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Blog / Beginner's handbook / 20 Critical Print-on-Demand Mistakes to Avoid

Beginner's handbook

20 Critical Print-on-Demand Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

20 Critical Print-on-Demand Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
Aleksandra Rosa

By Aleksandra Rosa

22 min read

Starting a print-on-demand business isn’t easy. Ecommerce is becoming increasingly competitive, and finding your unique voice among thousands of ecommerce giants is a serious challenge.

The good news is that you’re not alone. All POD business owners face similar challenges in the ecommerce sphere when it comes to design, building an online store, and marketing. That’s why it’s not only important to experiment and make your own mistakes, but to also learn from the mistakes of others.

To discover the most common print-on-demand mistakes, we turned to our customers—successful print-on-demand store owners. We conducted a survey, asking them about their missteps and the impact they had on business. We collected 68 responses in June and July of 2022. 

Learn More:

When asked about the single most difficult part of starting a print-on-demand business, most customers said it was marketing. Here are the top 5 biggest POD challenges, according to our surveyed customers:

  • Coming up with a marketing strategy (29%)
  • Finding the right target audience (21%)
  • Creating designs (15%)
  • Setting up billing and understanding taxes (13%)
  • Setting up an online store (10%)

In fact, 96% of respondents believe they’d made some mistakes when building their brand. What kind? Read on to learn about the 20 most common print-on-demand mistakes and how you can avoid them as a newcomer to the POD industry.

Ready? Let’s dive in.

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Design mistakes

Designing a product is one of the first challenges you’ll face. Learn from these 7 common design mistakes to make your design process smoother and more efficient.

1. Designing without a target audience in mind

You have a great idea, the skills, and the tools to make your design come to life. What more do you need to create a successful product?

A target audience—also known as a niche in the ecommerce world.

Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to design a bestselling product if you don’t know who you’re designing for. Every audience has its own interests, passions, product preferences, shopping habits, and pain points you can address in your product design. If you fail to do that, you’ll come up with a product that you might personally like, but no one really needs.

If you’ve ever made a product that doesn’t speak to any niche audience, you’re not alone. In fact, 27% of our respondents believe that this mistake had a high to very high negative impact on their businesses.

Now, how can you avoid this? Start your design process by answering 2 simple questions: 

  • Who will wear/use/like this product?
  • Why will they wear/use/like this design (and not someone else’s)?

Define your target audience before you start designing.

Once you have a clear picture of your ideal customer, it’ll be much easier to get your design right. Moreover, if you dedicate enough time to audience research at this stage, you’ll have less trouble finding the right marketing channels to promote the product later on.

preview play-button

2. Picking the wrong product for your design

Not all designs are a good fit for every product. Even if your design is ready to impress your niche audience, you have to carefully choose the right products to print it on.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when picking print-on-demand products:

  • Select products that are relevant to your niche audience

Don’t pick products just because they are cheap or have great margins. First, ask yourself if your target audience actually needs it. For example, it makes sense to promote an enamel mug or a rain jacket to campers. However, would these products be useful if your niche is movie lovers?

  • Pair seasonal designs with products that are relevant for that season

Fall-inspired designs? Print them on snuggly blankets and warm hoodies. Vacation-themed designs? Go for beachwear, tank tops, and flip flops.

Printful swim trunks
AOP swim trunks. Source: Printful
  • Patterns look best on all-over print products

All-over printing allows you to completely cover the garment with your design, leaving no white space. It’s the best choice for patterns because you’re not constrained by a particular printing area.
Check out our all-over print shirts, sweatshirts, leggings, bags, and more.

  • Photography is great for posters

Photography is a lot more nuanced than graphic art. Printing your photos on posters or canvases will guarantee crisper results, compared to any type of wearable garment.

If your designs contain graphics or text, DTG is the go-to option. It’s a printing method that sprays ink directly onto the garment. It allows you to print very detailed designs without color limitations.

3. Not researching competitors’ designs

A common beginner mistake is making assumptions about what an audience wants instead of researching what it really needs. There’s no need to guess when you can assess available market offers and draw solid conclusions about what works best. 

Researching competitors’ designs prior to creating yours will help you understand:

  • What type of colors, fonts, and design styles are popular within the niche
  • What type of products are available and what’s missing
  • How similar designs are priced and marketed

For example, if you want to sell custom gifts for teachers, start by googling “custom gifts for teachers.” See what’s available on marketplaces like Etsy, Amazon, or Redbubble. Make a list of products that come up first and evaluate what makes them stand out. More importantly, think about how to make your designs better than those already available.

