Episode 51: Joanne Ward, Salesforce - Leading content strategy at scale

February 14, 2023

Joanne Ward believes a good content experience is critical to the customer experience. In her chat with Kristina, Jo talks about leading content strategy at scale as part of Salesforce’s evolving content practice. They cover collaborating with other disciplines, advocacy, and the importance of technical writing. Across the entire conversation, there’s a focus on creating task focused and user centered content.

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About this week's guest

Joanne Ward

Joanne Ward is SVP Product and Technology Content at Salesforce. Jo is a content and product enablement executive with over 20 years of experience in the software technology industry. Jo has helped startups to large corporations grow and scale their content organizations. From training as a content creator at IBM, UK, through independent consulting and San Francisco startups, to joining Salesforce, Jo’s journey has always been in content, product enablement, and leadership.

Jo believes a good content experience is critical to the customer experience and is a key differentiator for companies.  All of her work, previously and now at Salesforce, has been focused on specific content goals - managing content as an asset, integrating content into the customer experience, and making content inclusive in tone, findable, and timely. Great content is measured by customer success.


Episode transcript

Kristina Halvorson:
This is the content strategy podcast and I’m your host, Kristina Halvorson. On each and every episode I interview someone I admire who’s doing meaningful work in content strategy and all its adjacent disciplines. If you care about making content more useful, usable and inclusive for all, welcome in, you have found your people.

Hello listeners, welcome back to the Content Strategy Podcast. I have been away for several months, which means you too have been away for several months, unless of course you are binging these episodes. In which case, take a break. Watch Yellowstone. Watch 1883, best series I've watched in a long time. Stressful, though. Stressful, although who knew Tim McGraw and Faith Hill could act their little hearts out like that? It was pretty incredible.

Okay, we're not here to talk about the wild, wild West. We are here to talk about content strategy. That's what this podcast is about, and you are not going to believe the guest I have today. It is very exciting. I had the opportunity to chat with this extraordinary woman briefly when I was on a project with her organization, and I said, "Hold up, stop talking. We need to have this conversation recorded on the podcast."

So, please let me tell you a little bit about Joanne Ward. Joanne is the SVP of Product and Technology Content at Salesforce. As a content and product enablement executive, she has 20 plus years of experience in the software technology industry. Jo has helped startups to large corporations grow and scale their content organizations, from training as a content creator at IBM UK through independent consulting in San Francisco startups, all the way to joining Salesforce, Jo's journey has always been in content, product enablement, and in leadership.

Now, this next part is not something that is necessarily listed on a resume, but this was information that Jo shared with me that I do want to read because it's very exciting. Jo believes a good content experience is critical to the customer experience and is a key differentiator for companies. All of her work previously and now at Salesforce has been focused on specific content goals, managing content as an asset, integrating content into the customer experience, and making content inclusive in tone, findable and timely. Great content is measured by customer success.

Jo, welcome to the Content Strategy Podcast.

Joanne Ward:
Thank you, Kristina. I'm very happy to be here.

Kristina Halvorson:
That last paragraph essentially is the manifesto of this podcast, and I hope that you don't mind that I'm going to steal it and put it on the front page of our website. Is that good? Are you okay with that?

Joanne Ward:
That's good. I'm very flattered. What can I say?

Kristina Halvorson:
Jo, thank you so much, so much for agreeing to join me here today. I usually kick off my podcast episodes by asking guests to tell me a little bit about their journey in content strategy and where they are today.

Now, I know that I read out all the positions and the roles, but maybe you can take a little bit of a step back and talk to me about how you got here.

Joanne Ward:
Yeah. I never intended to get into content. In fact, I never intended to work with computers. In fact, I was studying languages at high school. I'm from the UK, as I'm sure everyone can tell, and you specialize very early there. So I studied French and Spanish and English literature and some other good stuff when I was sort of 18, 19. And then I applied and got accepted to several different universities to study Chinese and French.

