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How to Sell Digital Downloads

Sell digital products online like an expert

Digital products provide all the pros of online shopping – comfort, convenience, unlimited options – and none of the cons. Picture it: you’re browsing on your laptop, you find an artsy print that you love, and… done! The file’s on your desktop faster than you can change out of your pajamas.

Selling digital downloads is an easy way to create a great customer experience. But how do you get started? 

There are a few different sales channels at your disposal. You can either sell through an online marketplace, or set up your own online store. An online marketplace is quicker for you to set up, but an online store more effectively communicates your brand personality to your shoppers. And presenting a brand that people identify with is vital: 89% of shoppers stay loyal to brands that share their values.

If you do decide to set up your own online store, you’ll then have two options: you can use an ecommerce website builder or WordPress. Ecommerce website builders are extremely easy to use – they enable you to set up a personalized website, complete with sales functions, all without having to code. On the other hand, WordPress is a Content Management System (CMS), which means it demands more technical knowledge than a website builder – and you will have to code at least a little bit. The upside of this advanced platform is greater customization.

This might feel like an information overload, which is why we’ve organized our findings after hours of research to bring you the best platform for each sales channel:

  1. Etsy is an online marketplace that will help you sell quickly and easily
  2. Shopify is an ecommerce website builder that’s feature-rich, easy to use, and takes care of all the behind-the-scenes techy stuff for you
  3. WordPress is a more advanced CMS, which you’ll have to host yourself. If you have the technical know-how, then WordPress can help you create a powerful online store

Read on for our full breakdown of each platform, and find out which is best for your own digital goals!

1

Etsy

etsy homepage view

Etsy is the queen bee of online marketplaces, with 2.6 million active sellers – and, more importantly, 44.8 million active buyers. It’s managed to shake off the corporate ecommerce stereotype, and has instead become known as the platform of choice for creative, handmade, and original artwork and crafts. In other words, it’s the best online marketplace for selling digital products. 

Etsy Key Features

Cost20¢ listing fee, plus 3.5% of your sale price
ProsHuge popularity gives you a built-in audience

Extremely quick setup process

ConsLots of competition for buyers’ attention

Not as customizable as Shopify or WordPress

Who is Etsy best for?Those looking to sell fast

Because Etsy is already a household name, you won’t have to work very hard to build trust among your customers. You also won’t need to worry about driving traffic to the site – Etsy already promotes itself, and does so very successfully.

The downside of this popularity is competition. There are currently over 60 million items for sale on Etsy, and like we said before, there are 2.6 million active sellers. That means customers have a lot of options. And while you won’t have to worry about getting people onto the site, you will need to think about how to stand out from every other seller.

If you’re willing to try to cut through the noise, then Etsy is a great way to start selling quickly. All you have to do is create an account and start uploading your products – it really is that simple. 

Etsy is free to join, but you’ll have to fork over 3.5% of your sales, and pay the 20 cent fee to list each product. A fair tradeoff, we’d say, considering the ease of use that the platform provides.  

2

Shopify

shopify homepage view

As far as ecommerce website builders go, Shopify is great for selling digital downloads. In fact, Shopify is our top performing ecommerce platform. It ranks consistently highly across all of our research categories, from ease of use to sales features. 

Shopify lets you build your own online store, without needing any coding skills – all you have to do is use Shopify’s simply built editor.

shopify editor overview

The benefit of ecommerce website builders like Shopify is that you get a ready-made, but still easily personalized store at an all-in-one price. A professional customer service team is on hand if you need it, and you won’t have to think about hosting at all – everything is taken care of for you.

But what makes Shopify the standout ecommerce builder? Well, aside from easy-to-use website building and selling functions, Shopify also offers a host of helpful add-ons. This includes a free Digital Downloads app, which allows you to attach files to your digital products and track sales and downloads. You can also rest assured that you’re selling through an internationally recognized platform, and have plenty of tailored Shopify support options to ensure that your digital business thrives.

Shopify Key Features

Cost$29/month, plus 2.9% transaction fee (or 0% if you use Shopify Payments)
ProsHuge choice of ecommerce plugins and apps

Easy to use, but still customizable

Built-in customer support services

ConsHave to promote your own site

Less customizable than WordPress

Who is Shopify best for?Those who want the most features for their store

Shopify offers a 14-day free trial, so you can test the platform out risk-free. There’s also the Shopify Lite option for $9/month, which simply lets you add ecommerce functions to a Facebook page or an existing website. However, in order to successfully sell digital downloads, you’ll need to invest in the Basic Shopify plan at $29/month. 

