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What is CPA in Digital Marketing? 7 Easy Examples, No BS

Business professionals in a meeting discussing what CPA means in digital marketing with zombie-themed presentation in the background.

When you hear CPA in digital marketing, you might think it’s all about counting money and sales. 

But it’s not just that.

In simple terms, CPA stands for Cost Per Action or Cost Per Acquisition

It’s about knowing how much it costs you every time someone takes a specific action because of your marketing. 

This could be anything from clicking on a link to buying a product, depending on your main goal.

Why is this important? 

Well, imagine knowing exactly what each action from a customer is costing you. 

It’s like having a crystal ball for your marketing budget. You can see what works, what doesn’t, and where your money is best spent.

To put things into perspective, global digital advertising is on track to exceed $645 billion by 2024. 

So understanding the cost of each action, or CPA, becomes not just useful, but essential in the coming years.

Short on time? Here’s a fast video explainer of what CPA is in digital marketing

Okay, let’s dive into some real-life examples.

From plumbers to paddleboards, we’ll explore how different businesses use CPA in smart ways. 

No fluff, just straight-up examples you can relate to. So, grab a cuppa, and let’s get into the nitty-gritty of what is CPA in digital marketing.

Let’s unpack CPA a little bit

CPA isn’t just about the endgame – the sale. It’s also about the steps people take to get there. Here’s a quick snapshot of actions CPA might track:

  • Watching a product demo video
  • Signing up for a newsletter
  • Filling out a contact or feedback form
  • Downloading an e-book or a white paper
  • Sharing a post on social media
  • Registering for a webinar or event
  • Using a discount code from a promotional campaign

So, why should you care? Well, not all businesses are sprinting towards immediate sales. 

Some are in it for the marathon – nurturing relationships, spreading the word, or building a community. 

Tracking a variety of actions with CPA helps you line up your marketing arrows with the right targets.

It’s like choosing the right ingredients for a recipe – each one adds a unique flavour to the final dish.

How to choose CPAs for your marketing

Choosing the right CPA action for your business is a bit like picking the perfect pair of shoes. 

manager pointing at sales graph on monitor explaining what cpa in digital marketing entails during a team meeting.
Manager pointing at sales graph on monitor explaining what CPA in digital marketing entails during a team meeting.

It has to fit just right for your marketing campaign. 

For example, a high-end fashion retailer might focus on how many people sign up for their exclusive newsletter.

Meanwhile, a local gym could be more interested in how many people sign up for a free trial. 

It’s all about what action aligns best with your current marketing goals.

The key is to pick an action that not only reflects your business’s objectives but also resonates with your audience. 

It’s a bit like hosting a dinner party. 

You wouldn’t serve a fancy steak to a group of vegetarians, right? 

Similarly, choosing the right CPA action means understanding what your audience values and how they interact with your business.

7 real-world CPA in marketing examples — from pipes to paddleboards

Example 1: the plumber

Let’s start with a plumber. In the world of pipes and leaks, a booked appointment is like striking gold.

For a plumbing business, CPA isn’t about how much wrench time they sell. 

It’s about how many people pick up the phone and book a service. 

That’s their bread and butter.

Tracking booked appointments as their CPA gives them a clear picture. 

It shows how effective their ads or website are at convincing people to get in touch. 

It’s like a barometer for their business health. 

If the appointments go up, things are looking good. 

If not, it’s time to check the pipes – or in this case, their marketing strategy.

Example 2: the eCommerce business

Now, picture a paddleboard shop. For them, CPA is all about sales. 

Each paddleboard sold is a wave of success.

It’s not just about stocking boards and paddles. 

It’s about how many people hit the ‘Buy’ button. This is their key action, their measure of success.

By tracking sales as their CPA, they get a snapshot of how well their marketing floats.

barista checking digital marketing analytics on smartphone to understand what cpa is in café setting.
Barista checking digital marketing analytics on smartphone to understand what CPA is in café setting.

Are more people buying because of a killer Instagram post? 

Or is it their email campaign that’s making waves?

If sales are soaring, they’re going in the right direction. 

If not, it’s time to adjust the sails – maybe tweak the marketing approach.

Example 3: the online learning platform

Consider an online learning platform. Here, not all actions are created equal. 

Let’s break it down:

  • Course enrolments: the big win. Every time someone enrolls in a course, it’s like hitting a home run. It’s direct revenue and a strong indicator of effective marketing.
  • Free trial sign-ups: a step towards victory. These sign-ups are potential future enrolments. They’re about nurturing interest and engagement.
  • Newsletter subscriptions: the long game. Subscribers might not enrol immediately, but they’re showing continued interest. It’s about planting seeds for future growth.

Each action has its value, but they’re not on the same level. 

Think of it like a game of darts. 

Hitting the bullseye (course enrolments) scores you the most points. 

Landing in the inner circle (trial sign-ups) is great too, but not quite the jackpot. 

And hitting the outer rings (newsletter subscriptions) still adds to your score, keeping you in the game for the long haul.

By tracking these different actions, the platform can see what’s working. 

It’s about understanding the nuances in their audience’s behaviour and tweaking their strategy accordingly. 

Example 4: the fitness app

It’s not just about counting calories or steps; it’s about counting app downloads and subscription sign-ups.

They focus on a couple of key actions:

  • App downloads: the first step to engagement. Each download is like someone walking into a gym. It’s the starting point of a potential fitness journey.
  • Subscription sign-ups: the commitment. When someone subscribes, it’s like they’ve signed up for a fitness class. It’s a stronger commitment than just downloading the app.

Both actions are important, but they serve different purposes. 

App downloads expand their reach. It’s about getting as many people as possible through the door. 

athlete reviewing cpa in digital marketing metrics on a sports app on his smartphone after training.
Athlete reviewing CPA in digital marketing metrics on a sports app on his smartphone after training.