That's what I was going to do, and that was a natural progression. And then I'd been to a very, very academic high school, and I'd really focused and worked really hard for the last couple of years, and I was like, "You know what? Maybe I'm not going to do that." I have a teenager myself, so now I look back and I'm like, "Hmm, everybody wants me to do that. I'm not going to do that."

So I reapplied university for a completely different type of degree, which was very new at the time, it's very common now, which was basically technology, the history of technology, the psychology of innovation and innovation drivers, material science, math, and some computer studies, and all of this stuff. So I got in and I went. It was in the north of England, and it was incredibly hard.

It was incredibly hard because I had to do first year university math without having done math for a couple of years. And I came out of that degree thinking, "Right, I'll go into international marketing now because I want the language piece too." And IBM said, "Well, we don't have anything in marketing, but you've got a great background for this technical writing program."

I was like, "Yeah, all right, I'll go into that and I'll switch." Well, here I still am. So I trained at IBM UK. In those days, I don't know if they still do this, but they really had a robust training program for technical content producers because companies and other [inaudible 00:06:40] didn't have specialist degrees. And I went from there.

I left eventually. I started consulting, and then I came over to San Francisco Bay Area for six months with my ex-fiance who got a job over here. And I walked into an agency and I said, "Oh, do you think I could get sponsored for a visa? I'd like to work." And they said, "Well, what do you do?" And I said, "Well, I'm a technical writer," and the eyes just lit up because it just happened to be the dot com boom. And I was completely unaware.

So I started work at a startup, and I worked for several different companies. But the last, what, 14, 15 years I've been at Salesforce and I've done different roles. I've switched back and forth, and I really love that. I don't think it helps you necessarily rise up the hierarchy, but it certainly helps you be a better leader, a better content creator and content strategist.

And so I think two or three times I switched back from managing back to being writing. And when I came to Salesforce, they didn't have a manager job, but I wanted to work on cloud software. I wanted to learn what it was all about. I wanted to work in San Francisco. And so I went back to writing again. And it's been great. It's really been great to do that.

And I also even took a couple of career breaks, especially to study visual arts. So I went part-time and just had a break during the journey because I'm a painter and an artist as well, and that was hugely, hugely helpful. So yeah, here I am. And then my career trajectory has really been, "Okay, what problems do we need to solve? What do I want to work on?"

I'm fundamentally a creator, which is why some of the administration of leadership does drive me kind of crazy sometimes. I'm fundamentally creative. I've always wanted to be in the creation space as far as creating product and creating really good content that fundamentally drives the product experience and the customer experience.

So yeah, here I am still doing it, still trying to achieve the lofty goals, not always getting there.

Kristina Halvorson:
But you've got them though, and that's what's important and you haven't given up on them. You still have hope and a twinkle in your eye, and that's what content needs.

Joanne Ward:

Kristina Halvorson:
Yeah. Hey, I want to step back a little bit because we've had a lot of people on this podcast, but I don't think I've ever really talked to somebody with such deep experience as a technical writer. So I do want to get to your role as a leader and how things are evolving within the larger content practice at Salesforce. But let's take several steps back. Can you talk to me about the work that you did as a technical writer?

Joanne Ward:
Sure. How far back do you want to go? I started work at IBM writing in SGML. So IBM was way ahead of the time in creating structured content. So I documented some of their desktop products, some of which saw the light of day, some didn't.

I then went on, I've always wanted to, I like explaining knotty problems. I like some of the UX copy, UI pieces as well now that we can get the research behind it and really tweak stuff and look at the impact. But fundamentally, I've specialized in describing highly complicated scenarios and giving context and helping people understand the purpose and how to do them.

I worked for a company called Arbor Software, and I was writing there and then managing, and I documented their calculator program. So this was one of the early multidimensional databases called Essbase, and subsequently was bought by Oracle and came in part of their BI suite, and who knows?

