13 Aug 2018

Designers & Artists: How to sell art online through print on demand merchandise.

To quote the Brazilian artist Romero Britto, “Art is too important not to share.”

And there’s good news for you, as a designer, artist or illustrator. The digital age has brought about powerful, unprecedented opportunities to share your artwork – and monetise it.

Online tech has connected artists with art lovers from all over the world; there’s truly something for everyone.

And, at the same time, new, exciting business opportunities have emerged which offer new revenue streams in an industry that’s traditionally been considered as low-paid except for a successful minority.

No longer are you limited to selling your original artwork and prints – you can sell your artwork on all sorts of products, from t-shirts to coffee cups, towels to phone accessories.

And, with the print-on-demand merchandising model, you spend far less time worrying about the uninspiring topics of logistics, supply chains and order fulfilment. Your focus remains solely on creating great work, and promoting it to your audience.

Of course, there are challenges – as you’d expect from any business opportunity. Sourcing products; creating designs; building your existing following; building trust and growing sales. None of these are what you might call ‘easy.’ But, as artist Dayna Winter wrote in a great Shopify article:To succeed in art, you must also succeed in business.”

Fortunately you have two significant advantages; firstly, unlike many aspiring merchandisers who agonise over where and how to source amazing designs to add to their products and sell to their audience – you already have a body of work ready to go. Good creatives are one of the most important success factors in merchandising. You have this covered!

And, secondly, as an artist or designer, you may already have been building an audience at least partly receptive to your work and, consequently, your products.

Those two elements combine to create a huge opportunity.

But let’s get specific.

Let’s not just talk about the size of the opportunity – let’s show you exactly how it works, and help get you up and running, step-by-step!

Choosing a Store Platform

In order to sell anything online, you first need an online ‘shop window.’ A platform that provides the actual functionality by which customers browse, buy and pay for your products.

Choosing a platform through which to sell your artwork is a really important decision.

There are a lot of online marketplaces and eCommerce sites with large audiences through which you can sell your products. Of course, there are the ‘obvious’ options like eBay and Amazon. Similarly, creative marketplace Etsy offers an ‘Art & Collectibles’ section, which can potentially connect you with a range of art enthusiasts.

The problem is that you’ll need to stock inventory and fulfil orders yourself if you go down this route – as well as considering listing fees, transaction fees and all sorts of other potential overheads. It’s hard work, and, while there is some value in the large audiences and stellar reputations of these third party brands, they also require a lot of work that you could probably do without.

There are a range of print-on-demand marketplaces out there, too, if (like most people) you’d prefer to let someone else take care of the tedious stuff – product sourcing, printing and fulfilment. RedBubble and Society6 are just a couple of well-known options which do pretty impressive numbers.

It’s pretty easy to get up and running on these sites, but again – there are limitations. These sites are mega popular – which sounds great, but they’re so saturated with work that it can be difficult to actually get noticed. You’ll have a profile page with your products and you’ll be one amongst thousands and thousands of other such creators with their designs applied to same range of products.

The key problem here is a lack of control. There’s no custom URL for your store, you don’t have total control over the structure of your store or the branding, and – ultimately – your customers know they’re buying a print-on-demand product, and who they’re buying it from. It’s not the most personal experience.

Your art is unique and you need a unique online presence.

For us, the best solution is to set up your very own, custom-built storefront using an eCommerce provider like Shopify or BigCommerce. This sounds intimidating, but, again (in one of the common themes of all these options) it’s actually easier than you might think to set up a store and get started. These systems are super-intuitive and you can build a world class eCommerce site and customer experience without writing a line of code, using pre-built themes and WYSIWYG editing tools.

Having your own eCommerce store gives you unrivalled control over design, look and feel. You can also assign a custom URL to your store, which lends a valuable sense of credibility, authenticity and personality to your product offering. If you already have a website, then you could add your Shopify or BigCommerce store to a sub-domain on your website – which you can’t do if you’re using one of the big marketplaces.

