Sell digital downloads – pros and cons of different methods

Sell Digital DownloadsThis article is about some of the decisions that you have to make about selling digital downloads on line. Digital content can be a great way to expand your web site presence, add to your existing physical shop or sell download content that you have created. There are many solutions to choose from and this article will explain issues that you will need to consider.

What is the Basic process of selling a digital product?

Digital products can be mp3 and mp4 files, templates for applications like WordPress, software applications, graphics, icons, and so on. Each of these will have particular requirements for you but the basic process of selling a digital product is essentially the same:

  1. Upload the files that you are going to sell to a web site.
  2. Create a buy now button or add to cart button and place on your web site page.
  3. When the customer clicks on the purchase button, it takes them to the payment processor such as PayPal.
  4. The customer makes the purchase and you receive confirmation of the purchase by email.
  5. You send the product to the customer either automatically using a mechanism associated with the payment processor or you may have some other method like sending the product manually by email at some later time.

What are the ways to sell digital products?

Essentially, there are two ways to sell your products:

  1. From your own web site using some sort of ecommerce application on your site.
  2. Form a third party web site that provides all the functionality for you.

Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of these.

Selling from your own web site:

First, you need to think about a shopping application that you can use to sell your products. This could be a product like PHP-eSeller, which is a PHP / MySQL application, or you could go for something like a WordPress installation and install an eCommerce plugin.

Selling from your own web site means that you will have complete control over the look and feel of the site. It also means you have control over the security of your digital products, that is you are not uploading them to someone else’s web site.

You will need a web site with a domain name, which involves understanding web site development and there will be some cost for the hosting plan of course.

If you are technically able, you can create your own web site but you could hire someone to do that. You could also consider a pre-built system like installing WordPress, which could make it easier for you to design your site.

If you are going to build your own site, try to ensure it is fully responsive, so that it works on different devices, desktop computers, tablets and phones.

You will have to set up the shopping application yourself unless you hire someone else to do it. Setting it up yourself may not be a significant issue, as modern applications should install easily.

Selling from a third party site

You will have to find a suitable company that provides a service to sell your digital products. There are many of these but they will charge a subscription so there will be an extra cost and this could be a problem if you only sell a small number a month. Subscriptions vary but usually they are on a per month basis and sometimes depend on the number of digital products or the file size.

You will be sheltered from many technicalities and it should be possible to set up and begin selling quite quickly.
You could have a wide range of payment processors to choose from which may be an advantage.

If you have problems with the system, there will be some kind of help desk available.

Security of your digital content

The security of your digital files is very important, so there should be a way of making sure that any digital files you upload cannot be download unless they were purchased.

If you are selling from your own web site, there are a number of ways of securing your files, which will be described with the shopping cart application that you are using. This often means the use of an htaccess file.

If you are using a third party web site, they should have a built in system that provides the required security. Make sure that you check with the company to ensure that your files are safe.

The type of processing that you need should include:

  1. The download link is unique to each customer.
  2. Downloading via the supplied link is limited in number of attempts and time.
  3. The files that are being sold can only be accessed with the download link – that is, it is not possible to download using a normal URL
  4. The processing with the payment system (PayPal for example) must make the download link available only after the customer has paid.

Music Download sites

Audio Files to sell Digital ContentsYou may be selling digital files that are specifically for music, in which case you may want to look for a system that allows you to upload audio preview files as well as the audio files for sale.
PHP-eSeller has a number of shopping displays intended specifically for music files.

Buy Now or Cart Functions

Buy now buttons are where the customer clicks the button and is immediately taken to the payment page. There is no opportunity to continue shopping or add more products to the shopping basket.

This may be good enough if you only have a few items to sell. If you are selling many items then a shopping cart system is needed, as it will allow the customer to add many products into their basket.

Shopping Cart systems use add to cart and view cart buttons.

Do you need a full-blown system

Sometimes having a super eCommerce web site is just not needed and you may be happy with a system where someone makes a purchase using PayPal for instance, and then you send the product on by email. In that case, you could create your own web site and add a few PayPal buttons.

If you want something more integrated where the product is delivered as soon as the money is in your account, then you need something more sophisticated.

For this you need a system like PayPal IPN where a special code is sent from PayPal as soon as a purchase is made. It is this code that triggers a process to send the purchased item to the customer.

Consider the Checkout process

What payment processor should you use? There are many payment processors around now, but some of them are quite obscure and new. It might be good to go for a lesser-known payment processor that may have lower fees, but if you were a purchaser, would you want to trust your payment through a company you have never heard of?
Digital products allow you to sell all over the world, as there is no shipping of goods, so you need to ensure that customers from different countries can pay you. So make sure you choose a payment processor that is known and available in different countries.

When you look at a shopping application, you will need to decide what kind of processing you want. Some shopping systems ask the customer to sign up before they make a payment that can slow down the purchasing process. Other systems aim for a simpler one-step process where the customer is not asked unnecessary questions. This can be particularly important where the customer is buying only one item.

Does the payment processor have a secure system for communicating with the application? When a customer makes a purchase, it normally sends a set of data to the shopping system. It is important to make sure that this data uses a secure method.

What sort of additional facilities do you need?