But it basically was, I really had to study hard, and then you take all of this information and you maybe come up with three or four help topics and a plus developer content or whatever it is. So that kind of knotty problem and really getting my head around it and really having to interview and work with all the subject-matter experts was just where I thrived. I really love that. I really want to go for minimalism. I really want to go for content that people can use to get the job done, what jobs they're trying to do. So that's been my career.

And then when I moved to Salesforce, I was doing pretty much the same thing. I had a fairly gnarly kind of product, that frankly at the times, no longer a product at Salesforce, wasn't that easy to use. So I was working on that. And I've always been interested in, always, even from the very, very early days when it wasn't that common, the interaction of content within the apps and actually worked on one of the first web apps. That shows how long ago I was writing. But yeah, one of the first web apps that was developed.

Kristina Halvorson:
Weirdly, you were 16 years old. I don't know. That was amazing.

Joanne Ward:
I was 15, 15.

Kristina Halvorson:
That's right.

Joanne Ward:

Kristina Halvorson:
So I have said more than once on this podcast that I truly believe technical writers are the unsung heroes of the field of content and the overall discipline of content strategy. And what you just described, I think perfectly sums up why I have believed that.

I think a lot of folks think technical writers, they're just breaking up instructions into the DITA format or they have to write the manuals and the manuals are always difficult to read. But what you described was really digging into what amounts to creative problem-solving.

So you're absorbing all the information about this product or a set of features, whatever, you're identifying sort of a core set of challenges that users either have or that you have to predict that they're going to have. And then you figure out how to really create and structure content that is going to be useful and usable to them.

That's a big lift, and I love how it... Actually, side note, the name of my company is Brain Traffic. And that was the whole concept way back in the day when I selected the name is that in order to do content well, you've got to flex both the left side and the right side of your brain. And that's exactly what you just described.

Joanne Ward:
I completely agree. You absolutely do. And there is no point writing, and I say writing, but very much so now we're using video, we're using graphics. There's no point producing any content unless it helps people to do what they need to do. It may be a step in understanding the context so they can then step on to do what they need to do. But there is absolutely no point in creating content that doesn't help users and customers understand and get done what they need to do.

Kristina Halvorson:
So, interestingly, I was brought into Salesforce as a consultant by a researcher, which to me already says that, because of course I make the leap well, how do you know what users want to do? Well, you have to do research to identify what their known needs and expectations are. And I was thrilled to discover how closely your research practice and your content practice are linked.

I wonder if you can tell me a little bit about the journey to get there and what your vision was in being able to make those calls.

Joanne Ward:
You can't have great content unless you know what your users are doing. So for a good while we knew we were somewhat flying blind. We didn't really know. We had some very, very educated guesses about what people were doing, and we had some very good information. We weren't truly flying blind. We had some very good information from the product managers about what people were using the content for.

But I'd wanted for a while to get funding to hire a researcher, and my team is funded by product. So we have very little central funding. So that has to be very carefully managed. So if I get funding for product A, the expectation is, and the commitment is that that person will work on product A. So it's quite hard to get people to work across the product. It's one of the downsides of their funding model. I do understand why the company does it.

So basically, I got funding for this user researcher who is absolutely fantastic, as you know, Kristina, because you've met her and she's been awesome and what she's done for us is really take assumptions and question them.

And also what she's done for us is to remind us constantly, even though we know that it's important that we get that research so we can see what actions to take, that customers are coming in, not wanting to, "Oh, I wonder what Jo Ward's teams written about this." No, they're coming to Salesforce, they're searching in Google, they're getting all these different links, some of it created by us, some of it not.

So just really, really, really honing in on what the customer's experience is and trying to address that as best we can and not trying to make the perfect solution within our own little world of product and content.

