How to create and sell digital downloads

Digital downloads

Selling digital goods is a meaningful, practical way to make a living as a creator. All the (hidden) costs that might be involved in running a bricks and mortar shop — such as manufacturing, storage, packaging and shipping — are irrelevant in the digital world. This means you can spend less time worrying about the logistics of moving your inventory around and spend more time creating fantastic content for your community.

The most common e-commerce products are digital files usually known as digital downloads — let’s take a look at what they are and how you might start selling them

What are digital downloads?

Digital downloads may be more common than you think. Have you ever bought one of the following:

  • a book to read on your Amazon Kindle
  • a software upgrade or plugin for your website
  • an ebook for research purposes
  • a new font for a design project (perhaps in Adobe InDesign)
  • an album from Bandcamp to support a musician

If so, you have already accessed a digital download! These are all files that have been created digitally by a creator, to be downloaded onto a customer’s computer. If you are looking to start a side hustle or perhaps even a full-time business selling digital downloads, there are dozens of products you could consider creating:

  • Visuals, such as digital art, stock images, fonts or image presets
  • Ebooks, such as for Amazon Kindle or Google Books
  • Educational resources, such as online courses and PDF quizzes
  • Audio, such as songs or podcasts
  • Video, such as lessons, animations or stock footage

Here at Memberful, we actually give away a digital download to our readers: an ebook titled 'Top 21 marketing channels for membership sites', written by The Subscription Coach Amanda Northcutt. You can see more information at this blog post or you can download the entire ebook. One of our customers, FujiLove Magazine, offers a digital download to its members: a beautiful photography magazine that features photo assignments, interviews, shooting tips and gear advice. See more information on the FujiLove Magazine website.

How to create digital downloads

Perhaps you already know the possibilities and just want to know how to make selling and creating digital downloads a reality? Have you already decided on what you would like to create and sell? Let’s take a look at how to monetize:

The method for creating a digital download is dependent on the type of product you are making. Let’s stick with the above categories and find some great — and for the most part, free — online tools to help you get started.

Visuals: Are you a budding photographer or graphic designer? You could sell your photography or digital art. There are incredible tools such as Canva or Figma to help with editing individual images and building a great online art portfolio.

Ebooks: Could you write the next Amazon Kindle bestseller? Check out Kaliber, Reedsy and Ceros for ebook writing and editing software.

Educational resources: Do you have something you could teach to others? Blackboard and Outschool offer online channels to help you build educational course and platforms.

Audio: Do you write songs or contribute to a podcast? Check out Audacity or Audio Mass for audio editing software.

Video: Could you share your online video lessons or sell stock footage or your drone videography? Edit your videos with Adobe Premiere Rush or Final Cut Pro.

There are hundreds of online tools, many of them free, beyond those listed above to help you create incredible digital downloads. If you know of any others, message us on social media! You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

So we’ve spoken about creating digital downloads and how to get started. Get creative! The next stage is taking your creations public and monetizing so let’s look into how to sell your new digital downloads.

How to sell digital downloads

To start selling products online, just as in the real world, you can either create your own marketplace or join an existing one. Creating your own marketplace in the digital world essentially means to build a website that can accept financial transactions, usually through PayPal or Stripe, in return for granting access to those downloads. The internet equivalent of joining an existing marketplace means signing up to one or multiple marketplace-style websites.

Build your own site

If you’re considering selling your downloads through your personal site, you’ll enjoy benefits of being able to directly build your brand and visual identity. You can customize your site exactly as you want it (but of course there may a cost associated with this).

On your site, you’ll be able to directly interact with customers, perhaps through an online chatroom such as Intercom. You can build databases of your customers’ emails perhaps in Mailerlite or MailChimp, to keep them updated with upcoming promotions and marketing campaigns.

However, you’ll have to work hard to get people to arrive at your site in the first place and this may require lots of time or paying Google, Facebook or similar for advertising. But once that traffic arrives, there’ll be no competition from other sellers because you’ll be the only person listed. Perhaps best of all, you won’t have to pay any marketplace commissions so you keep all your revenue!

Joining an existing marketplace

On the other hand, you might be considering setting up an online store for selling your digital downloads using an existing marketplace. The most popular are eBay, Etsy, Zibbet, Amazon Handmade and Bonanza and these may be a great starting point for further research.

It’ll be quick and easy to get and up and running with these because you won’t have to build any new website infrastructure. The downside is that you’ll lose some customization ability, so it may be hard to build your visual brand and stand out from other sellers in the marketplace. Indeed, competition will become a major factor as there will be thousands of other sellers for customers to choose from.

It’ll likely also cost more; just about every marketplace will charge you a subscription fee. The average cost will be between $15 and $20/month. In addition, you’ll have to pay transaction fees every time you make a sale. You’ll also lose the ability to speak directly to your (potential) customers and it’ll be almost impossible to build an email list. However, traffic numbers will be sky high as these sites are well-established, increasing your chance of being found by buyers.

The halfway-point: Adding to your existing site

As with many things in life, not everything is black and white and there are options that fall halfway between the above ends of the spectrum. In this case, you could add some transactional functionality to your existing website, in order to allow for customers to buy access to your digital products. Given the world’s most popular website builder is WordPress, the most obvious way to extend a website’s functionality is to install a WordPress plugin.

There are a number of plugins to choose from, including Paid Memberships Pro, Easy Digital Downloads, Rave Easy Digital Downloads and Sell Digital Downloads — and of course, we shouldn’t forget to mention our own plugin, Memberful WP. All these plugins allow you sell access to downloadable files — these files may in fact already be uploaded to your website’s Media Library from previous work you’ve done, so you’ll be ready to start monetizing in no time!

Conclusion: Selling digital downloads

Selling digital downloads are a great way to capitalize on your online presence and empower yourself to do what you love: creating great content for your audience. Downloads come in the form of visuals and graphics, ebooks, audio or video, and educational resources such as online courses.

It’s easy to get started selling these files online, either through a marketplace such as eBay or Etsy, or you can build your own online store to enjoy more creative control in return for a little more work and knowhow. Whichever path you you choose, selling digital downloads is a rewarding and motivating way to monetize your community!

Do you have an audience?

Give Memberful a spin—we help the web's biggest creators sell memberships to their audience. Customers like Mythical (28+ million subscribers) rely on Memberful to power their membership communities.