With an eCommerce platform like Shopify or BigCommerce you’re not limited to stocking print-on-demand products from a single marketplace. You can also list other products from different providers and suppliers. This gives you the option to offer products you’re able to fulfil yourself, for example the original artwork, alongside multiple print-on-demand and/or drop shipping partners.

Again; choosing the right eCommerce platform is essential. Many offer free trials, so consider taking your chosen platform for a test drive first to get a feel for how it works and make sure it’s the right option for you. If you literally have no idea where to start, Capterra is a great tool that lets you compare different options side-by-side. You can compare features, price points, and a variety of other important factors to help you make the best possible decision.

Our personal recommendation – if you’re asking! – is to set up a store through either Shopify or BigCommerce. Not only are they the world’s most widely-used eCommerce store providers, they both come with a range of apps and plugins designed to create powerful customer experiences. With that in mind, we created a full guide specifically for artists and illustrators that walks you through the steps involved in setting up a Shopify store and adding the Kite app – we recommend checking it out here. The process would be very similar for BigCommerce.

Prepare Your Art

Art that sells….

Now, it’s time to bring together two of the most important things: the product, and your art!

There’s no silver bullet to success in custom merchandising, but perhaps the most important single consideration is a great design. Not just a great design – but a design that connects with your audience and, ultimately, convinces them to buy it.

Now, we’re not saying that commercial considerations trump artistic integrity! First and foremost, you should always look to create art that has personal meaning to you and for most artists simply applying the art you have already created to print on demand products is enough.

But one of the beautiful things about print-on-demand is that you can really be experimental when it comes to the designs you sell; you can create pieces specifically for your store, upload them to your product range, and simply see what sticks. If you don’t make any sales, you have the option to take that piece down and replace it with something else, with nothing lost. This is one of the biggest differences from traditional merchandising, in which you could easily be left with hundreds of items of unsold stock, at a considerable personal loss.

There are also lots of great online resources to help you keep on the pulse of what’s popular and current.

Dribbble, for example, is a design website, on which an invite-only community of designers submit their work to be rated and to inspire others.

Similarly, It’s Nice That, Creative Bloq and Behance are excellent magazine-style sites with articles, curated galleries and an assortment of other inspiration to inflame your senses and give you an idea of the sort of stuff that’s currently inspiring others.

Digitising your Artwork

If you’re a ‘traditional’ artist working on canvas or paper, your work needs to be digitised. This basically means taking the art from paper or canvas, onto your computer screen as a digital file – and doing it in a way that maintains the quality and integrity of the artwork.

If your artwork files aren’t perfect, they’re going to look distorted and poor-quality when they’re applied to your products. That can, obviously, undermine a lot of hard work and leave a poor taste in the mouth of your customer.

We’ve written at length about how to prepare the perfect print on demand image file (article opens in new window) – this helpful article contains loads of tips and tricks, and should definitely be your starting point if you need to digitise your artwork.

The Right Designs for the Right Products

It’s also important to get your design right for the product you’re planning to apply it to.

If you’re using designs you’ve already created, you can do this retrospectively. Just check out the product range of your chosen print-on-demand partner, and use this to work out which designs would look best on which products.

But there’s also an opportunity here to get creative, and create artwork specifically for products.

If you head to our Products page, for example, you can download the ‘template’ which is the exact proportion of the printable area on a particular product. You can then create artwork to suit these exact dimensions, and do something a little creative.

Again, the beautiful thing is that if certain products don’t sell, it doesn’t really matter. This gives you amazing flexibility to ‘try things out.’ You might think you have a great read on the products your audience might like to buy, but customers have a surprising propensity to surprise you. Try something outside the box for a while, and simply see how it goes; with print-on-demand, you have that opportunity.

Uploading Your Products

There are lots of different ways to get your designed products online, but the easiest way (in our biased opinion) is using the Kite plugin via the Shopify App Store or the BigCommerce App store.