Kristina Halvorson:
I think that with the clients that we work with, that is one of the key challenges that we see over and over again is researchers kind of waving their hands and pounding on the table and sending the emails and holding the town halls and saying, "I know what people need. I know what people want. We've talked to them. Please listen to me because these are the problems that we should be solving with our content," or these are the opportunities that we have when it comes to whether it's content or storytelling or help or support content or new areas of content.

And it is so difficult to push back against or to gain the attention of folks who are so deep into the cool stuff that they are doing that they want to share with the world. And that I think in product is specifically a challenge because there is so much cool stuff and there's new features that are going to solve problems or help people take advantage of bigger opportunities.

What methods do you use to keep the user's needs as front and center as possible when you're talking to engineers, when you're talking to designers, how do you best help them focus in?

Joanne Ward:
It's a work in progress. It's tough. I think the scrum model with Agile can make the whole of the product cycle become a little bit introspective if you're not careful.

What we do is we have a content strategy framework, and with that framework, we identify through research, whether it's our researcher or whether it's researchers working with the separate products, what the key jobs to be done are that our customers are doing. And then we put together a content strategy, and it can be multi release. This content strategy may be a year, even two years out. What content do we see now that we need to provide? What's going to be the best format? How are we going to provide it?

And so we map it out. We have a framework, we map it out. Who's it for? What's the format? And fundamentally, what job is it addressing? And there's a whole journey. So we'll actually have a journey, a content journey map, which we publish. But behind that is this framework of the content strategy and basically looking at what's your three release roadmap for content and why? So really treating content as a product, as an asset and really looking at what's needed.

And also not, of course, not forgetting that part of that has to be in curation and auditing what you have. And I say that and that is happening. It's not happening consistently across the whole team because it's extremely challenging to do that if you're also under a lot of pressure to cover content for multiple features in some of the products that are rapidly developing. But that is our goal.

It's one of our big areas of focus for the coming year is to roll out more support and more accountability and visibility and expectations for how to map out those product journeys that really, really force us to look at what the user needs rather than what we need to document or do a video about or whatever it is. That's not what it's about.

Kristina Halvorson:
So when you say content strategy framework, my heart rate elevates just a little bit. Can you talk to me about what that content strategy framework includes?

For example, you talked about a content journey map that is built on this content strategy framework. Does the framework, does it include voice and tone? Does it include decision-making guidelines? What all does it include?

Joanne Ward:
Ah, okay. I think I'm using content strategy framework probably in a much more narrow sense than you would think of it as.

Kristina Halvorson:
Oh no, you go right ahead. A lot of terminology is an ongoing glorious journey that we've all been on for 15 years. So tell me what it means at Salesforce.

Joanne Ward:
At Salesforce, when I refer to that content strategy framework, I'm specifically thinking of a detailed analysis of what jobs to be done the customer needs to do. And by type of customer, so is it an advanced admin? Is it a user who's acting as an admin, but isn't that highly trained? Is it an end user? Is it a developer? In which case, is it a professional developer or is it somebody using different, more visual tools?

So really looking at the jobs to be done, and the audiences and getting very, very specific about those. So then you have a, from one of a better way of visualizing a table of, okay, what jobs are people doing, and who's doing them? And then you're looking at, okay, there's a whole journey there. So you've got a one job is part of a bigger task that people are trying to complete. So then you're looking at that overall level of jobs to be done or tasks or whatever you call them. It's really honing in on that customer experience.

So that's very specific for me around the framework we use for perhaps content roadmap will be a good term for how we define our content roadmap to say, okay, this is what we're going to create, and very importantly, this is what we're not going to focus on because we know these are the jobs that the customers trying to do. To really get us away from this sense of, I've got 10 features I need to document, which is the last thing you want folks to be doing, but is the quickest and easiest thing in some cases. And people can fall into that very easy trap, I think.

So that's what I'm talking about. So yeah, I was going to say as far as voice and tone and editing, we have a lot of investment in that too. Yes.

