Trying to make money with paid advertising isn’t your typical college side hustle. But I’ve always been an advocate for picking a side hustle that is both educational and lucrative.
As a student, if you can develop an income stream that pays well and pushes you to develop new skills, you’ll ultimately be more prepared for the job market and whatever obstacles life throws your way.
Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with working a retail job as a student. In fact, I worked roughly 10-20 hours a week as a Starbucks barista to help pay the bills while I was in college.
However, while my barista job was one of the factors that allowed me to graduate from college without any debt, it wasn’t immensely fulfilling. Yes, I learned how to make a killer cappuccino and improving my customer service skills. But the learning curve peaked rather early.
Stumbling Upon a Gold Mine
I began to brainstorm ways I could increase my income while taking on a new challenge. That’s when a colleague of mine came up with the idea to offer digital marketing services to local businesses.
I didn’t know it at the time, but helping businesses with their online marketing campaigns would be one of my most lucrative college side hustles.
Starting a digital marketing ‘agency’ has been a rather hot topic in 2019. So I wanted to break down my own experience with this side hustle, as well as some of the lessons I learned.
Hopefully, anyone who wants to make money with paid advertising will find some value in my story!
What is a Digital Marketing Agency?
The term ‘digital marketing’ is actually quite broad. SEO services, graphic design, social media management, and paid advertising are just a few primary services a digital marketing agency might offer. Although some agencies are more specialized than others.
Regardless of the methodology that’s used, digital marketing agencies ultimately work with business owners to execute digital strategies that drive growth and revenue.
And in return, agencies often charge a monthly retainer fee or flat rate for their services. The fee depends on the size of a business and the scope of work involved. But it isn’t unusual for a digital marketing agency to charge thousands of dollars a month for their services.
The Rise of the “Ad Agency” Side Hustle
Between 2018-2019, one of the most common advertisements I saw was for courses that taught people how to make money with paid advertising. These courses would supposedly show you everything you needed to know to start a digital marketing agency.
These courses promote a fairly straightforward idea. Run paid advertising campaigns for local businesses and get paid thousands of dollars a month in retainer fees for your services.
Now, I’m going to go on record here and state that I do not like these courses/videos. I’ll get into why later on in this post. However, I have to admit that focusing on the paid advertising section of digital marketing makes sense.
After all, digital advertising spend is estimated to grow to $517 billion by the end of 2023 according to Statista. That leaves plenty of money on the table for ad agencies to spend on behalf of their clients in exchange for retainer fees.
How to Make Money With Paid Advertising: My Personal Experience
By my fourth year of college, I had already spent three years learning how to make money with paid advertising. I had landed an internship with an ad agency after my first year of school. And I had continued to work remotely for them.
My colleague had similarly just finished a year-long work term with a big-box retailer where he had also been responsible for running paid advertisements.
We now both had paid advertising experience and appeared to be living in the digital equivalent of the Yukon Gold Rush when it came to starting an ad agency. So we decided to try our luck at finding businesses to run paid advertisements for.
As a couple of 21-year-old college students looking to pitch our first clients, we quickly realized that age and credentials were not on our side.
The nature of running advertisements for clients actually involves an immense amount of trust from both parties. Clients entrust their advertising specialists with their own money to deliver results. And ad agencies have to rely on clients to pay their fair share when the monthly invoicing time rolls around.
While we had paid advertising experience on both Facebook and Google Ads and had already helped several businesses grow their online sales, we had never done so in a freelance capacity.
This meant we couldn’t rely on client testimonials, a portfolio, or any real proof. After encountering this initial hurdle, we decided to start offering free SEO audits for potential clients. And we did some free consulting too.
This provided business owners with a zero-risk option to assess our knowledge and recommendations. And it was also an easy way for us to get our foot in the door despite our age.
Our First Win!
After our first month of emailing, cold calling, and reaching out to our network, my friend was put in touch with the business owner of two different patio furniture companies. This connection actually came as a result of a free SEO audit we completed for another business.
Both businesses had already hired an advertising agency in the past but were looking to shake things up for the new year. Plus, with a new product release in the pipeline, the business owner was eager to get things off the ground.
We agreed on running ads for both furniture companies for a trial period of one month. If things went well, we would discuss future terms of the contract.
Setting Up Ads
My friend handled Facebook ads and I was responsible for the Google side of things. We spent the first month creating and monitoring several local ad campaigns designed to drive local customers to the owner’s storefronts.
To give you a better idea of what these ads might look like, I’ll show you two examples of digital ads for Wayfair, global furniture and home goods company.
Here’s what their Google Ad looks like when I search for patio furniture.
As you can see, several companies are advertising above them as well through Google Shopping Ads, another branch of Google’s advertising service.
On Facebook, Wayfair runs ads that are more visual and can pop out in a news feed.
Creating these sorts of ads is actually fairly simple from a purely technical perspective.
For Google Search ads, users simply enter the headlines and text they want to be displayed in their ads and choose which part of their website to direct clickers towards.
Similarly, on Facebook, users can easily upload the images and headlines they want to use for their ads.
It Still Takes Work to Make Money With Paid Advertising
However, when you consider the amount of strategic thinking and ongoing optimization that goes into launching and monitoring an advertising campaign, it’s easier to appreciate the complexity of this business.
Take Google Search ads for example.
