroll though, and when you click on it you will just go to the image file.

Governance, admin, 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.

How can I discover abandoned communication sites and get rid of them?  Can administrators monitor / audit site size without going through Powershell? [New]

At the moment you have to use Powershell to see communication sites. The new SharePoint Online Admin centre will show them but it is due end of 2017.


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).

When will the content search and content query web parts be available in the new experience? [New]

It’s not clear. There is a new and pretty powerful ‘Highlighted Content’ web part coming at the end of 2017 that will do much of the things CSWP and CQWPs used to do (but only on this one site collection). The forthcoming hubs site will also do some content rollup.

Is there a search web part to show ‘Top 5’ articles? [New]

If by ‘Top 5’ you mean driven by analytics, then no.

Social, calendar, 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 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 a person subscribe to a calendar, to be notified about every new / upcoming event? [New]

Yes (wow!). The events list is a normal SharePoint calendar list. So you can go to site contents and ‘Alert me’ is on the ribbon. It feels a bit of a throwback though.

Can people sign up for an event? [New]

Not via the events calendar. You could add it with the new Forms tool or embed a PowerApp in principle to do this. Or even a good old fashioned SharePoint custom list.

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 first webinar, it is available to view on demand along with the slides courtesy of our Bonzai friends.
Again, you can view the second webinar on demand, which is an even more ‘hands-on’ look at communication sites.
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 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. 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.

  • Posted at 9:37 pm, 16 October, 2019

    Can you create polls or enable a feature similar to “voting”? Thank you for any help!

    • Posted at 12:37 pm, 18 October, 2019

      SharePoint Online (as part of Office 365) doesn’t have a poll web part (widget). So you might have to use a third-party web part, perhaps found in Appsource, the official SharePoint app store. Or some other third-party solution.

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