Other features that you need to check on are:

  1. Customise templates. Are you able to change the layouts of pages, or buttons?
  2. Customise emails. Can you easily modify the email text and layout to suit your requirements?
  3. Different payment providers. Does the system allow the use of different payment systems?

Do you need someone to do your marketing for you?

At some point, you will need to consider marketing your digital goods. If you are developing your own web site then that is going to be entirely your responsibility. You can of course hire someone to help.

Do I need a system to sell physical goods at the same time as digital goods?

One of the reasons to sell digital goods is there they have no shipping costs. You can sell the same product repeatedly and there is no stock to maintain. However, you may want to sell physical items as well. If you do then you need a shopping system that is able to handle international shipping costs. As you can imagine, this can be a very complicated issue and needs quite a lot of setting up – that is why many people only sell digital items.

Systems that are able to handle international shipping usually have a way to set shipping costs per destination. So you may have a shipping cost for your own country, then a cost for Europe, and so on. The application PHP-eSeller has this feature built in.

And finally …

I have tried to explain some of the points that you should consider for a digital download system. Look around the internet and investigate applications that you install onto your web site as well as those organisations that provide a complete service.

Go to PHP-eSeller

Use PHP-eSeller to sell your downloads online and sell physical items as well.

Update to PayPal IPN

In Sept 2016 PayPal are changing their requirement for posting IPN messages back to PayPal for verification.

They are making the post url as https. My current versions of scripts already post to https so there should not be any change required, however, they also suggest that should be used in the future rather than



PayPal upgrade to Certificate which may affect IPN based programs and scripts

There appears to be quite a bit of chat about the changes that PayPal are making to their system to allow SHA-256 during September 2015. This is to do with improving the SSL (Secure Socket Layer) security and is used over https systems.

A part of their message is:

“PayPal is upgrading the certificate for to SHA-256. This endpoint is also used by merchants using the Instant Payment Notification (IPN) product.”

PayPal IPN can be used over non SSL, that is using http – that is why many developers like it because it does not need SSL certificates on their web servers which can be expensive especially if you are a small trader. You don’t really want to have to purchase certificates if you are selling a small number of items.

So the kind of systems that are affected are those that use https and which use PayPal API to provide secure connections from your server to the PayPal server.

IPN over plain http will be supported as it currently is, so you will still be able to supply a plain http link to your IPN listener script. However if your IPN listener script is sSL/TLS enabled it will have to be SHA-256 complaint and your listening server will need to be able to accept SHA-256 certificates.

So do the changes affect the scripts on that use IPN? Well the answer to that is NO, it does not affect the scripts at all.

PHP-eSeller, PHP-SecureArea and PHP-KeyCodes use a simple method of handshake between PayPal to verify that the transaction has taken place and hence no modifications are need to the applications.

Setting up a digtial download store

We have already written a short pdf document at which provides some hints, tips and tricks for selling digital downloads.

Here are a few other issues that you may want to consider when setting up a digital online shopping system

Make sure your system is secure

It probably goes without saying that the shopping system has to be secure but in addition it needs to have a good method to protect the files you are going to download.

Select a good payment system

You should choose a payment system that has the facilies to feedback the results back you your web site.  Most payments systems will have some kind of notification method and some are more reliable than others.  There will be quite a bit of integration needed between your shopping system and the payment system which may restrict your choice.

Set up your own system on your web site or use a 3rd party web site

There are now a number of 3rd party web sites that you can subscribe to and they will handle all the selling of your digital product,  Many of these charge a fee which may be monthly or based on file size or some other factor.  You will need to judge whether your sells will be sufficient to cover the costs of the fees.

Select a good web hosting company

You need a web server that has all the facilites that you need, for example mySQL database, PHP support.  It also has to be reliable so that you know your site is running every day of the year.  It also helps if the web hosting company has good technical support.

Signing up for PayPal Express Checkout

To work with PayPal digital goods you need to use PayPal Express Checkout system and then get the API credentials from the PayPal site.

Use the following link to sign up with PayPal :

Express Checkout sign up

You select the Express Checkout option and then either create a new account or convert your existing account into a Business account.

I have had some problems in converting an existing account to a Business account that will work with express checkout and I have found that the best way is to create a new PayPal account from scratch using the above link.

This sets up your account to work with Express Checkout.

Now you can get your signature details as follows :

Log into you PayPal account.

Click on the ‘Profile‘ tab.

Click on ‘My Selling Preferences‘ on the left hand side of the page.

For API Access, click on the ‘Update‘ link.

This takes you to the ‘API Access‘ page.

Click on ‘Request API credentials’ link and this takes you to the ‘Request API Credentials‘.

You need to select the ‘Request API signature’ so that you can obtain the three components of :

API Username
API password
API signature

Make sure that the Request API signature radio button is selected.

Then click on ‘Agree and Submit‘ button.

Copy all the details and store in a secure place on your PC.

PayPal Mini Cart does not display

It is quite easy to implement PayPal Mini Cart on to your web site but there is a simple error that can stop the cart from displaying on your web page.

When you create you web page, make sure that the web page has proper validation at the top of the page such as

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC “-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN” “”>
<html xmlns=””>

Secondly, the Javascript code should be poistioned at the bottom of the web page just above the </body> tag.