4. Copying someone else’s design

Printing someone else’s intellectual property without permission isn’t a good idea. Why? It puts you at risk of legal consequences for copyright infringement. In addition, you’ll waste time creating products that your print-on-demand service won’t print.

In order to print your merch with Printful, you need to either own the content you submit, or have the rights to use, display, and resell it. Check out our Copyright and Trademark 101 blog and Acceptable Content Guidelines to be sure that your designs meet our requirements.

Remember that it always pays to create your own unique designs. Invest time in researching your audience and creating designs that really matter instead of attempting to duplicate other people’s success.

5. Not following print file guidelines

When it comes to the quality of your products, it depends on the print files you submit. Disregarding file size, resolution, color, and transparency requirements can only lead to one thing—lower quality.

The number of potential print file errors is endless, but here are some of the most common ones:

  • Using low-resolution images
  • Not removing backgrounds properly
  • Using transparency in designs
  • Including tiny text
  • Using fade, glow effects, or neon colors

Our in-house experts have rounded up the resources you’ll need to create quality print files. These include:

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6. Not ordering product samples

Trying to sell products you’ve never seen in real life is a common rookie mistake. Many beginners think that seeing mockups is enough, and that samples are a waste of money. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

There are several reasons why ordering samples is a step you shouldn’t skip. It enables you to:

  • Check the print quality
  • Know how the garment fits
  • Take your own product photos
  • Answer customer questions

If you rely on mockups alone, you never know how your products will actually turn out. This could be costly in terms of customer satisfaction and your brand’s reputation. To build a sustainable long-term business that prioritizes quality, always order product samples.

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7. Not asking for feedback

What’s the biggest product design mistake, according to Printful customers? Not asking for feedback. 71% of our respondents believe that this oversight negatively affected their businesses.

There are many reasons why beginners avoid asking for feedback on their designs. Some don’t know who to ask, others feel shy about sharing their business ideas, and others might even be afraid of their designs getting stolen.

A design is rarely perfect from the first attempt, so it’s essential to ask for input to improve it.

How can you get feedback?

Find Reddit threads, Facebook groups, or Discord channels that your target audience frequently interacts with. Post a photo of your product and ask what users think about it. Easy peasy! It takes only a couple of minutes, and costs nothing, but you’re likely to get constructive feedback that’ll help you improve your design and eventually make sales.

Online store and marketing mistakes

Once your designs are ready, it’s all about building an online store and marketing it.

This process consists of many smaller steps: selecting an ecommerce platform, designing a store, importing products, setting up payments, and finally, promoting your store. The next 13 mistakes are the main challenges you’ll face in this process.

8. Choosing an unsuitable ecommerce platform

An ecommerce platform is the home of your print-on-demand store. It’s where you add and edit listings, and it’s what defines how your store looks and functions.

When you’re choosing an ecommerce platform, you’re committing to its rules, costs, and limitations. A common mistake is picking an ecommerce platform without properly researching it, only to later realize that it doesn’t quite meet your needs or budget.

If you’ve chosen Printful as your print-on-demand service, there are over 20 ecommerce platforms you can connect to, from marketplaces like Etsy and eBay to website-building platforms like Shopify and Wix.

Printful integrations
Printful integrations. Source: Printful

What’s the best ecommerce platform for you? You’ll have to decide that yourself, but here are some things to consider before making up your mind:

  • How long does it take to set up a store?
  • Is it beginner-friendly?
  • What are the monthly fees and transaction charges?
  • What payment gateway services are available on this platform?
  • What design features are available?

You can also take a quiz to get our ecommerce platform recommendations for your needs.

Exploring the available ecommerce platforms will likely take you a couple of hours. But it’ll take much longer (days, if not weeks) to migrate all of your content to a different ecommerce platform if you have to switch when your store is already up and running. So start researching now to avoid the headache later.

9. Unprofessional online store design

The overall look and feel of your website can make or break a sale.

These days, most online shoppers perform basic legitimacy checks before they shop. A couple of scrolls and clicks can tell you a whole lot about an online store. If there are buttons that don’t work, or if customers can’t find your store’s policies or contact details, you’ll most likely lose their trust.

Let’s take a closer look at online store design principles you should pay attention to.

  • Simplify navigation

First-time online store owners strive to impress their customers with unique experiences on their websites. As a result, store layouts often become too complex and crowded with design elements, and customers can get lost.

When it comes to online store navigation, make it as simple and straightforward as possible.  Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Remember that the sooner users can find answers to their questions, the sooner you’ll hear the coveted “cha-ching!”

