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.
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 which 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.
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?
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.