Print on Demand is a growing side income source for many online entrepreneurs. With the emergence of Print on Demand (POD) vendors like Teespring, Redbubble, and Merch by Amazon, it’s easier than ever to create an online clothing brand without investing upfront capital.
For those new to Print on Demand:
Print on Demand is an online business model where you create designs to be printed on products and a POD vendor prints and ships the printed product whenever it is ordered from your store.
Many people use Print on Demand as just a side hustle. After you have your store set up with products, you can then make money from it while having it be completely passive.
If you’re looking for very small earnings from time to time, then the “set it up and leave it” approach might be for you. But if you’re looking to grow a brand and a customer base, you’re going to have to do some regular marketing for it.
I’ve spent the last few months as a POD store owner building my online brand Clean Cadence. I use Instagram as the primary marketing channel for it. Here are five valuable lessons I’ve learned during the process.
Lesson 1: You need people in your Instagram photos
When you set up your designs with a POD vendor, they’ll digitally mock up your design on the blank product (t-shirt, sweatshirt, hat, bag, etc.) and use it as an image on that product’s page in your store.
These mockup images will usually be a lifeless photo of your product on a plain white background. Not really an enticing image, right? On a platform like Instagram, having exciting or provocative photos is one of the keys to your success.
There’s a reason why fashion magazines or clothing catalogs use photos of humans wearing their clothes–people need to see the product being used in a realistic lifestyle context. They’re less likely to buy a piece of apparel in a sterile, non-human environment.
I learned in the very early stages that my Instagram posts were getting very low traction when I would just use a boring product photo from my POD store. But once I started using photos with people in them, it made my brand look more legitimate.
Showcase your products in photos with people related to your target audience. I know my target audience for Clean Cadence is marching percussionists ages 18–24, so I post photos of young people on Instagram doing active things, playing drums, getting ready for practice.
How do I get photos like these? You might need to order some samples of your own products shipped to you and stage a photo shoot with a friend. Or a faster method would be to use an apparel mockup generator site like Placeit.net. There you can choose from a large library of photos and use their mockup software to place your designs right on the blank apparel. You can make some pretty realistic photos with it.
The next step past having photos of humans wearing your products is to have other humans showcase and recommend your products.
Lesson 2: Getting Social Proof and Influencers is key
Like I mentioned earlier, you’re not going to have many people engaging with your Instagram posts if there is just an empty t-shirt in the photo. What’s more effective than having models wearing your apparel? Real customers and Instagram users advocating your apparel.
You’re more likely to buy a t-shirt if you see your friend or someone you admire wearing it, right? Get real people on Instagram to wear your products and make posts of them. This is called social proof — real evidence that your product is something that people appreciate. Think of it as “digital word-of-mouth”.
But how do you get people to wear your clothes? And how do you even get that social proof evidence that they appreciate it on Instagram?
You have to reach out to people.
The way I got social proof was by researching Instagram accounts in my niche that had a somewhat large number of followers — meaning they were pretty influential with their audience. Since I am starting as a relatively small and unknown brand, I picked Instagram accounts with 3,000–10,000 followers. With those kinds of numbers, it must mean that they have followers who aren’t just their friends and family. They have to be producing some routine and engaging content on Instagram in order for that many people to follow them.
I also made sure to pick accounts that were actual people, not other organizations or brands. I needed a real person posting content that they themselves are in.
So what did I do with these influencer accounts I found? I sent them free products.
After these influencers got their free products, they would post a photo on their own accounts wearing it as a thank you and tag me. Then I would repost on my own account to showcase to my own audience that someone was willing to wear my brand’s clothing.
Another way to get active and engaging Instagram accounts to wear your clothing is to have a giveaway contest on your account. Simply make a post asking your followers to enter the contest by commenting and tagging a friend on the post. Then pick a winner who has a pretty active profile and send them a free product. They’ll most likely post a photo of themselves wearing the product that you can use on your own feed or stories just like with an influencer.
