B2B content marketing has been enjoying quite a ride over the last couple of years.

While many of the principles are in no way new to B2B marketers – business and tech buyers have always looked for valuable content – the discipline has exploded across new modes of delivery.

Most recently, the focus on social, blogging and inbound in general has fundamentally changed how many B2B marketers approach content.

While the conviction has been strong (fuelled by a seemingly never-ending hype) the results have, for many, been somewhat elusive. As the hype has talked up everything from Twitter to podcasting to Pinterest to [insert next, bright shiny object], many B2B marketers have been left pondering how to capture that elusive ROI.

Thing is, while there’s certainly no shortage of evangelists who ratchet up the hype, how much help is there for making content work in a practical business-sense? Not so much.

The advice is generally: Just do it. If you’re not doing content, you’re not doing marketing.

Fortunately, there is an increasing amount of (pretty good) research about what works and what doesn’t. A new piece from The Economist is a case in point.

The great content mismatch

According to the Economist, almost three-quarters of marketers aren’t getting a return from their content investments. (This includes 33% who have no way of measuring this return in the first place.)

What’s more, there’s a complete mismatch between the types of content created and what customers and potential buyers want to receive.

For example, business execs, ranging from manager to board level, are primarily researching business ideas when consuming content (75%), but the vast majority of marketers are pushing products (93%).

The brutal reality is that business buyers don’t especially care about products. At the point at which they’re researching and consuming content, it’s all about their business, their challenges, and what they need to do next.

Having a brand pop up with a: ‘That’s enough about you, let’s talk about us’ message is never going to fly.

This mismatch is even more apparent when we get into the detail.

Senior executives’ top three desired types of content are: articles (and they don’t mean blog posts), reports (both research and special subject reports) and white papers/briefings.

Content producers’ top three deliverables, however, are: articles (big tick there), newsletters and social media (cited as a useful source by just 3% of execs for video, 7% for Facebook and Twitter, and 13% for LinkedIn). Maybe it’s not so surprising that their ROI is somewhat elusive.

Worse that simply delivering too little in the results department, ultimately, poorly timed, poorly focused, generic content is likely to have a negative effect on brand perception. In fact, rather than content being the solution to every B2B marketing problem, a poorly structured content strategy is likely doing more harm than good.

So do we need to stop doing content?

If this all sounds worryingly familiar, maybe it’s time to take a step back and analyse just how well your content is working.

The good news is, once it’s out in the open, content ROI is actually incredibly easy to fix. Here are four things to start focusing on:

1.    Get to know your audience

Understanding your target audience before embarking on any content project is a no-brainer. Think about their behaviours, their needs, their preferences and build this into the heart of your content strategy. Your content needs to be fundamentally about them and their needs.

2.    Have the right conversation at the right time

The wrong message at the wrong time is a direct route to an epic content fail (no surprise there). If the prospects isn’t convinced they have a problem, they ain’t buying. Smart content planning is essential – you need to map your content as closely as possible to where the buyer is in the purchase journey and focus on what it’ll take to move them to the next stage.

3.    Surprise and delight

Yes, you’ll ultimately need to sell product/services but, even lower down the funnel, think about turning the story on its head. Even a technical sales discussion should focus on your ability to change the prospect’s business/life for the better.

4.    Grow from experience

There is no magic content marketing bullet (though some are far more effective than others). Learn and move forward. Staggeringly, the Economist found that marketers were blindly re-creating content proven not to work. With clear goals for each piece of content you can track which works and which doesn’t. Abandon the stuff that doesn’t and try something new.

Sounds quite simple really. There’s no need to scratch your head over content ROI anymore. Plan well and you will succeed.