How to Sell Digital Downloads

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Running an online store can be hard work. You have to manage inventory, package items, and ship regularly. Or do you?

Say you sell digital downloads. You don’t have to deal with all of the nuances that come with inventory management. You can sell all sorts of digital downloads, from sewing patterns to planner formats to other digital products — all without shipping a thing.

Take Katacosmic Design, a digital planner store with more than 16,000 sales on Etsy, for example.

Andrea Wong is the woman behind the online business, but she used to be a disorganized teenager.

“My organization skills were null,” she said in an email.

That changed when her mom gave her a planner.

“Even though it was very helpful, I found myself not liking the aesthetics, the colors, or the way it was put together,” Wong said. “So I started creating my own.”

Do you have a killer idea for a digital product? Here’s what you should know before you start selling digital products.

How to Sell Digital Downloads

Step 1: Choose Your Niche

If “downloadable file” sounds broad, that’s because it is. It could mean a whole slew of things.

ASMR audio files. Inspirational sticker designs. Printable 3D art templates.

As long as your digital downloads don’t break your chosen platform’s terms and conditions, you can sell it.

Here are three popular examples.

This is a digital planner created by Andrea Wong
A digital planner created by Andrea Wong. Photo courtesy of Andrea Wong

Planner Templates

There are tons of Type A personalities — and aspiring Type A personalities — who pay real money for digital planner templates.

Niche is the name of the digital downloads game. It’s difficult to stand out with a simple planner template. But what about a digital planner for students?

“My first templates were exclusively things that I would need as a student,” Wong said.

Think “college assignment tracker,” not “daily planner.”

Lesson Plans and Classroom Activities

Attention, teachers. You already create lesson plans. Why not sell them?

To choose your niche, think about the age group and subject area you teach. High school math teachers can sell trigonometry quizzes. Kindergarten teachers can sell traceable handwriting worksheets.

Ask yourself: Is this something I would want for my classroom? If the answer is yes, other teachers will probably feel the same way. Next thing you know, you’re selling digital products, potentially making money off of something you’ve already made.

Sewing Patterns

There is more demand than ever for independent sewing patterns. As any sewist knows, drafting a professional pattern is a tall order. If you have the skills, try listing your digital designs.

Avoid clothing that has been done to death. The world probably does not need another quilted jacket pattern.

Instead, look for gaps in the market you would like to see filled, and focus on making your wish list a digital download reality.

Do you wish there were more plus-size Lord of the Rings cosplay patterns? That’s a good sign you should create some.

Step 2: Create Your Files

Good news: Many digital downloads can be created with free, easy-to-use software.

“I started using Canva,” Wong said. “I do not use it as much as I used to but it is still very helpful for a beginner as it is free to use.”

According to Canva, it is perfectly fine to “design and sell templates, with Free elements only, shared as PDFs, JPGs, PNGs, etc.”

In other words, steer clear of Canva’s premium Pro Content in your designs and you’re golden. Similarly, it is not okay to “resell Canva templates or stock elements as-is.” In short: Create your own design, don’t steal Canva’s.

For other products, you’ll need a more advanced toolkit.

To create digital sewing patterns, for example, Canva won’t cut it. You can opt for Seamly, a specialized software for drafting clothing designs. It’s free and open-source. Another popular option is Adobe Illustrator. It’s pricey at $31.49 per month, but powerful.

However you choose to design your digital product, test it before you list it. Send your file to a friend. Ask them: Did it look professional? Was the formatting wonky? Were the instructions easy to follow?

You want your digital file to be clean and clear before you sell it to customers.

Step 3: List Your Product

Listing digital products is not too different from listing physical products. But there are certain exceptions.

Choose a Platform

So you’re ready to start selling digital products. Where do you start? Do you make your own website or sell on an existing online marketplace?

Etsy has a thriving, if crowded, digital downloads market. Meanwhile, Gumroad has less competition — and fewer buyers.

And selling directly to consumers through an online store on your own website cuts out fees, but adds headaches.

When you’re deciding where to sell digital downloads, there are pros and cons to every option. Definitely consider crosslisting — posting your digital downloads to multiple platforms — to get the most sales.

Showcase Your Digital Products by Taking Great Photos

Sure, you could take a few screenshots of your digital products and call it a day. But if you want to stand out, show your digital goods in action.

If you’re selling lesson plans, display them on a desk with an apple and pencil. If you’re selling a sewing pattern, model the finished product.

Either way, great photos are an important way to showcase your digital downloads.

Clarify the Products are Digital downloads

Whatever you do, make it clear that your items are digital. Put “digital” in the title. Put it in the description. Put it in the photos.

There’s still a chance customers will confuse your digital products for physical products. If that happens, stay calm and put on your customer service hat.

“I’ve had two people message me and say that they thought it was a physical product,” Wong said. “After explaining, they are cool with it.”

Price your digital products with Care

It’s tempting to list digital products for a low price. After all, it’s just a digital file — why not list it for a dollar?

Don’t sell yourself short. If you put time and effort into creating a quality product, people will happily pay for it. You can always add a discount if sales are slow. As of this writing, Wong’s custom digital planner is $38, on sale from $94.99. That price point keeps sales steady without undervaluing her labor.

“People have showed love and appreciation for my designs,” Wong said. “That is what has motivated me all this time to keep uploading.”

Looking for a side gig but digital downloads just aren't your thing? Here’s our list of the best side hustles out there.

The Pros and Cons of Selling Digital Products

There are advantages to selling digital products, but it’s not all sunshine and roses. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of selling digital downloads.

  • No Shipping
  • Shipping can be a huge timesuck. With digital goods, you never need to visit the post office.
  • Unlimited Sales
  • List a product once, sell it ten times. Or one hundred, or one thousand.
  • Once you have done the hard work of creating and listing a digital product, you can sell it over and over again. It’s not passive income — you still need to market your store and respond to customers.

  • Crowded Market
  • There are dozens of online gurus who will tell you that you can get rich quick selling digital products. This is what they won’t tell you: There’s stiff competition.
  • Search “planner template” on Etsy to see this for yourself. There are over 100,000 results.
  • Difficult to Get Started Without a Platform
  • If you have one million followers on Instagram, selling digital downloads is a no-brainer. Pop that seven-day workout worksheet on your Linktree. Chances are, at least a few fans will buy it.
  • But if you have one hundred followers on Instagram, you don’t have that advantage.

Ready to Start Selling Digital Downloads?

Whether you’re a teacher looking to make some extra cash from your lesson plans or a sewist with an idea for an incredible downloadable pattern, you can sell digital downloads easily, without much overhead.

All you need is an idea, some software (much of it is free-to-use!) and a place to sell digital products, and you’re well on your way to a digital downloads business.

Contributor Ciara McLaren is a freelance writer with work in HuffPost, Insider and The Penny Hoarder. You can find her on Substack (@camclaren).