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4 steps to launch your digital download from scratch (+ Free checklist)

Launching your digital download shouldn't be a headache. Grab this step-by-step guide and checklist to make the process simple, effective, and lucrative.

Launching a digital download feels a lot like preparing a rocket for liftoff.

The math is formidable. The checklists are doubly so. As more calendar days evaporate off your calendar, the stress piles on.

Fortunately, you’re not likely to crash land into an asteroid if your launch goes sideways, though it might feel like that in the earliest stages.

(And hey, at least when you’re selling digital downloads , you don’t have to worry about a misplaced hyphen costing $80 million. That happened to NASA in 1962 .)

But that’s not to make light of the challenges you do face, because there are many. From ideation to implementation, the path between product development and your first sale can be equal parts winding as it is daunting.

Which is where this article comes in.

(Don’t have time to read through it? No problem. You can grab a free checklist with the same steps over this-a-way .)

To help you get off the ground and go for the moon -- or whatever your celestial body of choice is -- we’ve come up with a step-by-step guide for launching your digital downloads. Note that while many of these strategies will work with other product types, such as memberships and online courses, this guide was written with the digital download in mind. The formulas for launching online courses and memberships vary slightly.

Now, with that out of the way, you have to make a choice before we can start our journey.

Do you want a fast or free product launch?

It can’t be both.

How to launch a digital download: Fast vs. Free

I’ll make no bones about it.

If you want rapid turnarounds and profits that soar in the blink of an eye, you’re going to need a budget for buying ads, whether they’re on search engines ( best, but more expensive ) or social networks (good, still expensive).

Paid ads are the driving force behind success stories with slopes that rise faster than overboiled pasta.  

For instance, buying search engine ads helped TopRank Marketing , a digital marketing consultancy firm, draw in 18 leads over four weeks for a client.

Check this out:

And while 18 leads may not seem like much to write home about, each had an average revenue value between $5,000 to $20,000.

Even on the low end of that average, they were looking at $90,000 in revenue within roughly the same time frame it takes to clear the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The rewards were great, but so were the risks.

Risks that aren’t mitigated with time. Because while that ROI is definitely impressive, paid advertising isn’t a sustainable strategy in the long haul if you don’t plan to keep funneling cash into it.

That’s the difference between free and fast advertising.

Paid advertising is like rocket fuel -- it gets your engines to burn and gets you off the ground -- while organic growth is more like gravity, dictating what happens once your fuel reserves are burned through.

You can always keep buying more rocket fuel, but if you’re reliant on it to keep revenue flowing in, you’re just as likely to fall from orbit when the market downswings or your budget shrinks.

Why? Because organic results, far more than paid results, earn the lion’s share of clicks on the search engine results page (SERP).

So, add in the fact that studies indicate the relationship between a webpage’s age and a webpage’s ranking on the SERP are dependent on each other -- just look at the graph below -- and it’s not hyperbolic to say that you have to choose between fast and free.

It also makes the verdict between them pretty simple.

If you have a budget and want rapid audience growth, paid advertising is a viable channel for you, just be prepared for the upkeep. (Mojca Mars' actionable tips on how to use Facebook ads to sell online courses should help with that upkeep, at least.)

If you don’t want to or can’t lay down the funds for it and prefer sustainable growth, free is the better alternative for launching your digital downloads.

For the sake of this guide, we’ll assume that you’ve chosen the second option -- free -- and proceed from there. If you’re interested in paid advertising, I recommend this excellent and comprehensive guide from ConvertKit .

Otherwise, let’s get started with the most important and intensive step first: finding your target audience.

Step 1: Identify your target audience

If I had to describe the easiest way to hone in on your audience in a word, I’d do it with a keyword.

Wordplay aside, keyword research isn’t just a necessary step for your SEO -- it’s also a powerful lens into what your future customers are looking for in the market.

(If you’re on the prowl for a step-by-step guide on how to do keyword research, our previous article on using blogging and SEO has a great step-by-step process. You might also consider our more recent piece on conducting customer research .)

I like to start my keyword research -- particularly if I’m using it to understand my audience -- off in Google proper.

Here’s how.

First (obviously), make your way to Google .

Now, think about the types of terms that you would use to search for the type of product you want to create. Don’t worry about generating a lot of ideas at this stage: just run the search with the first term that comes to mind.

It’s the accordion-style box under “People also ask” (PAA) I want you to narrow in on. For my keyword term, there are four initial PAA questions about the “what” and “how” behind audience building. There may be less or more depending on your term.

In either case, copy and paste the questions that are most related to your potential product. If I were creating an ebook on how to build an audience for bloggers, all but the third question would be relevant to me.

I recommend keeping track of them with a Google Sheet , but any spreadsheet tracking program should do.

Then, click your first one.

Did you notice that more questions populated when you did?

That’s what’s so cool about this search feature. It responds to search patterns in real-time , so when you open up a new question, it generates relevant questions based on your behavior.

And, most importantly, because each question is tailored to the person searching for it, you can use those questions to discover insights about your audience, guide content creation for them, and brainstorm product ideas.