Subscription sign-ups, on the other hand, are about building a loyal community. 

It’s the difference between someone just browsing in a store and actually making a purchase.

By tracking these actions, the app can gauge its appeal and effectiveness. 

More downloads might mean their marketing is eye-catching.

 But increasing subscriptions? That’s a sign they’re really getting people moving. 

It’s a balanced approach, keeping an eye on both the short-term gains and long-term loyalty.

Example 5: the local bakery

Now, imagine a cosy local bakery. In their world, CPA looks at more than just the sweet treats they sell. 

It’s about online orders and growing their community through newsletter sign-ups.

Here’s what they focus on:

  • Online orders: the direct dough. Every online order is immediate revenue. It’s like selling a fresh loaf of bread straight from the oven.
  • Newsletter sign-ups: building a following. These sign-ups might not lead to instant sales, but they’re important. It’s about keeping customers engaged and coming back for more.

Both actions are valuable, but in different ways. Online orders show immediate success. 

It’s like seeing people enjoy their pastries right there and then.

Newsletter sign-ups, though, are about the future. 

It’s planting (lin)seeds for a long-term relationship with customers.

By tracking these, the bakery learns what catches customers’ attention. 

Maybe a new pastry launch boosts online orders, or a special recipe in their newsletter brings more foot traffic. 

It’s a mix of enjoying the present success and kneading the dough for future gains.

Example 6: the freelancer

Shift the scene to a freelance graphic designer. 

Their CPA isn’t just about final designs. 

It’s about consultation bookings and portfolio views.

Their focus areas are:

  • Consultation bookings: the direct line to potential projects. Each booking is like opening the door to a new opportunity. It’s a chance to turn a conversation into a contract.
  • Portfolio views: building interest and credibility. While not immediately lucrative, each view of their portfolio is like a seed sown in fertile ground, with the potential to grow into future work.

Bookings are like signing a deal, a direct path to income. 

Portfolio views, though, are about building a reputation. 

It’s the difference between shaking hands on a deal and handing out a business card.

By keeping tabs on these metrics, the freelancer can tailor their approach.

freelancer analysing business charts on a laptop to optimise cpa in digital marketing strategies.
Freelancer analysing business charts on a laptop to optimise CPA in digital marketing strategies.

More bookings might mean their pitch is perfect. More portfolio views? Time to update and showcase more of their best work. 

Example 7: the tech startup

Finally, let’s zoom into a tech startup. 

Their CPA game is about more than just selling software.

It revolves around free downloads and webinar attendance (as well as a bunch of other things, but let’s stick to these for now):

They concentrate on:

  • Free software downloads: the hook. Every download is like someone taking a bite of a free sample. It’s the first step in getting users hooked on their product.
  • Webinar attendance: engagement and education. Attendees might not buy immediately, but they’re showing interest. It’s like someone stopping to listen to a street performer, intrigued by the performance.

Each of these actions has its unique importance. 

Free downloads can lead to a larger user base and potential future sales. Webinar attendees are warming up, getting to know the product better.

It’s like a chef offering samples at a food market. 

The free samples (downloads) draw people in, and the cooking demonstration (webinars) engages them further. 

By tracking these, the startup understands how to better attract and educate potential customers. 

It’s a strategy of both spreading the word and deepening the connection.

4-steps to defining your CPAs

The trick is to understand your business and your customers. 

What action do you want them to take? What’s most valuable to you?

Here’s a quick guide to get you started:

  • Step 1: define your goal: What’s your endgame? More sales, brand awareness, customer engagement?
  • Step 2: know your audience: What do they like? What do they respond to?
  • Step 3: match the action to the goal: Align the CPA action with your goal. If it’s sales, track purchases. For awareness, maybe it’s ad views or website visits.
  • Step 4: test and learn: Try different actions. See what works. It’s like experimenting with recipes until you find the perfect dish.

Every business has its own rhythm. Finding the right CPA in marketing action is about tuning into that rhythm and playing along. 

It’s a balance of knowing what you want and what your audience is willing to give.

How to optimise your CPAs

Monitoring your CPA is an ongoing task. 

It’s not set-and-forget; it’s more like tuning a guitar (just kidding, that thing goes out of tune too quickly). 

Consider these steps for effective CPA management:

  • Regular monitoring: keep a close eye on your CPA figures. It’s about spotting changes as they happen.
  • Analyse the data: look for patterns and insights. What story is your CPA telling you?
  • Adapt and experiment: if something isn’t working, change it. Testing different approaches is key.
  • Customer insights: pay attention to customer feedback. It’s a goldmine for refining your strategy.

It’s about being proactive, not just reactive. Staying on top of your CPA means you’re always ready to make the necessary adjustments. This keeps your marketing strategy sharp and effective.

Are you satisfied with the definition of what is CPA in digital marketing?

We’ve taken a deep dive into CPA in digital marketing, cutting through the complex terms to understand what it really means. 

Remember, CPA isn’t just about tracking sales. It’s a bigger tool that helps you grasp how your marketing influences customer actions.

Key points to take away:

  • CPA encompasses a range of actions beyond just sales.
  • The right CPA action depends on your unique business goals.
  • Continuously monitoring and tweaking your CPA is essential for effective marketing.

This exploration of CPA should make it feel more approachable and practical. 

It’s about using this metric wisely to make better decisions and understand your audience more deeply.

Consider how CPA can fit into your marketing strategy. 

It’s about being smart with your resources and understanding where your efforts are most effective.

Josiah is a multi-award-winning digital marketing consultant and former journalist for the Australia Times. He now helps 6-7-figure brands as a Fractional CMO to generate predictable leads and sales growth.​

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