It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how nice your office space is, how clean and colorful your trucks are. These days, if you don’t have a website, people wonder if you’re a real business.

That’s how they check you out — before they call. For your customers, it’s part of a verification process, like a business listing in the phone book. For you, it’s a marketing opportunity.

Your website is a portal to the world, and that’s something to take seriously. However, a website is NOT your marketing savior. Yet neither is direct mail, newspaper, Yellow Pages, radio, or TV. These are media; not halcyons of gold-plated lead generation. And success in each media calls for certain principles.

All require a compelling message offered to an eager audience. THEN and only then do you have marketing success. But a website does have advantages others can’t touch. It has mind-blowing, inexpensive potential. Yet most do it poorly so it doesn’t matter. Here are 5 “musts” for your site’s success:

1. Your website is not a shrine to your greatness. It is a method for communicating the prospect’s benefits. Write and sell in terms of the prospect’s gain . . . not yours.

2. You must have a sales letter, preferably from the owner or other position(s) of authority. Why? Because websites have a tendency to be highly impersonal. Undo the impersonality with some “me to you” communication. Write like you speak. Earn their trust. Tell prospects why you care about them and earning their business. Insert an electronic signature and/or a photo of the letter writer. Warm the site; don’t freeze it.

3. You must offer free but valuable information. Those who use newsletters know the power of “positioning” yourself as a helpful expert. Your website can take this info “interactive” where customers can click, learn, and understand why you are an expert and thus their best contracting choice. It’s subtle, but terrifically effective.

4. You must gather visitor information via “more free info” or other free service: A filter with a tune up, an estimate, an energy survey… whatever it takes to grab the prospect’s contact info. If you don’t do this, it’s like NOT putting your phone number in an ad. Why bother? Total waste. Get names or you lose.

5. Use a simple “auto-responder” to thank your prospects for their visit and to assure them that the “free” service you mentioned is en route or scheduled. This responder is generally free from your site server.

In all the marketing you do, don’t forget that very few allow 24/7 usage. Even fewer have the ability to change regularly. Fewer still allow the prospect to sift in and out of the message at their control, and as of right now, only one does all of this with the ability to allow your customer to speak back and transact business. That, dear friends, is your website. Build it; modify it; respond to it; and watch the customers keep coming back.

Adams Hudson is president of Hudson, Ink, a creative marketing firm for contractors. Readers can get a free marketing newsletter by faxing their letterhead with the request to 334-262-1115. Call 1-800-489-9099 for a sample of the Spring customer retention newsletter or visit www.hudsonink.com for other free marketing articles and reports.