In this case, the top-level audience insights I can gleam from the initial four questions are:

  • They want to know how to find their own audience.

  • They’re bloggers.

  • They’re active on social media (or want to be).

Why does this strategy work so well for identifying your target audience?

In short, it works because it’s fueled by machine learning.

After all, the beast responsible for generating these questions isn’t a behind-the-scenes golem furiously typing away. It’s Rankbrain , Google’s wickedly smart AI that identifies user-satisfying content better than the engineers that designed it.

Ideally, you’ll want to gather at least ten questions that relate back to your product, then explore them more in depth by searching for them directly and looking through the first few entries on the SERP.

I generally try to limit my searches within the last two years of content, but my industry is more prone to rapid changes than others, so use your best judgment on what, if any, filters to use.

If you’re creating a recipe book, for instance, your audience isn’t as likely to change as someone in content marketing.

As an example, here are the results from the first question I followed:

Based on the content and top-performing pages in this SERP, I’m able to learn that my potential audience might include other entrepreneurs and small businesses, content strategists, and marketers.

Combining this information with the questions you recorded earlier should be enough to give you a rough picture of your future customers.

Now all you need to do is to refine that picture.

Step 2: Bring all of your audience research together

Once you’ve gathered enough questions and data about your audience from the SERP, the last step is to put it all together by creating personas. If you’ve never heard of a persona before, it’s like a quick character reference in visual form.

Here’s a good example from the Interaction Design Foundation :

Personas are also the reason that I had you write down the questions. Aim to create at least three personas with unique questions based on your Google search.

As for putting personas together, there’s a quick and free walkthrough of how to do it in our article about our favorite online course marketing strategies (first tip).

But, a caveat: you don’t need to create personas.

You could skip them entirely and rely on your data, but having the reference in a digestible format makes it easier to proceed to the next step of our launch strategy, and it ensures that your finger never leaves the pulse of your audience.

Something that, although optional for a product launch, is critical for creating loyalty in customers.

After all, over half of customers in both the US and UK say their loyalty goes to businesses that demonstrate a deep, nuanced understanding of their needs and preferences.

And, moreover, creating that connection -- something that’s far easier when you’ve got research-backed personas at hand -- sparks interest in 71% of customers .

Since this is a launch strategy, interest is at the top of your most-wanted list, right?

Bottom line:

Use keyword research to find the questions your customers are asking.

Dig deep into the content that’s already answering those questions to learn more about them.

Then, create personas to give your research context and proceed to the next step by fostering a digital place for them to gather.

In other words --

Step 3: Create a community of like-minded people (or join one) on social media

By now, you should have an idea of who your customers are and what questions they ask on the way to finding products like yours.

It’s time to answer those questions in your own words.

The easiest way to do that is by creating communities. Social media networks make this easy to manage, and Facebook groups have demonstrated tremendous returns for those who use them to build their business.

How many returns?

One entrepreneur was able to gather over 1,000 brand new email addresses by creating a group on Facebook in just three weeks .

Before we talk about why to use Facebook, though, let’s look at the nitty-gritty of communities.

Beyond helping you build an email list , what purpose do they serve your bottom line?

For most businesses, it comes down to two things : communities provide customer support and increase acquisition (aka, getting more customers).

But that’s not all.

Communities are also one of the leading strategies for improving customer retention and boosting overall loyalty. When customers can interact with one another, your business becomes more than just a product -- it becomes a part of their social identity.

And humans are far less likely to change products when it requires them to abandon a piece of their social identity.

Call it a herd instinct.

As for why to use Facebook, the answer is simple:

Because everyone else already does.

(Another herd instinct, maybe.)

Three out of four people in the US log into Facebook daily, which means creating a Facebook-based community gives you the opportunity to interact with them on their home turf.

Convinced but don’t know where to get started?

Let me walk you through it.

Start by heading to the “groups” page . Here’s what mine looks like.

Click on the green “+Create Group” button in the top right corner.

This will launch a pop-up modal that asks for a name, some people to add, and the privacy settings. Since we’re doing this to create a community, it’s probably best to make it a public group.

Regarding who to invite, it depends on where you are with your business. If you’ve already got a few customers under your belt, consider sending them a quick email to ask if they’d be interested in joining your group.

If you don’t, reach out to your friends and family and ask them to help spread the word about your group to anyone they know who’d be interested in your products.

Then, use the question lists and personas you generated in the last steps to create engaging content for them.

(For more guidance on this process, check out our earlier article about expert tips for membership sites . A group is, in effect, a free membership website run from a social network, so these tips are highly applicable to your goals.)

Facebook not your speed? No worries. Many brands have had likewise amazing gains on Instagram.

Which shouldn’t come as a surprise when you consider that 80% of users on Instagram follow at least one branded account and users are engaged up to 10x more than those on Facebook.

So the business case for Instagram is definitely strong, though creating a community on this platform is trickier than using Facebook. Instead of having a native group feature, you’ll need to rely on hashtags to find and bring people into the fold.

The good news is that finding hashtags is as easy as running a Google search with free tools like RiteTag and HashAtIt .