Don’t be afraid of taking the chance to reach out to even bigger celebrity accounts in your niche on Instagram. Just don’t be too pestering or you’ll turn them off right away.
Even after spending money on paid advertising through Facebook, Instagram, and Google, I found that showcasing social proof to potential customers was a lot more effective. When you don’t have a big customer list to do retargeting ads or create lookalike audiences, the key is to do some guerilla marketing and get real people wearing your products.
Lesson 3: Use polls in Instagram Stories for free market research
Don’t know how to move forward with your store? I hit a conundrum when I got a few months in:
Spend more time creating more designs?
Put my current designs on a wider variety of products?
So I just asked my Instagram audience. It was a good thing that this was a binary question because I could just ask them on Instagram Stories.
I made a Story for my whole audience with a poll asking: Would you rather have more designs or more variety of products?
The response I got was super useful. Even though it was pretty much a 50/50 split, it allowed me to follow up with responders.
A great thing about polls in Instagram Stories is you can see exactly which of your followers voted for a specific option. Instagram has also conveniently designed this feature to have the direct message icon accessible right there in the list of responders for fast messaging.
So that’s what I did.
For those who wanted more products, I gave them a list of products I could utilize with my POD vendor and asked them to choose which ones they’d be interested in. Then I tallied all the feedback and was able to get a concise list of the top 3 to 4 new products to focus on.
For those who wanted more designs, I asked which of my current designs they liked and wanted to see more that were similar. I tallied those responses, and like the product responses, I then had a nice list of products my followers were interested in.
Another example of how I used Instagram Story polls is when I wanted to find out whether my audience would be more receptive to a cheaper less comfortable t-shirt versus the $25 premium comfort t-shirts I offered at the time. I found there was a good mixture of people wanting both, so I decided to offer the cheaper option along with the premium one.
Lesson 4: Portray your brand’s story and mission on your profile
If you’re just on Instagram posting photos of your products in your feed, your followers are going to feel like you’re a pretty hollow brand. You could just be a robot automatically posting photos for all they know.
You need to be able to make a personal connection with your customers to have your brand really succeed.
In order to achieve that, I started with putting my brand’s mission and story on my profile as Instagram Story Highlights.
When I posted these Stories on my Instagram account, I saw a definite change in the interactions with my followers. People actually started reiterating my brand’s mission to me and how much they appreciated it in messages. They connected with it. That’s when I knew it had made an impact.
This happened because posting my brand’s story and mission humanized it. It showed there was an actual human being in the background. I was able to convey that I had a connection to my niche and to my followers.
So show your audience what your brand stands for and what you’re not willing to compromise for your brand’s integrity. This will create depth for your brand outside of the products you sell and can give you a new form of content to pursue on your Instagram.
Lesson 5: Stay organized
When you’re handling a POD store by yourself you’re going to be wearing a lot of hats. Product development, marketing, sales, accounting — you’re in charge of all of it.
The key is to stay organized. I keep my POD store organized using an app called Notion.
If you’ve never heard about Notion, it’s a growing platform for businesses and individuals to organize data, build productivity systems, and create customizable wikis. A lot of people like me use it for creating what’s called their “second brain”.
By organizing my operations in Notion, I can stay focused, make more informed decisions with my marketing, and help myself create a well-conceived strategy for my store’s growth.
Oh yeah, Notion is also free to use.
If you’ve gotten this far, you might be interested in my Notion template — Apparel Brand Marketing Dashboard — which is a dashboard specifically made to help you with your POD store’s marketing and sales management. In it, I give you tools to focus your brand, figure out your profit margins for sales, and a handy guide for Facebook Ad funnels. Get the link here to duplicate into your Notion workspace.
I’ve also created an all-in-one Operating System built-in Notion for running and growing a Print on Demand Store. Check it out here.
Follow me on Twitter for updates on more Notion templates or guides like this.