When you sell digital downloads with Shopify, your customers get a direct download after checkout, as well as an emailed link. You can also opt to automatically send an updated download link to your customers whenever you update the attached file on your site.

Since Shopify allows you to build your own store, you’ll have to dedicate more time to the setup process than you would with Etsy. And since you’re the only admin of your Shopify site, you’ll need to drive your own traffic via social media promotion and SEO (Search Engine Optimization), which we’ll discuss later on. 

However, once users are actually on your site, there won’t be any competition from other sellers. And better still, Shopify takes a smaller cut of your sales than Etsy does. You’ll also have a more personalized website, which is great for building your brand.

Check out our Shopify Review for more information

Use our Shopify Pricing Review to choose your best fit plan

3

WordPress

wordpress homepage view

WordPress.org – not to be confused with its simpler counterpart, WordPress.com – is a Content Management System (CMS). A CMS is a more powerful, scalable tool than a website builder, and can accommodate more files (i.e. content). 

WordPress is highly customizable, but you won’t enjoy any of these benefits unless you have a degree of technical know-how. If you don’t know how to code, you’ll struggle to alter your site much beyond the initial theme you choose. 

WordPress.org is a self-hosted platform, which means you’ll have to choose a hosting provider yourself. WordPress.org has been recommending Bluehost’s hosting plans since 2005, and this provider actually earned the “Best for WordPress Specific Hosting” title in our own research. Bluehost’s seamless integration with WordPress and WordPress plugins makes it a reliable hosting option.

WordPress Key Features

Cost$4.95/month (minimum)
ProsExtremely customizable

Lots of scalability

ConsMore complex setup process

Technical knowledge is mandatory

No dedicated help and support team

Who is WordPress best for?Those who plan to scale their store

The most popular ecommerce plugin for WordPress is WooCommerce – but if you only want to sell digital downloads, then WooCommerce is actually not your best option. You can sell digital products with WooCommerce, but it will also come with too many features that only apply to physical products, such as shipping options.

Instead of WooCommerce, you’ll want something more specific. Another WordPress plugin, called Easy Digital Downloads, ticks all the right boxes. It is designed to work with any WordPress theme, though there are also themes created specifically for Easy Digital Downloads. You can easily accept payments via Amazon or PayPal, and you can upload any kind of digital file to sell on your site. Depending on what you’d like to get out of this plugin, you can opt for the free or paid version. 

WordPress is an open-source software, which means the original source code is freely available for users to modify and redistribute as they like. This means that there is no dedicated WordPress help and support team; instead, you’ll have to rely on help from internet forums. 

To start a WordPress site with Bluehost, you’ll have to purchase a Bluehost plan. There are a lot of hosting services to choose from, but to sell digital downloads, we recommend Bluehost’s Basic WordPress hosting plan. 

bluehost wordpress plans page

The introductory price for the Basic WordPress plan is $4.95/month when you pay for one year in advance (you can also pay for three years in advance at $2.95/month, but one year is a lower-risk commitment). After the first year, that $4.95/month renews at $7.99/month, which is a pretty standard pricing jump for the hosting industry. 

While hosting is the only definite cost you’ll have with a WordPress store, there will realistically be a few other things you’ll end up paying for, like advanced ecommerce functionalities or heightened site security. Of course, it’s up to you how much you end up spending beyond the base hosting cost, but it’s good to keep in mind that WordPress pricing is less all-inclusive than that of an ecommerce website builder. 

Learn more:

Tips for Selling Digital Products Successfully

By now, you know which platforms are best for selling digital downloads. But do you know how to sell digital downloads successfully? 

We’ve compiled all of the necessary tips and tricks that will give your business that extra push. Here’s what you need to do to take your digital downloads to the next level:

  1. Know the difference between licensing and ownership
  2. Don’t skimp on scanning
  3. Use SEO best practices 
  4. Build your social media presence

Know the difference between licensing and ownership

You own your artwork/photography/digital content. When you sell that content online, whoever buys it is buying a license to use it. This is different from buying and selling in the physical sense. If you buy a dresser at a yard sale, you now own that dresser, and have the right to then sell it to someone else. This is not true for digital content, which means your work is protected from unfair redistribution.