And the best news, of course, is that it’s been done before.

Jake Starr, a firefighter with a penchant for sewing, used Instagram hashtags to find his audience and create a de facto community around his products.

Although he wasn’t able to rely on pre-built features, he instead piggybacked off of a much larger group -- users who tracked the “#everydaycarry” hashtag -- to find his tribe.

The result was -- or rather, is --  a six-figure business.

Now, with your community growing (or at the very least started), you’re ready to hit the pavement with promotion and pre-launching.

Step 4: Promote and pre-launch with a giveaway

Remember how we said that communities are great for customer acquisition?

They’re also great for pre-selling your products, even if you haven’t finished them yet, by acting as a springboard for promoting giveaways.

And giveaways -- contests that are run in which one or more people receive a prize for participating -- are wildly effective means to promote new businesses and build email lists.

On Facebook, they typically take the “comment to win” variety as you see below .

We’re going to take a slightly different path with our giveaway, but before we walk through that, a quick note about giveaways.

The only golden rule about using giveaways is that they need to be highly targeted to your audience.

Otherwise, if it’s a prize everyone wants, then it’s a prize everyone will sign up for, and while your email list will indeed grow, few of your leads will be qualified.

I.e., you’ll have a list of people who signed up because they wanted a trip to Hawaii, not because they’re interested in the type of digital download you want to launch.

Great if you think list size is the goal. Less so if selling is the desired outcome.

So, how do you setup a giveaway?

First, decide what you want to offer in your giveaway.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a product: if you’re a skilled tradesman or coach, you could provide your services as the grand prize, and then offer discounts for everyone who signs up for the contest when your digital download launches.

As an example, this might be the kind of giveaway I’d offer:

As long as the digital download I want to launch is related to blogging or professional writing, my services would make a great grand prize for the audience I want.

(It’d be less ideal if my product were about affiliate marketing, however, because it’s not quite close enough to the target audience I have for my products.)

Next, decide how long your giveaway will run. Take caution not to rush it too much: even successful giveaways need time to build momentum. That’s what Shane Boland learned after running a giveaway campaign for Everything Home Grown .

“Allow the giveaway to run for more than a week,” he explains of his experience, “More time would’ve given the giveaway time to build momentum and hype.”

After that, create a landing page for your giveaway. Ideally, you’ll want to capture email addresses during the giveaway, so we recommend creating a pre-launch page at this stage for your product.

It’s as easy as changing from "draft” to “pre-launch” if you’re using Podia to launch your digital download.

(If you don’t have an account yet, get started with no obligation today .)

For example, here’s how my pre-launch giveaway page might look:

Once your page is ready, promote it to your community and ask them to share. If you really want to take it to the next level, offer members who share your post some kind of incentive like extra entries in the contest.

This is a particularly smart move if your audience trends towards the millennial generation. 44% of millennials are willing to promote products on social media in exchange for rewards.

Finally, pick the winner(s), close the contest, and get ready for the last step.

Step 5: Launch your digital download

There’s no harm in putting this off.

The long game definitely pays well.

We’ll never tell you to rush for the sake of rushing.

But spinning your wheels isn’t ideal, either. Your pre-launch and product don’t have to be perfect to sell. ( Neither do you, by the way .) Your product marketing should be in motion, but it doesn't need to be a full-steam ahead funnel at this point.

Once your email list is at a comfortable size -- let’s say 100, but it can be much smaller, the quality of the list matters more than the quantity within it -- there’s only one thing left to do.

Commence countdown, turn the engines on, check ignition , and go live with your launch.

I’d tell you “good luck,” but you don’t need it. You got this.

From product pre-launch to liftoff

If you missed it in the intro, you can grab a free checklist over here for these steps.

Otherwise, launching your digital download doesn’t have to take a ton of money. You don’t even need a background in sales for it.

But you do need perseverance.

A little knowledge never hurts, either:

  • You can have a fast launch or a free launch. You can’t have both. Paid advertising is great for a quick boost, but it’s not sustainable over the long term if you don’t plan to keep spending.

  • Organic growth, on the other hand, is free and sustainable. The tradeoff is that it takes time and effort to build.

  • That doesn’t mean it’s complicated, though. Start with identifying your target audience. Keyword research is one of the best ways to do this.

  • Tie together all of your research into personas. This will help you keep your customer close to heart as you’re developing your products and promotional strategies.

  • Better yet, bring your potential customers together by creating a community that caters to them. Facebook groups are easy to set up, but if that’s not your speed, Instagram also works.

  • Give your pre-launch some gusto by pairing it with a giveaway. Giveaways don’t have to be expensive -- they just need to be targeted to the same audience that will buy your product.

  • Then, after you’ve amassed enough emails from your promotion and community, set your digital download loose in the world.

At the beginning of this, I said launching a digital download is like preparing to send a rocket into outer space.

But by the end of this list, you’ll be well-past launch.

You’ll be in the homestretch.

And it’s going to be a sight to see.


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About the author

Lauren Cochran is the former Director of Content for Podia. She still drops in to say hello and share cat pictures from time to time.