It’s easier than ever to build and sell digital products online. There are numerous online options for creatives and designers to sell their creations. In fact, there are so many choices that it can almost paralyze you with indecision. For example, you have:
- Creative Market
- WordPress (via Easy Digital Downloads or WooCommerce)
If that isn’t enough, there’s always your own custom solution for selling your products.
Here at Codeberry, we decided to build and sell digital products online in 2014. We have learned a lot along the way. Nearly all of the information provided in this post are the things we wished we knew before starting up. Hopefully, our advice will help any future and even current makers out there. So before you furiously spend hours to build and sell digital products online, take a moment to consider these 10 things.
1. Perform extensive research on your chosen niche.
Maybe you have a particular niche in mind that you want to build digital products for. You think people want what you’re building, so you build it and they will come. Right? Wrong!
The number one mistake you can make is to not take the time and perform research on a niche. You need to make sure that there is a market for what you want to make. How? You validate your idea from extensive research.
- Can your product can solve potential customers’ problems?
- Is the niche you’re looking into over saturated? If so, can you offer anything new that the current products don’t?
- Is your chosen niche viable with other players doing what you want to do?
If your answer is “no” to any of these questions, then stop yourself from going any further. Find another niche. If you don’t, the potential for failure is high, and you will end up wasting valuable hours on a product that doesn’t have a real market.
Unless you have “Silly-Con” Valley money behind you to create a new market, you cannot make people want something they didn’t know existed.
2. Validate your idea with a MVP.
First, you might be asking what is a MVP? It stands for Minimum Viable Product, which is a concept that’s critical to success.
Essentially, a MVP is the absolute minimum version of a product with the features needed to deliver value to your first customers.
Depending on what you’re making, your MVP might shape up differently.
If you’re a designer, you’ve performed your research, and you want to create a UI kit, then you’ll want to build a product that has just the right amount of features that people will pay for. That doesn’t mean you throw every UI component that you can come up with and create a whole bunch of products. It means you create one product, launch it, market it, and see how it performs. If no one buys it, adjust your marketing. If you still don’t see any results, then perhaps there really isn’t a market for your offer. This means you go back to the drawing board and find a new niche to develop a product for. The lack of sales (which equates to interest) is the main indicator that there is no market for your product.
If you’re a developer, you’ve performed your research, and you want to create an online builder, then you’ll want to build a landing page before you do anything else. You do not want to type one line of code until you validate your idea through interest. How do you measure interest? Allow me to explain.
You create an image mockup of what you want your builder to look like, post it on your landing page with its features, and get people to sign up on your email list while marketing it to the places where people in your niche hang out. Some people will say that they are interested, but if someone gives you their email address, that shows that they are truly interested and are a potential customer. If you have enough people signing up to your email list, then you can start coding version 1.0 of your online builder. However, if there isn’t enough sign ups, you’ve saved yourself hundreds of hours of coding. Find another niche as your idea has not been validated.
3. Pick a platform to sell on.
Earlier in this post, I listed some of the more popular platforms for you to sell your digital products. Each one has its own sets of pros and cons. I will give you this piece of important advice. If you decide to go with an online marketplace, I strongly recommend that you also launch with your own online store.
One of the main disadvantages of relying completely on a marketplace like Envato, Creative Market, or Etsy is that you have split your profits if selling on their platform. While getting up and running on a marketplace is relatively easy, you are competing with literally thousands of other sellers. And unfortunately, you have to compete on price “to win.”
Another disadvantage is that if the marketplace goes away, then your entire business goes away as well. This is why it’s so important to spend the extra time to get your own online store up and running. And when you do, you need to learn how to use SEO and other methods (i.e. email courses, content marketing, etc.) to drive your own traffic to your site. Think of the marketplace as an extension of your brand if you choose to sell there, not your primary or only place to sell your products.
4. Market your product with a vengeance.
Now, when I say market your product with a vengeance, that doesn’t mean you should bombard your email list with a stream of marketing emails every other day. No one likes pressure sales tactics, and filling up people’s inboxes with a constant stream of marketing messages can be the fastest way to shrink your email list.