Kristina Halvorson:
So where then are the content strategies coming from? Where is the framework coming from? We talk a lot about content people need a seat at the table, which is when we're defining requirements, we're defining what content needs to be created, et cetera. Who owns those frameworks? Who owns those decisions? Where does that come from, and where do they sit within the product teams?

Joanne Ward:
They need to sit within the content product teams. So the framework and the support for it and training on it and guidance comes from a central team, in which we have content design excellence, content strategy, sort of center of excellence and content quality. Then I have various teams of content creators who are producing content for a product or a suite of products.

So within those, each of my leaders who have these content areas will be funding a strategist. So say you've got 20 content creators working on a product, you take one of those content creators with the right skillset or you hire or whatever is the best way, and you have a content strategist.

So this person is then not working to document the scrum work. This person is actually defining the strategy overall so that we've got a holistic strategy. This person's not working in a vacuum. They're working very closely with product, they're working with the other content creators. Again, it's that gathering a lot of information before you can really... Working with research on the different product areas. They're working with UX to really define what we need to document.

Kristina Halvorson:
So hold up, you have a centralized content strategy and services organization within Salesforce?

Joanne Ward:

Kristina Halvorson:
Huh. There is my leading question for you. Talk to me about how that came to be, because as I'm sure you're aware, organizations tend to, as they mature, they tend to have scattered resources here and there. They have one UX writer serving many different product teams, and then maybe they have a bunch of people who have been assigned per product team who are still reporting into a product manager. But Salesforce has established a centralized content services team that is not content marketing, it is content that works within product.

Tell me about who does that report up to? What's it structured like? How are decisions made when it comes to assigning content resources per product? Just tell me the story of how that came to be.

Joanne Ward:
So how about I start with the structure? So the structure is that I lead all Salesforce content for all the products except for Slack, which is a separate business unit and one of the more recent acquisitions. So my team covers all that product content, everything from the UX copy all the way through the e-learning, which our learning product is Trailhead, the help documentation, the videos, the graphics, the developer content, all of that. We also do blogs, et cetera, et cetera. So my team does all of that.

And they also do internal content with the technology clouds. Basically we report up through technology. So we report to the president of technology. We could equally report I think through to the president of product. I think as long as we're in tech and products, it works really well. So we're very, very close to the product development life cycle. We're embedded.

And along the way as we've grown and as we've scaled, it's become more and more apparent to me and my leadership team, I don't act alone, that we needed a central team to provide that center of excellence, to provide that vision and leadership and just some of the work it takes to manage things like our voice and tone guidelines and refresh them and align with marketing and so that the customer experiences the customer experience for Salesforce, not just for our piece of the content.

So that's a good amount of work there to do it well. So we have a small central team, it's very lean, who does that work. But the actual creation of content, whether it be graphics, video, written content for the products is done within the product teams, but they all report into the content team. But they have very close ties out to their product counterparts and their UX counterparts.

So it's unusual I think for a company to have it structured this way. And interestingly enough, Salesforce also decided to try separate business units. When we acquired Tableau and companies a good while ago, they were set up as separate business units. And increasingly what we've seen is the company seeing the benefits of bringing everybody together, so my team has actually grown from other teams coming in a lot over the last few years.

And I think there's something around having to be very accountable and very close to the product teams, the design teams and the technology teams. You've got to honor the funding that you get. So if I've got 20 people who are funded by one general manager of a certain product area, those 20 people are as much a part of that product area as they are a part of the central technology organization. So we think very much cross organizationally.

So those folks work on that product area. Their manager may span a couple of products areas or may have just that product area. So there is very much that accountability and there's trust there. So we get funding through product management, through engineering, through whoever the decision makers are for that product. So it'll be the general manager, it'll be generally very high up.

Product managers will advocate, "I really need a content creator on this" and we'll get funding through... They will give us headcount that instead of hiring a product manager or an engineer, I was like, okay, we need a content creator. So we make our case and say, look, quite often we have to do quite a bit of making the case, "Okay, this is needed from a customer experience point of view." And then we will get funding to hire a content creator to balance instead of an engineer or a product manager.

