FORT MYERS, FL – Craig Miller is an ah-shucks Iowan who, true to his rural roots, likes tractors “a lot.”

He also calls himself a numbers guy who loves people, good traits for a car dealer.

In Iowa, Miller is president of the 7-brand Clinton Auto Group near Davenport and general manager of Lindquist Ford in Bettendorf, “the only place where the Mississippi River runs east and west,” he claims.

He crunches numbers in various ways. That includes computing Internet lead-to-sales ratios.

“Conversion is the key but also the weak spot in every dealership,” Miller says here at the annual ESA conference focusing on return-on-investment advertising.

He traces how, and how often, online clicks end up as in-dealership vehicle sales. “We want to convert 3.5% to 5% of clicks to leads. Of those, we want to convert 35% to appointments. We expect 65% of those to show up.”

So, it takes 1,000 clicks to get 50 leads, 18 appointments, 12 appointment-keepers and finally eight buyers, Miller reckons. “Look at the math. I’ve got to figure out how to get more clicks.”

He does that through various forms of marketing, some digital but a lot traditional, such as newspaper ads and TV spots in which he energetically appears.

The dealerships also use social networking and live online chat to attract buyers.

“You do everything you can to drive people to your dealership website,” Miller says. “The next move is getting back to them quickly if they make contact with you.

In such cases, “we work on what we say,” he says. “We want to move them to an appointment. It’s all about the appointment. And we’re interested in getting the best phone number, not the best email.”

The Internet will continue to grow in importance for auto dealers, Miller predicts. “It’s especially important in rural areas. If it takes two hours to drive to a dealership, the Internet is huge.”

But its long-range effects are limited. “You can impress someone from a distance, but you impact them up close,” he says, referring to the power of human persuasion.

Lindquist Ford has seen sales increase from $30 million to nearly $80 million a year. Miller spends about $30,000 a month on advertising that seeks top-of-mind awareness for his stores.

“On TV, I’ll say: ‘We don’t waste your time. Here’s our website, here’s our phone number; here’s my cell phone number.’”

Giving his personal phone number like that impresses viewers, not all of them car buyers.

“A woman once called my cell phone and said, ‘You really do answer your calls. I just want to tell you I’m 79 and never owned a car. But I really like your ads.’”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com