What I mean is that you should spend most of your time marketing your existing products. No one buys a car after they see it in a commercial for the first, second, or even third time. This is why advertisers spend so much money with repeated advertising efforts in multiple channels. You should be doing something similar when it comes to marketing your products. That means you should do activities like:
- Send a newsletter to your email list at least every 2-4 weeks. If you have written content on Medium, your blog, or elsewhere, share that with your email list.
- Create relevant blog content (i.e. tutorials, creative industry observations, etc.) and share it online through your blog.
- Come up with an affiliate program with relevant websites to split sales proceeds from referrals.
- Become a guest on a podcast that’s catered to your niche and share what you do.
- Let someone in a related field interview you, and in return, you interview them and feature it on your website.
- Post images/screenshots along with links to the product on social media.
You might be tempted to think you should just spend most of your marketing efforts posting on social media. In our experience, this is a waste of time. How do we know? It’s simple. We looked at the numbers in our analytics.
A very small percentage of our site’s traffic was referred to us from social media sites. Most of our traffic came from sources that were not social media sites – sites where our customers hang out online or search results.
It’s more important to spend your marketing efforts getting customers to come to you through other means (like the ones mentioned above that are not just social media).
5. Give away something for free.
This might seem counter-intuitive if you want to sell digital products to potential customers, but giving away free products is a proven strategy. I mean, who doesn’t like free stuff?
Free doesn’t mean throwing something substandard together in a few hours and posting it on your website. Take your time and make something that leaves an impression. You want people to see that you can make high quality products. If your free goods don’t have a high quality experience, there is no reason for a potential customer to spend money on your paid products.
You should also think about how you want to distribute your free goods. You could just post it on your website or GitHub, allowing anyone to download it, which does work. However, a great way to build your email list is to have people sign up to receive the free goods in a super secretive link that only they have access to. It’s a benefit for being a subscriber.
6. Build and launch your own website with an online store.
I’ve briefly mentioned why it’s important to have your own online store, but I’ll go into details here.
You want to have some control over how your customers engage with you. If you’re solely selling in a marketplace, your customer is actually that marketplace’s customer. In some cases, you don’t even know who they are, and when you do, you might be limited in how you can interact with your customers, unless they have a support issue.
When you have your own website, you know more about your customers than you would ever know about them if your sales are only derived from a marketplace. When it comes to building and refining your product strategy, data is king. You can’t argue with numbers, and you’ll know if certain products are winners, just okay, or losers if you setup the appropriate analytics for your website. Yes, some online marketplaces have data that they allow you to see, but you’ll never get the full picture of how customers found your products, what product type generates the most interest, and more. You would be able to have this information if you have your own website that’s generating traffic.
For some, building a website might seem like a hassle. Several years ago, this would be true, but it’s easier than ever to get your own online shop online and running with little effort. Unless you’re developing a completely custom solution, then you can easily setup an online store with services like Shopify, Squarespace, and WordPress (via WooCommerce or a Easy Digital Downloads-enabled theme).
Believe me, it’s worth the effort to invest time in setting up your online store. You want to have some level of independence from marketplaces, and if you do it right (via marketing and making products people are willing to pay for), then you’ll benefit with more revenue that you don’t have to share.
7. Keep an eye on the latest trends.
Trends come and go. It’s why the music industry typically change their sounds and what type of music genre is going to be promoted to popularity roughly every 10 years. In some industries, trends have shorter longevity, which is why it’s important to watch what’s new or being recycled in some cases.
Some of the best places to check out new trends are places like design blogs/online magazines, Dribbble, Behance, Ello, and Medium. Many of these places often have a blog post or article along the lines of “Top design trends of 20xx.” These articles are definitely worth reading.
Another great indicator of where design trends are going is to study some of the designs of top or upcoming startups. These startups are often backed by venture capital and therefore spend a lot of money figuring out what user experiences and user interfaces turn visitors into potential customers.
Check out what types of fonts (serif and sans-serif) are being used. If you’re using Chrome or Firefox as your browser, there are extensions to help you see what font is being rendered without the annoyance of using the inspector or web developer tools.
