These days external sharing is inevitable. Whether you use SharePoint for intranet, project portal, or document management, content exchange with external parties like customers, vendors, and contractors is almost mandatory. After all, you are not in a bubble and need to exchange documents, folders with those you collaborate with. In the past, this had been achieved via secure FTP sites. This was never an easy endeavor for users – they either had to be really good friends with IT admins or bribe them to get one set up. Luckily, with SharePoint Online, we have a more straightforward mechanism to achieve this. Today I would like to explain to you how to build a simple, successful, and secure customer or vendor portal in SharePoint Online for document exchange with external parties.
Step 1: Do not prevent external sharing!
Before you tell me, “But Greg, but we do not allow external sharing in our organization, so this post would not apply to us,” let me be the first to tell you – “Yeah, right! Good luck with that”! Despite your best efforts and objectives, you cannot prevent external sharing. Just like the office romance – it will happen. Still think you can avoid external sharing? Then I suggest you read this post.
“SharePoint External Sharing is like office romance – you will not be able to prevent it!”
Step 2: Get familiar with how external sharing works
Before we set up the external sites, I recommend that you familiarize yourself with these few posts I published in the past on external sharing. They will provide the necessary background info on how external sharing works and best practices on the setup.
Step 3: Decide on the appropriate site type
To share externally, we will create a brand new site. Nothing technically prevents you from sharing directly from your existing sites, but in this context, I assume that we are creating a dedicated site for a vendor or client. Besides, this assures that the content stays secure and that the recipient can’t get into other areas of the Intranet or an existing department or project site by accident. There are three site template choices available to you:
- Team Site with an Office 365 Group
- Team Site without an Office 365 Group
- Communication Site
All are valid choices. You need to choose one based on what you want the template to look and like and what exactly you want to share. I explain all the types of sites and provide further direction here.
- Choose Team Site with an Office 365 Group if you want your external users to access and collaborate on more than just a site. For example, if you want them to have access to MS Teams, Planner, and be part of a team email distribution list – then you need to go with an Office 365 Group Team Site
- Choose Communication site, if you need to build a nice, visually appealing site that will be informational (and not used for 2-way collaboration)
- Choose Team Site without an Office 365 Group if you want the look and feel of a regular team site, but do not need all the other apps like Teams and Planner (essentially need to share files and folders).
Step 4: Provision a site for external sharing
From my experience, I find that a Team Site without an Office 365 Group is usually the best site template for client or vendor sharing. It gets you a simple site with left-hand-side navigation but without an overhead of an Office 365 Group (Planner, Teams, etc.). I provide step-by-step instructions in this post on how to create one here (under Site Template # 3 section).
Step 5: Determine whether you will share the whole site or just files and folders
Do you want your client or vendor to access the entire site or only a few files and folders?
The reason for this question is because if you are sharing the site, then you will need to build it out first, create all the lists and libraries, customize the look and feel, clean up the navigation.
If you are sharing just the files and folders, then all you got to do is create folders in the default document library.
Moreover, your client or vendor experience will be different based on what you share (sites or just files and folders). Click here to learn more.
Step 6: Decide whether you will require vendors or clients to login (authenticate)
If you decide to share a whole site externally, users will need to log in.
However, if you share only files and folders, you can choose to share anonymously. What that means is that the recipient does not have to do any extra steps to access content, other than just clicking on a link. The danger, of course, is that if others get a hold of that links, they will also have access to content. I describe in greater detail various types of external sharing and how to set it up in the SharePoint Admin Center here.
My recommendation would be only to allow login via authentication (no anonymous sharing).
Step 7: Customize the page look and feel
This is the step where you need to roll up the sleeves and clean up the page created by the site template. Check out this post for some best practices.
Step 8: Set up alerts (optional)
This is optional but can be quite handy. Often, when you share say a folder with an external client or vendor, you might want to know when they upload something or delete from a folder. Alerts feature becomes invaluable in this instance.
Step 9: Share externally
Now, the exciting part. Go ahead and share your creation.
Step 10: Monitor external sharing
Now that we did the hard part – you can monitor external sharing via the Site Usage Report.
This is it, my fellow SharePoint brothers and sisters. Happy external sharing!