You simply take your completed, digitised artwork file, and upload it into the Kite plugin as a new collection. You’ll automatically be shown mockups of your design on the whole product range, like the screenshot below.

You can enable or disable each individual product, and click into each of them to edit the design positioning, product descriptions, and pricing. You’ll be able to see the wholesale and shipping price you pay to us, and tailor your own price to make the amount of profit you’d like to from each sale. When you’re done, you can push these products directly to your online store in seconds.

Again, for more detailed setup information and a step-by-step walkthrough, we definitely recommend checking out this handy guide.

Build Your Following & Promote Your Products

Once your store is up and running, and your products are available to buy, the hard work really begins.

There’s no doubt that the real challenge for artists selling custom merchandise is to get your products in front of potential customers. This takes creativity, hard work and patience.

There are a number of different ways to promote your products:

On social media

Again, as we explained at the beginning of this article, your head start in all of this is that you may already have an audience. Wherever you gathered this audience – whether it’s on ‘traditional’ social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – or design/artist specific media communities like Dribbble and Behance – these are your ‘low hanging fruits’ that you should look to pick first.

Interestingly, in Ben the Illustrator’s 2017 survey of 1261 illustrators, Instagram was voted as far and away the best and most fruitful social media channel for designers.

We’ve written comprehensive guides to help you market print-on-demand products on Facebook and Instagram – they’re well worth a look, and include a wide range of tips and tricks to help grow exposure and sales.

Use your existing network

Your existing audience is one thing – but be sure to reach out to your existing network too. This includes friends, family and business contacts!

There’s a famous Shopify article in which the author, Richard Lazazzera, tells the story of how he built an ecommerce business from scratch and generated nearly $1000 revenue in 3 days. Some of the tips in this powerful article are ridiculously simple, and one of them involves simply reaching out to his friends on Facebook and letting them know he had a business they could support.

Offer promotions

Whichever eCommerce platform you opted to go with, chances are you’ll be able to offer promotions to ‘launch’ your business and give it a kick start. If you chose Shopify (BigCommerce has similar functionality), you can simply click the ‘Discounts’ option from your left sidebar, and then ‘Create Discount’.

By filling out a few short details, you can create discount codes that give you something to shout about when promoting your brand new product range. You can apply discounts and promotions to individual or all products.

Paid advertising

Organic reach (i.e. unpaid for inbound traffic to your website) is the holy grail, but it only goes so far. At some point, most serious custom merch entrepreneurs need to branch out into paid promotion to grow their audience and promote their products.

Paid search is a topic that is too complex to cover here, but the bottom line is that when you’re allocating money towards paid ad campaigns, it’s so important to be organised and vigilant. You need to keep tabs on your campaigns – analyse which ones are driving traffic, and particularly quality traffic that converts – and avoid knee-jerk reactions.

Start small, measure regularly, be patient – and do more of what works. See our guide on Facebook Marketing here.

Retargeting

Frustratingly, given how much time and effort it takes to generate traffic to your site – as much as 95% of that traffic won’t buy or convert at the first time of asking.

‘Retargeting’ means targeting your ads at people who’ve previously visited your site. And it’s proven to be super-effective…

  • People who are retargeted are 70% more likely to convert on your website than first-time visitors.
  • Retargeted customers are 3 times more likely to click your ad than someone who hasn’t interacted with your business before
  • The average ROI of retargeting ads is 200% or higher.

Thanks for reading!

Hopefully, this article gave you a flavour of the business opportunity presented to sell art online as print-on-demand merch.

As an established artist, you have the designs – and potentially the audience – to create a really rewarding business. By investing the time into setting up a print-on-demand custom merchandise offering, on an eCommerce platform that you can control, you can create an additional solid and reliable revenue stream to augment your current sales.

Good luck!

If you're interested in generating additional revenue by applying your art and designs to custom merchandise then check out our plugin.

Shopify Merch Plugin