So yeah, the funding comes from the high level product leadership definitely.

Kristina Halvorson:
Well, and that requires quite a bit of advocacy, which I hear around town you're really, really good at when it comes to getting content at the table.

Joanne Ward:
Well, thank you. That is I think a career's work really. And I would say that I have a leadership team who are also extremely good at that. And it is work. There are downsides to this model that constant advocacy takes time, but I think it really, really works out in the sense that you then are part of that product, but you also get the benefits of being within a larger team and of having the ability to really grow your career and stay with people.

And we have a lot of people who've stayed and grown at Salesforce, and that's partly because they can switch from one product to another. They're still on the same team. As managers, we help facilitate career moves into different product areas and this kind of thing. It just really, really helps I think the excellence and the skillset of the people we have. It provides a really diverse career path as far as content creation, which you might not get in other companies.

Kristina Halvorson:
Oh, you don't. There are a lot of other companies where you don't get that. And after 20 plus years of having people ask, how do I convince my manager that content is important? Or how do I make sure that people understand the value of content strategy? I have to say over and over it comes down from leadership.

If leadership does not understand the value of content as a business asset or the importance of content in fueling a successful user experience, you're going to keep banging your head against the wall. And it is really a joy seeing folks who understand this finally come into leadership positions where they are able to make that change happen and instill those values from the top throughout product teams, throughout in terms of partnerships between product and marketing and just helping people see that yes, there is a career path in content within our organization.

And you're doing it and I love it and I appreciate you, so on behalf of the entire field of content strategy, thank you for your work.

Joanne Ward:
Thank you. Well, thank you. And a lot of kudos goes to my leaders there because they do a lot of that work too. And I will say, I still, I mean we still, every few months, every year I have conversations with my leaders where they're frustrated that "Why don't we get a better seat at the table?" So it is constant work. It's constant work, especially in a growing organization, constant advocacy to be there. I don't mean to imply we've completely cracked it because we haven't.

Kristina Halvorson:
I don't know that many organizations have, but we're getting closer. And I do believe at some point there just simply won't be a question about whether content needs to be in the room from the very get go. It will just be assumed the way that it is with design and engineering. Research is getting there too. So it's coming. We're almost there.

Joanne Ward:
Yes. Agreed.

Kristina Halvorson:
All right. Our time is up. Thank you so, so, so much for spending time with me today and with our listeners. It has been a joy and an honor. And where can people find you online if they want to hunt you down and ask you more questions or just tell you how great you are?

Joanne Ward:
Absolutely. I am on LinkedIn. You can search for Jo Ward, J-O or Joanne Ward. I'll come up and you can absolutely contact me there.

Kristina Halvorson:
Wonderful. Thank you so much for being with us today, Jo.

Joanne Ward:
Thank you, Kristina. You said it would be a fun conversation, and indeed it was. So I really appreciate you, the podcast, which I love. And yeah, thank you.

Kristina Halvorson:
Thank you. I'm telling you, I'm the easiest interview of your life.

Thanks so much for joining me for this week’s episode of the Content Strategy Podcast. Our podcast is brought to you by Brain Traffic, a content strategy services and events company. It’s produced by Robert Mills with editing from Bare Value. Our transcripts are from REV.com. You can find all kinds of episodes at contentstrategy.com and you can learn more about Brain Traffic at braintraffic.com. See you soon.

About the podcast

The Content Strategy Podcast is a show for people who care about content. Join host Kristina Halvorson and guests for a show dedicated to the practice (and occasional art form) of content strategy. Listen in as they discuss hot topics in digital content and share their expert insight on making content work. Brought to you by Brain Traffic, the world’s leading content strategy agency.

Follow @BrainTraffic and @halvorson on Twitter for new episode releases.