A little over a year ago, I decided to take a shot at selling a digital product: I put together a collection of my columns and articles, created PDF and Kindle versions, and did a little marketing. (OK, I did no marketing aside from mentioning it in my bio.)

To my surprise it's sold tens of thousands of copies and, as icing on the revenue cake, helped me land a book deal with Penguin Random House.

But that doesn't make me an expert on creating and selling digital products--in fact, far from it.

But I know someone who is.

The following is a guest post from Ryan Robinson, an entrepreneur and marketer who teaches people how to create meaningful self-employed careers. (A version of this post was originally published on the blog at Selz, the easy-to-use online solution for creative entrepreneurs to sell what they make.)

Here's Ryan:

By now, you've probably seen how many entrepreneurs are creating extremely profitable businesses for themselves through a foundation of high-margin digital products.

Digital products like e-books, online courses, audio products, downloadable templates, software, etc., are increasingly attractive because of their low creation costs (your primary investment being your time and expertise) and inherently scalable nature.

However, with well over 300 million new websites being created each year, there's a staggering amount of competition to grab people's attention in just about every topic area you can think of. And as time goes by, it will only get more crowded.

Making money online is no longer a game of putting up some banner ads, implementing affiliate links, and taking sponsored content from your favorite brands. Sure, those are all viable monetization strategies, but that's not where the real money is going to be flowing in the future.

You need to be considering how you can sell digital products with your business. If you have a valuable skill set, think of ways you can package your services as do-it-yourself online courses. If you're an experienced designer, perhaps your more junior counterparts would be willing to purchase templates from you. If you're an expert in any field, I can guarantee there are people who will pay for an accelerated learning experience through digital guides and instructional videos.

To me, selling digital products is by far the most attractive online business. They're infinitely scalable once you create the products, you have almost zero associated costs for each unit you sell, and if you do a great job of promoting your products you'll be able to rank high in organic search results and bring in new customers at a very low cost.

In his seminal book The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss writes, "Information products are low-cost, fast to manufacture, and time-consuming for competitors to duplicate." Digital products have been the platform by which countless successful entrepreneurs have made a name for themselves.

Of course, like any business of true value, you will not achieve overnight success. You'll have to put in the hard work first. Here are my eight steps to launching profitable digital products:

1. Validate Your Digital Product Idea

I regularly speak about the importance of validating your business ideas, primarily because it's something I've failed so miserably at in the past. Think about it this way: There's no point in devoting all of your energy for days, weeks, or months to building a product that nobody actually wants.

There are thousands of self-published books on Amazon that have only sold a few copies, usually to the author's friends and family, because they're on an obscure topic that no sizable audience is interested in learning about.

Always research your market before you begin to create any digital content. I start with Google Trends and search for topics of interest around which I could viably produce digital content. Once you enter a specific keyword phrase, Google Trends will show you the popularity of that phrase over a defined period of time.

The next tool I go to, one which really helps me validate the potential success of a digital product, is the Google Keyword Planner, part of Google AdWords. This allows you to analyze the monthly search volume and projected competition on specific keyword phrases.

If you can find a combination of high demand and relatively low competition, this signals a great opportunity to create and sell products related to that keyword phrase--if you have the right strategy and can provide more value than the other alternatives out there.

Don't be afraid to ask for feedback as long as you're careful to make sure it comes from unbiased sources. The opinions of your friends and family don't often reflect 100 percent honesty.

Search online for relevant forums and social media groups, and check out these 6 best websites for unbiased feedback to get truly objective, real opinions.

2. Set Up a Waiting List

People love anticipation. Setting up a waiting list is also one of the best ways to validate your digital product idea, as you'll very quickly see how many people express interest by driving targeted traffic to your signup page.

It doesn't matter how good your product is if no one knows about it. Your email list is one of your most valuable assets, thus it's in your best interest to build up your list with potential customers.

I recommend beginning by creating a simple landing page on your website before you build anything related to your upcoming digital product idea. This will give you a way to test the waters with this product concept, start getting indexed by search engines, and prime your existing audience. Here's an example of a very simple landing page I used to test the validity of an online course on starting a business while working full-time.

If someone is interested enough in your online course concept, downloadable product, or service, to give you their email address, you know that there is a decent that they'll be interested enough to buy your digital goods once they're live.

3. Start Building Your Audience With Free Content

Once you have a landing page on your site ready to collect email addresses, you need to begin by giving reasons for people to go to that page and sign up.

Start with creating some high quality blog content for your site and building a targeted list of potential companies, brands, and influencers who may be interested in sharing your content with their audiences. The people on that list you create will also be great prospects for publishing guest posts that you know their audience is already primed for. I use BuzzSumo for identifying these distribution opportunities.

Guest posting has been by far the best driver of new traffic and waiting list signups to my digital content. Since you determined your niche in the first step of this process while validating your idea, now it's time to hunt out other, more successful, blogs that cover the same niche.

Analyze these blogs and pitch ideas to them for posts you could write. Make sure that your pitches are on topics similar to what they already cover, but not identical to pieces they've published before.

You'll have to make quite a few pitches before being accepted if you're just starting out with your online brand, but you'll eventually manage to land a few guest posts, and you can then use these as leverage to gain more. Check out this extensive guide to landing high value guest posts by Ramit Sethi.

Most blogs will allow you to have a short bio attached to your post, and some relevant contextual (non-spammy) links within your post.