  • Make your store’s policies clear and easily accessible

“No one reads policies”—a common assumption that’s simply not true.

What happens if a parcel gets lost? What if the garment doesn’t fit? What’s the plan of action if the quality doesn’t match expectations? All of this has to be clearly communicated in your store’s policies.

Add Shipping, Returns, Exchanges, Privacy policies, as well as the Terms and Conditions to your website, and make sure they’re always within reach. This’ll build trust and make customers feel more comfortable purchasing from you.

To further improve your customers’ experience, consider adding FAQs and a size guide.
You can download free store policy templates from our Printful Policies Your Store Should Copy blog post.

  • Choose a one-step checkout process

If the checkout process is too long or complex, not all customers will complete their purchases. Data suggests that 87% of online shoppers abandon their carts if the checkout process is too lengthy.

Don’t ask your customers to take unnecessary steps like registering an account or subscribing to a newsletter during checkout. It’s also a good idea to avoid distractions like pop-ups, banners, chatbots, and ads. Instead, build a simple one-page checkout that any customer can complete without getting confused.

  • Check your store’s mobile-friendliness

In 2022, almost 73% of all ecommerce sales happen on mobile devices. If you’re still building your store mainly for desktop users, it’s time to rethink your strategy.

Here’s what you can do to improve your customers’ experience on mobile devices:

Check out more tips for optimizing your store for mobile devices in our blog post.

10. Setting prices that are too low or too high

You create an awesome product. You add a modest markup to make your product affordable. You forget about taxes, transaction charges, ecommerce platform charges, and ad expenses. You end up spending more than you’ve earned. Sound familiar?

Poor pricing is a more common issue than you’d imagine. 43% of our survey respondents believe that pricing their products too low or too high had a high negative impact on their businesses.

While it may take some trial and error to figure out the optimal prices for your products, here are some guidelines to consider:

  • Don’t try to compete in terms of price alone. Before you start comparing yourself to competitors, figure out a sustainable base price so you won’t be selling at a loss
  • When assessing product costs, consider production, design, and shipping costs, as well as transaction fees and taxes
  • Don’t forget about fixed costs like domain and ecommerce platform charges

Learn all about ecommerce pricing strategies in our Beginner’s Guide on How to Price Your Products Online.

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11. Unclear product descriptions

First and foremost, a product description should be informative.

What does that mean? It should provide all the relevant information a customer might need about a product in a concise format. This includes info on:

  • Sizing
  • Color options
  • Materials and care instructions
  • Production and shipping times
  • Shipping carrier information
  • Your store’s policies

Once your product description fulfills the basic informative function, you can get creative with the wording to make it more fun and engaging.

The second goal of a product description is to convert users into paying customers. Here’s how to do it:

  • Include power words to make your copy more emotional
  • Use bullet points instead of paragraphs
  • Avoid being overly wordy
  • SEO-optimize your descriptions to help your products rank on Google
  • Never copy-paste product descriptions for several listings—this gives a duplicate content signal to search engines

Take a look at how Startup Vitamins first explains the meaning behind their posters and then provides a detailed description of the paper, printer, and packaging they use.

Startup Vitamins product description
Source: Startup Vitamins

12. Generic or low-quality product images

When shopping online, product images contribute massively to customers’ purchasing decisions. A high-quality photo can help buyers evaluate fabric and print quality, color, sizing, and fit. Product photos are also a good way to communicate your brand’s vision and identity.

Not creating your own product photos and using only generic mockups isn’t a crime, but it’s definitely a missed opportunity.

To create engaging, top-notch visuals, you don’t need to invest in expensive equipment. Start by ordering product samples and taking photos with your smartphone. Selfies, mirror pics and flatlays are popular formats. They resonate well with social media users as they showcase products in a realistic setting and help potential customers identify with your brand’s story.

Takeout Order product photos
Source: Takeout Order

Once you’re ready to take your product photography to the next level, read our post on Striking Product Photography Trends to Follow This Year to discover different artistic approaches to shooting product images.

13. Missing product reviews

These days, product reviews influence the purchasing decisions of most online shoppers. In fact, 90% of consumers want to read between 5-10 product reviews before they’re able to gain trust in a brand. Reviews are important for several reasons: they build trust, provide social proof, and help you rank higher on Google.

There are two types of mistakes related to product reviews.

First, some store owners fail to acknowledge their importance and simply don’t enable reviews on their websites. If there’s no way to submit a review, you’ll never receive any. That means you’ll be missing out on your chance to collect social proof.

