Looking back, 2012 was a stellar year for B2B content marketing. While using content to drive results isn’t new to many of us, it does appear to have reached a tipping point where many B2B marketers are coming to the same conclusion as Seth Godin that content marketing ‘is all the marketing that’s left.’

Of course, creating content that customers are both interested in and which will help drive sales is still a tricky challenge for many marketers. Elevating the conversation beyond the product to deal with customers’ business issues doesn’t come naturally to many. And not everyone is a natural thought leader.

But in the past year, we’ve seen an encouraging number of companies that are starting to approach content marketing in a more systematic, dare we say, more considered way. They’re stepping back and taking a more holistic view of how they use content right across the B2B sales cycle. And they’re seeing a deeper level of engagement as a result.

So, as we stare fresh-faced into 2013, what should be on your content marketing to-do list the year ahead? We’d suggest 5 things:

1. Start and end with the (real) customer

This should be a no-brainer but we’d be remiss not to put it front and centre. And by this we’re not simply trotting out the go-out-and-spend-time-listening-on-social-media advice. Sure, you can do this, but in many areas of B2B you may struggle to learn anything particularly interesting.

Instead, start with your salespeople and channel partners. Talk to them about the conversations they’re having with actual prospects. Focus on the non-product related stuff. Why is the prospect having the conversation in the first place? What’s happening in their business? How are they trying to solve the problems they’re facing? Then go deeper: What are the most common objections the salesperson has to overcome? What stalls a sale? What accelerates it?

Getting the answers to all these questions will prove invaluable to beginning to map out content across the sales cycle.

2. Follow the business

Poor relevance is the bane of many B2B content marketing programmes. It’s easy to get excited by all the stuff you can do. After all, producing interesting content is some of the most fun you can have with your clothes on (or is that just us?). But all too often, companies end up producing material that, while interesting and engaging, has little real relevance to what they offer to the market. So they get lots of hits but no traction.

To be clear, this is not about producing even more product-focused content – the world really doesn’t need any more data sheets. But it is about focusing on developing material that is rooted in both customers’ business challenges and your own capabilities. Your top-of-funnel content will invariably be more targeted at the customer’s business while bottom-of-funnel content will be more skewed to your company’s capabilities in this area. But there should be a seamless transition between the two.

3. Map content to the sales cycle

So you’ve gained real insight into the customer and looked at how your business can help them tackle the real issues in theirs. The next step is to ensure you have a sufficient range of material to cover the entire sales funnel.

There’s little point having content that sets out the big issues only to have a vacuum where you need to explain how a prospect begins to tackle them. Or to do a great job of engaging a customer to the point of taking a meeting, only to leave the salesperson hanging.

This does not mean you need to recreate Wikipedia for your business. But it does mean selecting the material that covers why the prospect should be interested, how they can begin to deal with their key issues and what they will ultimately need to buy from you.

4. An end to hit-and-run content

There is still a focus among many companies on the one-off campaign. It’s a throwback to the days of advertising and old-school direct mail. So they’ll create an asset over a month or so and promote the hell out of it for another month or so. But the reality is, even if they get everything right, this is an approach that will never live up to its full potential.

The reality is that only a certain proportion of prospects are in the market at any time. For many B2B purchases, they may only buy a new solution every few years. Say, for example, we’re talking about a new CRM solution. And let’s say it will have an average life span of 3 years. Of 100 possible buyers, in any given month, only 3 or so will be in active buying mode.

So, it’s easy to see that you need to focus on delivering quality content right across that 3-year period if you’re to maximise your chances of success. It’s better to spend less and create content consistently than splurge all the budget in one go.

5. Focus on active content (and promote it actively)

Everyone loves the idea of inbound marketing. What’s not to love? You create some great content and Google brings customers right to your door. Fantastic!

Of course, back in the real world it’s not that simple. Certainly, great B2B content will drive inbound traffic. Especially if you commit to producing it consistently over time (see above). However, you shouldn’t think you can simply write a quick blog post or pop a new ebook on your site and just wait for customers to come flocking.

Even when you look across the inbound superstars (HubspotCopyblogger etc) you’ll find they do a massive amount of outbound marketing. Why? Because it works. Content is the firework, outbound is the match.

Importantly, each piece of content should be active. By this, we mean that it should take the customer or prospect on to the next stage in the purchase. This is why many of the best content marketers are so wedded to their marketing automation systems.