A question we get fairly frequently is about Squarespace commerce and the feasibility of selling digital products. Digital downloads can include all sorts of things, from PDF workbooks from consultants, MP3s from bands, ebooks, videos, craft patterns, even photography. While Squarespace does offer this capability, there are a few critical things that anyone considering such an endeavor should understand before committing to the Squarespace Commerce system as their product delivery tool.
Squarespace Digital Downloads: What’s Possible & What Isn’t
Digital Product Variants Aren’t Possible in Squarespace
While it’s easy-peasy to set up product variants (for example: size or color) for physical products and services, it’s not doable with digital downloads—the system simply does not allow it and there’s not a way to “hack” the system to make it perform in a different manner than Squarespace allows. So, if you’re a photographer wanting to sell stock imagery, for example, you’d need to create a different individual product for each size of download you’re selling. This can be annoying, as you can imagine.
There’s No On-Page Delivery of Your Digital Product
This may or may not be a big deal, depending on your audience or product. But, what happens when someone purchases a digital product from you in Squarespace commerce is that they receive an email with a download link. In some commerce systems, the item is instantly downloaded to the buyer’s computer. This can be a bit confusing for some people, depending on how used to purchasing digital items they are. In some industries, folks are very accustomed to instant availability (music is a biggie), so that’s something you’ll need to make a decision about for your individual case and do some competitor research about what the norm is in your field.
Downloads Expire in 24 Hours—Be Prepared to Support Your Customers
The only security in Squarespace’s commerce downloads is that the link your customers are delivered expires in 24 hours. What does that mean? The reality is that your customers won’t all download their product immediately, so it’s likely you’ll have to do some support to make sure their item is delivered. To make your life easier, I’d recommend setting up a canned email (which is super easy in GSuite with the canned responses feature in labs) so you can just insert a canned email once you’ve verified the purchase in your Commerce dashboard. And, you can resend and refresh the digital download through the dashboard in Squarespace as well.
Digital Download Files Aren’t Associated with Customer Accounts
While Squarespace introduced customer accounts last year, downloads are not available in the account management system. Buyers can just see their purchase record and that’s it. Bummer, I know.
DRM is not Possible with Squarespace Digital Downloads
Don’t know what DRM is? That’s okay! It may not be relevant to you. DRM, or digital rights management, is a way to encode digital files with a fingerprint. There are varying levels of DRM, ranging from very lightweight to complex DRM with the purchaser’s data embedded in the files (book publishers frequently use this method when sending review copies of ebooks to reviewers). It’s why the iTunes music you bought won’t play unless you log into your iTunes account. The DRM debate is a complex one, and I can see the merits of both sides of the discussion, but if DRM is part of your digital downloads’ distribution plan, you’ll need to look elsewhere for a solution. More on that in a second.
You Cannot Generate License Keys In Squarespace Commerce
Believe it or not, I’ve received this question. The short story is, if you’re selling software, you should not be doing so on Squarespace for a number of reasons, one of which being that you cannot create unique license keys. But really, you shouldn’t even be getting to that point—it’s not the right tool for the job.
You can set the pricing of the download to zero and give away a download
Arguably, this is not the more effective way to give away a download in a list building effort—I would always recommend using your email marketing service (ConvertKit in particular makes this automations crazy easy)—but I’ve known people to do this who don’t want to pay for an email marketing system. What the system does is require address information but not payment information for these items. Then, customers check out like normal and are emailed your freebie. Again, not my first choice, but it does work and there have been some specific instances where I’ve had people make good arguments for this setup, particularly when they have shops already and the freebies are a bonus and not a lead generator.
You can’t have per-product email triggers in Squarespace Commerce—including with digital downloads
This can be a dealbreaker for some people. Oftentimes, you’ll need to include specific instructions with your download. Certainly, you can do that with the file if it’s a PDF, but otherwise, it can be challenging. Perhaps some of your products require a specific application to open or you have specific instructions for how you can use some items but not others? You cannot customize that experience. This can be doubly annoying given Squarespace’s relatively rudimentary integration with MailChimp, and only MailChimp, for ecommerce. Again, for many people, this may very well be a non-issue, but if it’s an important detail for you, something else may work better and it’s best to know that before you invest too much time into trying to make the system work for your needs when there are plenty of alternatives out there.
What are the alternatives to Squarespace digital downloads?
PDF stamping tool Send Owl which is less DRM and more personalization to passively prevent file sharing. Send Owl also allows you to generate license keys, which is great if you’re selling software. Shopify has a number of apps you can add to your Shopify site to customize your downloads, so that’s another option. And, if you love all the other elements of Squarespace, you can embed or link out to all these services on a sub-domain.
If your longterm plans are for a variety of formats for your “downloads” (say an ebook with an accompanying video on how to use it), Podia would likely be an ideal choice, given that it allows for downloads, courses and memberships at an appealing price point.
Update 06/06/2020: IMPORTANT – We no longer recommend Gumroad, as they have actively worked to silence their critics.
Update 06/05/2020: SamCart is a very interesting option if you’re planning on creating many digital products. I’ll write more in a future post, but I do think it’s a great solution for someone exclusively selling digital products. The instant delivery, flexibility to expire content, and ease of use make it very appealing. Anyone looking at focusing on digital products would be wise to give them a look.
Update: 5/14/2019 – MoonClerk now offers subscription digital downloads with their service, which could be appealing if you’re already using that service.
Who are Squarespace digital downloads good for?
Now, I realize that I sometimes get a rep for being a crankypants regarding Squarespace and sometimes it’s perceived as my being the Squarespace Specialist who dislikes the platform, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I truly believe that website owners need to use the proper platform for the job. Like I often say, make a list of your “have to haves” and “nice to haves” and find the delivery system that will best meet those needs within your budget and technical capabilities.
I think that the digital downloads system could be amazing for a digital workbook for an indie musician who wants to test the waters of distribution, or someone who’s just selling one or two items but it’s not their main business. It’s easy as pie to set up, and if it does well, you can shift to something more robust.
What I hate seeing, however, are clients who’ve invested heavily in the Squarespace (or other) platform and discover deep into their process that the system won’t work for them. That just sucks and I always feel like a jerk when I deliver that news. (Shameless self-promotion: A website strategy session with me is a great way to prevent this problem, even if you’re DIYing your website.)
Have questions about digital downloads or Squarespace commerce in general? Drop a note in the comments and I’ll do my best to reply or address it in a future blog post!