Second, some beginners try too hard to make their stores seem trustworthy and write fake reviews. Having tons of 5-star reviews when your brand is new raises suspicion and can easily discourage users from completing their purchases.

The best way to go about collecting reviews is to do it organically. Enable reviews on your website and motivate your customers to leave feedback. Offer incentives like coupon codes or discounts on their next order. Afterward, you can come up with creative ways to feature reviews on your website and social media. Check out how Inkwell Threads showcases reviews on their homepage:

Inkwell Threads reviews
Source: Inkwell Threads

14. Poor customer service

Not taking the customer experience seriously or not finding time to provide quick replies will do serious harm to your brand in the long run. Poor customer support—like slow or unhelpful responses, a lack of empathy, or a rude attitude—is a surefire way to lose customers.

You have to always be there for shoppers. Make yourself available via chat, email, or social media comments to solve questions that might occur at any point in the sales process.

When it comes to print-on-demand, your most common questions will be about sizing, production and shipping time, and garment care. Make sure you know your product details and are ready to answer very specific questions about what you’re selling. If you can’t find an answer, don’t hesitate to reach out to Printful’s customer support.

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15. Not optimizing for search engines

45% of the customers in our survey believe that not SEO-optimizing their stores had a high negative impact on their business. More than that, 14% believe that the impact was very high. If there’s one ecommerce mistake you should avoid at all costs, it’s ignoring SEO.

SEO is the process of making your website rank higher on Google in order to bring in organic visitors. Content, including product descriptions, photos, your brand’s About us page and homepage, is your chance to get Google’s attention. Here’s what to do:

  1. Research keywords in your niche
  2. Optimize your listing titles, descriptions, and tags
  3. Have quality content (written and visual)
  4. Collect reviews and keep the scores high
  5. Build links to your website

It’s no secret that SEO takes some time to master. That’s why we share plenty of SEO tips for small businesses like yours on our blog. These articles are a great place to start learning the ins and outs of search engine optimization:

16. Expecting sales without marketing

Creating a store and not marketing your products is a classic mistake.

So many beginners invest time in building the perfect store and publishing hundreds of designs, yet treat marketing as an afterthought. It’s easy to give up on your business idea if you’ve spent countless hours on building a store only to get zero visitors. 

Getting the coveted first sale is all about marketing. In order to bring in paying customers to your store, you need a clearly defined marketing strategy. Why? It keeps your promotional efforts focused and goal-oriented.

A solid marketing strategy helps you:

  • Set up measurable goals for your business
  • Better define your target market
  • Help your business stand out from the competition

If you’re new to marketing, these resources will get you on your way and provide some inspiration:

Check out our free course Product Marketing 101 to up your marketing game.

Developing a marketing strategy may sound like a lot, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t need a long, elaborate plan. Just ask yourself the right questions and jot down some quick notes. Once you have a clear strategic view of your marketing plan of attack, you can experiment with different tactics to see what works. Remember to always stay true to the vision and long-term goals of your brand.

17. Not communicating your brand’s story and values

Big or small, every brand has a story. There’s always a reason behind starting an online business, be it a passion for design, a social cause, extra cash, or something else. Not communicating your brand’s story is another missed opportunity.

brand story guidelines
Source: Printful

To come up with an engaging brand story, be honest and transparent about how and why you started your brand. Introduce the idea behind the brand and describe its vision and values.

Here’s a great example from Sunshine Shop. Note how the founders first get up close and personal by introducing themselves. Next, they talk about how the brand idea emerged and go on to explain the vision and history of their business. Explaining who you are and why your doing this lets customers in, creates familiarity, and ultimately bonds customers to your brand.

Sunshine Shop brand story
Source: Sunshine Shop

Remember that your brand story is the complete picture of all your online communication: product descriptions, website copy, your About Us page, social media posts, blog posts, comments, emails, etc. It’s how you position and present your brand to the public. If your story is honest, engaging, and consistent across all media, you’ll be able to build a dedicated audience that cares about the values your brand represents.

18. Not using social media to its full potential

Your brand’s success online depends a great deal on how you use social media. If you see social media as another obligation or a waste of time, it’ll most likely turn out to be a waste of your time. If you believe that social media is a powerful tool for attracting customers and what you put in you’ll get out, it’ll be exactly that.

Here’s something to think about: 93% of our surveyed customers believe that not using social media to its full potential has negatively impacted their business. Don’t let that be you.