Outside of creating your ads, you also have to determine which search phrases you want your ads to appear for. You also need to know how much you’re willing to pay for each click. And you’ll need to factor in competitors who are also paying to have their ads compete against yours.
This is just a small snapshot of what your Google Ads back end might look like. It’s important to monitor several metrics for each search term to keep on top of performance. Clicks, cost, sales, and conversion rates are just a few common ones. But picture keeping track of hundreds or even thousands of search terms!
Protecting your client’s profit margin and driving as many sales as possible at low costs is the goal. And that takes a constant amount of optimization, testing, and adaptation.
It’s really a massive game of data and creativity. And, if you ask me, it’s one of the most fun and dynamic industries around!
Anyways, after a decent first month of ad management that showed signs of promise, we agreed on a $1,000/month retainer fee for each business moving forward.
At the time, we honestly couldn’t believe it. Digital advertising was something we both loved to do, and now our tuition was essentially being covered by our freelance digital marketing work.
Scaling & Challenges
In terms of growing results for our first ever client, things actually went incredibly smoothly.
The new product launch the business owner had planned was a success. And as summer started, patio furniture sales became much easier to drive online. Within a few months, we had renegotiated to a total of $3,000/month between the two businesses and had significantly grown monthly revenue for the owner.
Overcoming the Credibility Challenge
In contrast, obtaining new clients proved to be much more difficult.
Even with a positive referral from our one client, many of the business owners we approached were either hesitant to outsource their marketing or were simply unprepared to sell online based on the state of their website.
While scaling was a challenge, the income we generated every month from our first retainer fee was enough to get us through school.
Between my part-time job, blogging, and digital advertising freelance work, I was even able to save money as a student and prepare for adult life.
The Fork in the Road
However, as we neared graduation, it was time to make a decision. We were in the process of hopefully signing on a new client, and it became clear that if we truly wanted to turn from freelancers into an actual agency, we had to take things seriously.
After a great deal of reflection, I actually decided to end my time as a freelance digital marketer.
Having worked in paid advertising for nearly four years at that point, I was simply ready to try something new. Additionally, I was itching to get some traveling done, to work on my blog, and to expand my freelance writing portfolio.
My friend thankfully decided to go full-time into digital marketing. And he’s currently doing a great job growing his first company and finding new business owners to work with.
At the end of the day, the entire experience was excellent. We were able to make money with paid advertising in college! And I walked away having learned many valuable lessons about the world of freelancing.
Advice For Other Side Hustlers
If there’s one thing that running paid advertisements during college taught me, it’s that age or background are not barriers to entry if you have the right level of experience.
The primary reason I don’t support the plethora of digital ad agency courses going around these days is that they treat ad management as if it’s like any other side hustle idea.
Playing around with money that doesn’t belong to you is not a joke. Running paid ads for a business is not like walking a dog for Rover or other various gig economy jobs. Your actions can have dire consequences for the client in question.
To successfully make money with paid advertising, you truly need to have some prior knowledge and experience with spending money online. After all, you would never allow someone to build your house because they took an online course that showed them how to build houses.
Rather, you would turn to a paid professional with the right credentials to get the job done correctly.
I realized that I would have to go full-time in order to provide the right level of service to our clients. So I decided it was the end of the journey for me.
How to Get the Experience That You Need
That being said, if you’re looking to make money with paid advertising for local businesses, you aren’t out of options.
If you already have paid digital advertising experience, you’re in a great spot!
- Starting out slowly with local companies. Offer freebies like website audits or signing on for short trial periods.
- Contrary to what many gurus out there may say, demanding outrageous retainer fees right out of the gate is not a good way to foster a business relationship. The slow and steady route is a better way!
If you don’t have paid advertising experience, you also have options.
- Turn to your own network or seek out industry professionals. This is the best way to learn the skills you’ll need to successfully plan, launch, and monitor ad campaigns.
- Find an expert in your immediate or slightly removed circle who can help provide guidance. And learn voraciously from them.
Additionally, don’t be afraid to start your own paid advertising experiment to learn some fundamentals. It’s never been easier to whip together an eCommerce store or to try out affiliate marketing. So take $150 and throw it against the wall with Facebook or Google Ads.
You’re going to lose the money. However, the process will also teach you many of the basic skills you’ll need to know about running online advertisements.
Start Small and Scale Over Time
When the time comes to start working with a local business, also start out small and take on tasks for free in order to learn.
Run their social media accounts, or write blog posts for their website. Learn more about the business and how to generate online traffic. Then you can begin to pepper in paid advertising to test out the results.
You can also turn to a variety of incredible (and free) online resources to learn more about paid advertising.
Some tools or websites I suggest checking out include:
- Facebook Ads Blueprint – Facebook’s official course on learning their platform.
- Google Ads Certification – 6 free courses that breakdown Google’s major advertising platforms.
- AdEspresso’s 2019 Facebook Ads course.
You Can Make Money With Paid Advertising!
The process of learning how to run profitable ad campaigns for a business takes time. And it’s unlikely someone can start an “agency” or freelance side hustle overnight and find success.
Are you willing to put in the time to gain experience instead of simply chasing the latest side hustle craze that’s sweeping the internet? If so, I firmly believe you can make money with digital marketing while helping local business owners grow their sales.
Thanks so much for reading!
Tom is a recent college graduate from Toronto, Canada. In his spare time, Tom enjoys writing about side hustles and personal finance at This Online World, spending time outdoors, and traveling.