Look at the types of colors that are popular. Is brutalism in web design still a thing, or is there something new out there? What icon styles are trending? What types of images or illustrations are popping up or being used? Are there interesting, new trends that you’re seeing for add ons? These are some of the things to keep in mind.
Once you identify where trends are going, take action and test the waters. If you’re unsure whether or not this trend is what your customers want, create one product, market it, and see how it performs. If your results are positive, this is the ultimate validation that this is a trend your customers want, so make more of it.
Before I leave this topic and move on to the next, you might be wondering why can’t you create your own trend. If you’re a truly creative person, you can go this route. Just don’t rely on social media validation. That product shot you posted on social media does not equate to customer interest. The only validation that matters is what your customers think, which they show by voting with their wallets.
8. Ask for feedback from your customers.
What your customers think guides the direction in which you will take your future digital products.
You need to know what they like or don’t like about what you’re making. You want to know what types of products they would like to see from you. Ask what can you do to improve the customer experience. Is your documentation extensive enough and simplified? Does your website make it easy for the customer to find things by product category? Are you responding promptly to technical support, and are you friendly and helpful?
The only feedback that matters is customer feedback. These are the people that you want to keep coming back to you for more products in the future, so it’s important to pay attention to their needs, suggestions, criticisms, and comments.
Of course, it’s one thing for me to say that you should get feedback from your customers. You might be asking how would you do that. There are a variety of ways, but the easiest and most accessible method for anyone is to create a Google Form. Spend some time creating a form that asks questions that you want to know from your customers and provide the appropriate fields for them to provide the feedback. Once you’ve finished your form, include it as a link in your website’s purchase receipt and include it in your newsletter.
Of course, getting people to fill out the form is not always easy once you’ve created it. This is where you think creatively. Entice them with a discount code or free good for filling out your survey.
9. Don’t take it personally when an angry customer goes into Hulk mode on you.
It’s bound to happen. You are going to get an angry customer, no matter how awesome you and other customers think your product is.
Unless you’re making a very poor, buggy product or it’s deliberately misleading, angry customers are not necessarily angry at you. Sometimes they didn’t read the product description and purchased your product for a platform that’s incompatible. In other situations, it’s a lack of skill on using your product or the software needed to use it. Or people could just be frustrated and having a bad day.
While it’s never pleasant to deal with someone who is angry, don’t take it personally. In 99% of cases, it’s never about you, so try and brush it off. Turn that angry customer into a happy customer. Try your best to help them, and be friendly in your responses. Through experience, I’ve found that if you respond in a friendly, understanding manner, most people will calm down. Some will even apologize, and in the best of circumstances, they’ll end up happier after you’ve assisted them.
Does that mean you should take abuse? Absolutely not! No one should have to put with abuse under any circumstances. If you find yourself in a situation where a customer is abusive, you have the right to terminate contact/support.
If McDonald’s can put its foot down on abusive customers who want Chicken McNuggets during breakfast, then you can too.
10. Focus on the development and growth of your business.
It’s very tempting to want to know what your competitors are doing. For example, it’s natural to wonder:
- Are they charging more or less than I am?
- What types of products are they making?
- What features are they incorporating?
Yes, these things are important to know during the research phase as you figure out your niche. But remember this: how your competitor runs their business is different from how you’re going to run yours.
The same piece of advice applies to if you’re selling on marketplaces. No matter the marketplace, they are going to put their business interests ahead of yours as a seller. They are focusing on the development and growth of their business. You need to be doing the same with yours. Why? Because that’s the only thing you have control over.
You decide what processes (i.e. ticketing software vs. email) and marketing efforts work best for you and your customers. Determine what you’re going to make and sell – based on customer feedback and demand. Decide if you’re going to charge more for existing or new products and when to retire old products. You choose to pivot into making something different or branch off a new project into a new venture. Come up with the roadmap of where you want to go with your business.
Simply put, if you want to make bread (aka money), figure out the right ingredients and make your own. Do not concern yourself with the ingredients that competitors are using to make their bread. Come up with your own recipe and make your bread taste different from everyone else’s. Your customers buy from you because they like your recipe, so spend time delighting them.