Of course, you will want people on your list to keep you top of mind, so be sure to keep up with occasional new content on your own blog--shoot for at least one solid post a month.

One way you can help speed up the uptake of names to your list is to create a small digital product that you can use as a "free giveaway" in exchange for an email address, offer a pre-launch discount, or even access to a free webinar or coaching session.

4. Create Your Digital Product

Once you've built an email list or have a sizable social community (shoot for at least a few hundred to a thousand people), you should have a trickle of regular traffic to your website, which will warrant spending more time building your digital products and getting early feedback from your community.

The idea at this point is that you start shifting your emphasis away from guest posting and gradually move back towards improving the quality and frequency of posts on your website. You now have enough readers to justify writing more frequent posts, so focus on ranking for your target keyword phrases, bring visitors over to your waiting lists, and even pre-sell your online course. Check out this amazing case study from Bryan Harris on how he made over $220,000 on his course launch.

Whether you feel ready or not, it's time to start building. To many, this is the hardest part of the entire process--actually creating the digital product--simply because it's a very new experience at first. The important point to remember, though, is that once the material is created it can be reused over and over again.

You may find that your audience responds well to online courses. Nathan Barry has shared his experiences with building digital products, and he found that most audiences want you to teach them, if you're an expert on a topic. If you can teach people a skill they value, they're happy to pay for it. Consider trying paid webinars, group coaching sessions, and gated sections of your website with more detailed blog content as relatively easily implemented monetization options.

Lastly, look ahead during your creation process and consider exactly how you'll be selling those digital products from your website. Which tools will you be using to set up landing pages? Which will you use for collecting payments? Will you collect customer data? Where will you store order details? Be sure to try out Selz, which is designed specifically for this type of scalability.

5. Incorporate Feedback and Tweak Your Product

If you want to succeed with your digital products, you want them to evolve with your audience. Listen to your audience's feedback. It is far easier to upgrade a digital product than a physical product, and your customers will appreciate receiving updated versions. If they see you continually adding value to what they have purchased, they are far more likely to buy your next product.

If you are doing some form of online coaching or courses, I recommend running a beta group through your course first, and make it better while you're still in the creation phase of your course.

A pre-launch group will also give you the opportunity to have your students implement your strategies. This should give you some great testimonials to showcase on your landing page once you launch to the world.

When Teachable co-founder Conrad Wadowski set up his Profitable Course Idea class, his aim was to set up a course that allowed people to walk themselves through the process of developing their own online course. They can also upgrade to personal coaching at a higher price.

To make the course a success, he needed real people to test it out for him and see if it indeed provided the value they were looking for. That feedback would go on to improve the course and give him meaningful testimonials to use in his sales copy and as marketing points.

6. Install the Right Monetization Tools on Your Website

Once you get to the point where you can monetize your website, you're going to want your site to run as smoothly as possible. This means that you will need to add some tools.

If you operate a WordPress site, there are some essential plug-ins that'll make your life a lot easier. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • OptimizePress is my favorite WordPress template. It's great for creating high quality landing pages, implementing new functionalities, and publishing blog content.
  • Zippy Courses is a basic WordPress theme that'll power any online course and serves as a member site for your users. You'll physically host your course content in this gated community.
  • Selz for WordPress is an awesome embeddable widget that allows you to sell digital products and process transactions directly on your own site.
  • SumoMe, among other things, captures email addresses and helps you welcome these people into your community.
  • KingSumo Headlines helps you optimize your headlines and gives you a better chance of learning what types of headlines and content resonate most with your audience.
  • AddThis provides clear social share buttons on each post to encourage people to share your pages and posts on their social media channels.

7. Target and Involve Strategic Launch Partners

You should make your digital product launch a big event. It'll get your audience excited, get you motivated, and the hype will bring you both higher conversion rates and more new customers, I guarantee it.

The more you can do to involve other influencers, brands, and bloggers in your space, the better. Imagine your outreach if you can partner with someone who has a substantially larger audience than yours, and they're interested in the same topics.

If you can manage to partner with somebody else in your industry who can promote your product launches (typically for an affiliate commission fee per sale), it's a win-win situation for both of you.

8. Launch to Your Audience and Expand From There

Launching your digital product is only the beginning, all over again. This is a brand new starting point, which requires a totally new focus on your activities. From here, you can scale everything upwards.

You'll want to set up a sequence of emails to build anticipation with your existing audience. This is one of the primary reasons you invest the time in building an email list in the first place. Focus on scheduling at least three to six emails that function in three strategic phases:

  • Showing your audience the problem
  • Agitating the problem
  • Delivering them the solution (your digital product)

Once you've launched the digital product to your personal community, it's time to move outward and pick back up with your guest blogging (about topics related to your new product), onboard more affiliates with similar audiences, and continue blogging and creating more great content on your website with the goal of bringing in more organic traffic.

Now would also be the time to dabble with paid advertising on Facebook and Twitter, and even selling directly from your Facebook page, if you have a sizable social community, which will help increase your conversion rates.

Once your digital products are released into the wild, you'll start to see which channels are driving in more new customers for you. You could find that guest posting more often than publishing on your own site is a better utilization of time. Perhaps running Facebook ad campaigns turns out to be highly profitable.

Continue testing, learning, and multiplying your success until you're ready to start building your next digital product, based on the needs your new audience has.

Then, it's time to start the process all over again.

Published on: Dec 8, 2015