How can you take advantage of social media to the fullest? Here are a couple of tips:

  • Adopt the latest features, and quickly

Make a habit of checking out all the latest features that Instagram, TikTok, and other social media platforms have to offer, and be among the first to use them. Shoppable posts, Reels, subscription plans—new features are coming out several times a year. Consider them a business opportunity and invest time in figuring out how they can benefit your brand.

  • Be consistent

Social media is your chance to build real relationships with your customers. To build trust you have to be there for your followers: post regularly, engage with comments, and respond to questions. Not posting content just because you don’t feel like it is not the best way to approach social media as a business.

To ensure the consistency of your social media content, develop a posting schedule. It’ll give you a clear overview of post ideas and dates, plus give you backup content for days when you’re not feeling creative.

  • Curate user-generated content

UGC (user-generated content) is not only authentic content that takes no time to create, it also provides social proof and convinces new customers to buy from your brand. If you’re not collecting reviews on social media, you’re missing out on a powerful (and free) content opportunity. Encourage your followers to share reviews, photos, and videos, and make the most of UGC by showcasing it regularly.

Here’s how Fir and Needle not only shares a customer photo but also encourages users to submit more content.

UGC content instagram
Source: @firandneedle Instagram
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  • Focus on quality over quantity

Some larger businesses post content more than five times a day. Does that mean you also have to do that? No. If you’re just starting out and don’t have a team, it’s hard to come up with that much content. And it’s not necessary. If you focus on creating a single piece of top-notch content a day, you’ll have a higher chance of increasing reach and engagement than with lots of lower-quality content.

  • Don’t attempt to use all of the platforms out there

Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitch, Twitter, Youtube, Pinterest… If you’re building a print-on-demand business alone or with a small team, you can’t possibly find the time to post on all of them regularly. And you don’t have to.

Instead of trying to be everywhere, choose only a couple of platforms that you’re willing to master. Develop content specifically for those social platforms and engage with your audience. This’ll be much more effective than dropping the same copy-paste content on every platform out there.

19. Not analyzing traffic and sales results

You don’t need a background in data analytics to look at your store’s performance and figure out what has worked best. Assessing the highs and lows of your business tactics is the best way to make informed decisions about what to do next.

Analytics helps you understand your customers’ behavior so you can plan product launches and marketing campaigns more effectively.

Here are some of the key online store metrics you should evaluate:

  • Website traffic (how many people visit your website)
  • Conversion rate (the percentage of website visitors who made a purchase)
  • Average order value (revenue divided by the number of orders)
  • Cart abandonment rate (the percentage of visitors who started the checkout process and didn’t complete the purchase)

How can you track and collect all this data? When it comes to traffic, Google Analytics is your best friend. Another free tool from Google that’ll help you analyze your site’s SEO performance is Search Console. Everything you need to know about conversions will be available via your ecommerce platform’s dashboard.

Even if you’ve only sold a couple of items and it doesn’t make sense to calculate conversion rates (yet), start making a list of bestselling products. Note what makes these products stand out from the rest. What’s special about the design, description, or product photos? Did you promote it differently?

As your brand grows, you’ll develop a more elaborate system for analyzing results. For now, take small steps to collect data, make sense of it, and start making data-driven decisions.

20. Not getting started

What’s worse than making the print-on-demand mistakes we’ve discussed above? Not making any because you’re too afraid to get started and fail.

Not getting started is the most common mistake beginner entrepreneurs make. You can spend countless hours making assumptions about what strategies will work the best or fantasizing about immediate success. However, only by trying, failing, and trying again can you develop designs and marketing tactics that resonate with your audience and drive sales.

Print-on-demand is all about experimenting, and not all experiments are successful. To find success, begin your ecommerce journey now, learn from the mistakes we described above, and be prepared to make your own along the way.

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The success of your store is in your hands

Now that you know the most common mistakes and how to avoid them, it’s time to put this knowledge into practice. Start building your own online store and let us know how it goes.

One last thing before you go. Since you know what can go wrong when setting up a POD brand, you should check our customer success stories to see what it takes to get it right. Here are our most popular stories:

We’d love to hear from you. Have you made any of the mistakes we’ve discussed? Which mistakes have affected your business the most? Share your insights in the comments!


By Aleksandra Rosa on Aug 30, 2022

Aleksandra Rosa

Aleksandra is the editor of the Printful Blog. Coming from a background in communication studies, she's passionate about all things marketing. In her spare time, she runs her own print-on-demand business.

Aleksandra is the editor of the Printful Blog. Coming from a background in communication studies, she's passionate about all things marketing. In her spare time, she runs her own print-on-demand business.