A branding conundrum: Is SharePoint Online ready for your custom interface?
I have seen a bit of resistance in moving to SharePoint Online (SPO) because of a perceived lack of branding tools and the belief that you cannot brand a SPO site to the same degree as an on premise installation. Are these fears warranted, or is SPO ready for your customizations? The short answer is "yes, it's ready," while the long answer is the seemingly standard, "it depends."
SPO sites can be broken up into two primary categories. Depending on your particular O365 plan, you can create one public facing site per organization and multiple private sites, such as collaboration sites or sites with the publishing infrastructure enabled, for Intranet and Extranet portals. Most importantly for branding, public facing and security controlled SPO sites have all of the branding tools you will find in an on premise installation. These include the design manager, custom master pages, page layouts, display templates, composed looks, access to the theming engine, SharePoint Designer, and more. Thus, the short answer of "yes;" you can create an entirely custom SPO user interface that is branded to match your organization.
So why might I say, "It depends," when questioned further? Once you dig a little deeper, you will find a few caveats that you will want to consider before jumping onto the SPO bandwagon if you require a custom UI.
Public facing SPO sites have the same update control issue as previously mentioned with private sites, but this can be largely ignored for public facing sites as you likely won't need the suite bar or ribbon for anonymous access. Further, you will likely use few, if any, other SharePoint controls in your public site branding effort.
The major roadblock to creating a custom UI for your public facing SPO site is the lack of Web content management (WCM) features normally found in SharePoint. Public facing SPO sites currently do not allow you to create custom site columns, content types, sub-sites or rollups. This means that you can create beautifully styled pages that have SEO friendly URL's, but you cannot leverage much of the power of SharePoint to create a strong WCM. It does appear as though Microsoft is slowly adding more functionality to public facing SPO sites, but for now, I recommend using this feature for smaller, static websites. Microsoft has provided a great guide to determine where best to store a public SharePoint site: "Websites in SharePoint Online and SharePoint Server.?
If you are considering moving your Intranet or Extranet portal to O365, don't let branding concerns get in your way. You should have everything you need to create an amazing interface, just be ready for the need for potential quick fixes. If you are considering moving your public facing site to SPO, know the limitations of the backend system made available to you. You can create great static pages, or pages that use content editor Web parts, but know that you will be unable to leverage most of SharePoint's power, at least for now.
Eric Overfield is the President and co-founder of PixelMill, a digital branding consultancy specializing in responsive Web design and branding for SharePoint websites and portals.