There are different types of licenses that you can choose to grant to your buyers. For example, you can give customers the right to print out multiple copies of your work, or just one. You can also give buyers the right to use your work only in the ways specified by your listing – for example, you have control over the way your artwork gets copied, distributed, and/or displayed.

Don’t skimp on scanning

Some of your work may have been created online, which makes uploading it to your website simple. But if you’re wondering how to sell digital downloads of physical artwork, this next section is for you.

scanning photos with printer

There are two basic options for getting physical art online with ease: scanning and photographing. If your physical art is 8.5” X 11” or smaller, you’ll be able to use an at-home scanner that connects to your computer. For larger artwork, you’ll want to have it scanned at a printing shop. From there, you can get the file sent to your email, or you can provide a flash drive for it to be uploaded to.

The photography option is a little riskier – you’ll have to use a quality camera, like a DSLR, and make sure that each photo is taken at a high resolution. No matter what you do, resist the temptation to take a photo with your smartphone. No matter how quality the image looks, the screen on a cell phone is too small to allow for the file to be printed clearly later.

Use SEO best practices

SEO is often the deciding factor in whether or not your products will get the viewership that they deserve. The more recognizable your item listings are to search engines, the higher your product pages will rank in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages), and the more people will find them.

Search engines want their users to have a straightforward experience, and a large part of SEO is making sure your details and descriptions are clear. There are a few simple actions you can take to help your products stand out:

  • Use keywords. Relevant keywords turn into relevant tags for your item listings – think about the kinds of phrases you’d search for as a consumer looking for your product, and stick to them!
  • Give your product a descriptive title tag. A good title tag will encourage potential buyers to click. The title tag is the clickable headline on the SERPs that leads people to your product page, so you’ll want to keep it simple and concise.
  • Write a dazzling product description. A product description is the copy that users will view as a summary of what you’re selling, so you’ll want to keep it specific and engaging – and, like the title tag, it should tell people exactly what your product is.
  • Add alt text to your images. Alt text is the descriptive text that appears in place of an image when it has trouble loading. This element is important in any case, but especially for ecommerce SEO, because buyers want to know exactly what they’re going to be getting.
For more platform-specific SEO tips:

WordPress SEO Tips

Shopify SEO Review

Build your social media presence

Social media is a promotional tool that will benefit you regardless of whether you’re selling on Etsy, Shopify or WordPress. Consider platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook as opportunities to widen your audience and engage with people. Once you’ve built a name for yourself on social media, you can use those platforms to drive traffic back to your site. 

Some companies use social media really well. Square Sayings sells wall art, phone cases, and the like, all decorated with funny sayings that have gotten a lot of engagement on its Instagram page, which has an impressive 163k followers.

By letting users interact with products before buying anything, Square Sayings has generated a ton of buzz around its brand.

With Shopify and WordPress, you can also use social media-specific plugins to add certain features to your site, like icons that link to your various profiles, or a form that lets users comment and share your website posts on their own social pages. In other words, Shopify and WordPress make it easy for customers to spread the word about your products! 

How to Sell Digital Downloads: Summary

Now that you know the basics of selling digital products successfully, you have a few decisions to make! The first is determining whether an online marketplace, an ecommerce website builder, or a self-hosted WordPress site is the best sales channel for you. To recap, we’ve narrowed it down to the best platform for each sales channel:

  1. Etsy: best online marketplace 
  2. Shopify: best ecommerce website builder 
  3. WordPress: best self-hosted CMS

If you’re having a hard time choosing, Shopify provides a great blend of the sales functions you get with Etsy and the customization you get with WordPress – it’s the best of both worlds. 

Regardless of which platform you choose, you can trust our top tips for successfully selling products online. To recap, these are:

  • Know the difference between licensing and ownership
  • Don’t skimp on scanning
  • Use SEO best practices
  • Build your social media presence

…and now you’re ready to go! Good luck with your site, and let us know which platform you like best in the comments!

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About Maura Monaghan

Maura Monaghan

I grew up scribbling in notebooks, and until recently the thought of relocating my writing to the digital world seemed like an impossible goal. But when I finally took the plunge and created an online portfolio, I immediately saw the benefits of having my work out on the web. Since then I’ve learned everything I can about creating different websites, so that I can help those in a similar situation get online without a similar headache.

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