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First look at Communication Sites in SharePoint Online

Author by Drew Madelung

Communication Sites in SharePoint Online are now rolling out to a tenant near you. This is one of the larger releases from the SharePoint team recently and has been a point of focus since the Virtual Summit earlier this year. I personally have been looking forward to communication sites since hearing they were coming. As the modern experience in SharePoint Online continued to expand with team sites and group sites it felt like the publishing world was being left behind. Knowing that Microsoft is not only concentrating on the collaboration world of SharePoint but also the communication world, shows the future keeps looking better. SharePoint is already the king of corporate intranets and this release will make intranets easier and hopefully much better looking using the modern experience. 

What is a Communication Site in SharePoint Online?

A communication site are more visual central, dynamic sites that are intended for a broader audience. They naturally are intended to look great on the web and in mobile. The pages are built using the modern experience and now newly released web parts like the Hero web part. (You can learn more about the visually driven Hero web part here

Below is slide from one of Mark Kashman's recent slideshares about where the role of communication sites exists as compared to team sites. 


Creating a Communication Site

The primary way to create a communication site is through the + Create Site button on the SharePoint landing page. 
Once you click Create site you will now be prompted with type of site you want to create. In the past this would only allow you to create a team site. If you click create a team site the same prompt that you had prior will occur. Now we have what lies behind door number 2 which is the new communication site creation process.
After you click create communication site you get a new site creation page. This page includes some cool new areas.
Starting on the right you have your basic site name, address, and description.
  • The site address will auto populate but if you click the little pencil you can edit it. A good thing to notice here is that the sites are created under the /sites managed path. The site description will fill in the same site description as in classic sites.
Then as we move down we see 2 new things. We now see site classification and usage guidelines.
  • Interestingly enough, these are the options that are configurable within Azure AD for Office 365 Groups management. 
And last but not least we have a new choose your design section on the left.
  • As of initial release we have 2 preset designs of Topic and Showcase and then a blank design. 
I really like the idea of preset designs. I hope this is an area that will be opened up to allow new designs that you create to be added as communication site design templates. 

The Topic and Showcase site designs are easy starting points to meet common needs and begin guiding page/content creation which is always a struggle for intranets. Both the Topic and the Showcase site design come preconfigured with web parts on the page. 

Topic Site

This site contains the following web parts on the landing page by default:
  • Hero web part
  • News web part 
  • Events web part (actually a calendar list)
  • Documents web part

Showcase Site

This site contains the following web parts on the landing page by default:
  • Hero web part
  • Image gallery web part 

A little more on site creation

You need the permission to create Office 365 Groups in Outlook...
  • I am not sure of the technical reason for this but if you don't have the ability to create an Office 365 Group you won't be able to create a communication site. Even though you need this permission, an Office 365 Group is NOT created.
It's fast...
  • After you clicked create, the actual process of creating the site was ridiculously fast. There is still quite a bit of work to do to personalize a site but the new web parts such as the hero and stream web part are great starting points for content delivery.
The site collection doesn't show up in the current admin portal...
  • I assume this will be resolved when the new admin portal comes out. For now if you want to see a list of your communication sites you will have to use PowerShell.


There is only 1 collection of navigation for top and left. This can be edited either in a library or on a site page. You can edit directly on these pages by clicking the edit link next to navigation.

Here is some more support information for updating navigation. If you change the navigation it will be reflected on both the site pages and within the libraries and list pages.

Updated on landing page:

Shows on library page:

Page layouts / Section layouts

With the release of communication sites we finally get more than single column page layouts. Personally I didn't think it was possible to create a super useful page in the modern framework without using more than 1 column so I think this is a huge improvement. This is also not just for communication sites but you can now have multi column layouts on all modern sites. 

Now if you are on a communication site and want to create a new page, the easiest way is through the + New option right below top navigation.

Once you select that you will now see 3 different page template options including:

  • Multiple columns
  • Single columns
  • Blank

Just because you select any of these templates does not mean you can't change it. These simply give you a few starting points to see the options. Once you are in the page you can edit your layout options of the zone you are in by clicking the pencil and pad on the left:

Or you can add sections that include a new multi-column layout following the plus sign like you would add a web part:

This is the kind of flexibility we have been needing for building pages in SharePoint Online within the modern experience.

What else and what's next?

  • Communication sites are being rolled out to first release users and then full first release tenants. Worldwide rollout targeted for August 2017 and all of this includes the new web parts and sections layouts.
  • The publishing infrastructure continues to be supported.
  • Communication sites can support external users as long as the SharePoint site is configured to allow external sharing. 
  • Mobile apps are being updated to support communication sites.
  • Join a communication sites AMA on Wednesday, June 28th 2017 from 9-10 a.m. PDT. 

Drew Madelung

Technical Architect