Issue #034

What I learned from James Clear on list building

A few weeks ago, Liron wrote in a with a question on the pros and cons of syncing your email content with your website:

Why do you publish your newsletters to your blog?

I have a question that you may be willing to address in a future newsletter. Somehow I sense that you've thought it over.

Can you elaborate on why you chose to send the emails and make online versions of them, but not in the standard blog posts format?

I'm curious since I've been having a weekly newsletter for over two years now, and I haven't put any of the content online.

The fear was that this is content that I'll want to do something with later on (like a paid course) so didn't want to spill outt all the content. However, I'm not really sure it's the way to go and I am loving how you've set it up.

I'll be really happy to hear any thoughts you had around this topic.


How James Clear built a list of 1,000,000+

A few years back, I was in Austin for a few days of informal mastermind-ing with two longtime buddies of mine, James Clear and Noah Kagan.

James and I stayed in the apartment Noah kept to put friends up when they were in town (!), and over the span of those few days I was priviliged to learn from one of the best "content marketers" out there.

(This was before James went on to write the the book that's topped the NYT bestsellers list for the last few years.)

Here's the strategy James shared with me for building a list that's now surpassed 1,000,000 readers:

  • Write well researched, in-depth emails that legitimately help people (he's now switched to a shorter "3-2-1" model)

  • Send them out regularly (I believe he was sending emails weekly)

  • Publish these emails to your website, and encourage your readers to share the blog version of your emails with their peers

  • After publishing to your own site, syndicate the content to other websites that both have a readership and republish existing content

  • Drop links to your blog content in forums, comment threads, twitter discussions, etc. Get people talking about and sharing your work.

  • Make it very obvious to people who stumble upon your website and read your content – whether from a social share or a Google search – that the best way to get more of this in the future is to join your list.

There's a bit of inertia in place now that's allowed James to largely ditch the above model and ride the wave of his well-earned authority, but for those of us who are working hard to grow a business, built on email, there's a lot we can learn from James.

And while I'm usually pretty cautious about saying "this worked for me / so-and-so, it'll work for you", two things to note:

1) Before James started writing about habits, he built Passive Panda (a list on freelancing and entrepreneurship) from the ground up using this process. He shut it down, and started from scratch using the exact same process I outlined above.

2) The model above makes a lot of logical sense. Not everyone is easily won over by a landing page – they'll want to first get an idea of whether you can help them, and publishing your content on your website does exactly that. Also, Google doesn't index emails; they do index blog posts... and millions of people turn to Google every hour to look for content that helps answer their questions.

I remember waking up most mornings, emerging from my bedroom groggy eyed and in search of coffee, to find James already at the dining table, jotting down excerpts in his notebook while powering through "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" He's a machine, and his success is no accident.

The pros and cons of publishing to your website

Before starting Create & Sell, I grew the Double Your Freelancing list to just over 50,000 subscribers.

Almost all of that growth comes from search, and people going to Google and typing in 'how do I write a proposal' still leads to dozens of new subscribers a day (even though that business is largely in hibernation at the moment.)

When publishing new content, I see this content as having two distinct jobs:

  1. To create more trust and success with my existing audience. When I write something and send it to my list, I'm betting that it will lead my average reader thinking: "Brennan's emails are worth opening." To put things bluntly, my goal is that the value of my list – that is, the amount of trust between typical subscriber <> me – goes up with every email I send.

  2. To serve as a permanent acquisition channel for future subscribers. Yeah, I'm writing this in February of 2022, but I want someone reading this in 2025 to get just as much value out of it as you are. And I want it to convince them to join my list. Many of the articles on Double Your Freelancing that bring in hundreds of subscribers a month were written and published years ago.

This is why I publish most of my email content to my website. It has an immediate job (building trust with my current audience), but it also continues to work over the longhaul.

But, like Liron highlighted in her question, there might be reasons why you might want to have a "walled garden" email list, where the only way to ever read what you have to say is to subscribe.

Let's look at a few pros and cons of syncing your email content with your website...


  • Search engines will index content you publish your site. They don't index newsletters sent to inboxes.

  • Sharing email content with someone else is kinda awkward. If you forward me an email newsletter you received, should I like the content I need to figure out how to find the list, subscribe to it, etc. Whereas a good blog post is going to have a strong optin call-to-action.

  • It's really easy to share a blog post with a URL on social media or another website.

  • Yeah, landing pages are great and all, but I probably want to get an idea of what you've written in the past before I give you my email address.

  • If you want to reference something you wrote a while ago in an email, you can just link to the article-version of it on your website.

  • Some people prefer reading off a webpage vs. in their email client. Especially if they want to stash what you sent away in Pocket or some other "read later" tool.

  • I'm no SEO expert, but I do know that backlinks help make your content more likely to appear at the top of Google. Backlinks come from other sites linking to specific content on yours. And this is much easier to do when you have hundreds of available pages on your website.

  • Again, I'm no SEO expert, but I did get Double Your Freelancing to consistently rank at the top of Google for popular freelancer-y searches. How? I published a lot of content on freelancing, and this content was in-depth. This wouldn't have happened if I didn't publish my email content to my website.

  • "Hey podcaster! I'd love to come on and talk about XYZ. Here are a few things I've written on the subject: <links to articles on X, Y, and Z>..."


  • A loss of exclusivity. If you put your content on your website, why bother joining the list? (More on this in a second.)

  • To Liron's point, what if you want to monetise the information you've sent in the future? This deserves a much more than a bullet point (and I'll expand on this in a future newsletter), but my short answer: people who value their time want concise, curated information and don't want to dig through a website full of blog posts in search of a framework they can learn from.

  • More work. No longer do you need to just pop in to your email platform, write an email, and click send. Now you need to copy it to your website, etc. etc.

  • If your newsletter is the product, and you're selling access to a paid newsletter, it wouldn't make much sense to publish your exclusive content to your website (unless paid subscribers can log in and read through the archives.)

My recommendations for keeping your email list exclusive

I do think being on an email list should yield a few benefits beyond "you'll have the privilege of getting all of my sales emails!" 😂

Here are a few ideas for keeping your email list exclusive should you decide to also mirror your content on your website:

  • Include an introduction. Before you get into each email, share some interesting stuff you've read online, give a bit of insight into what you have going on personally, hint at what you're working on, whatever. This is temporal information that wouldn't make sense to put on a blog post that's designed to work for a while.

  • Delay publishing. Yes, link to the webpage version of your content in your emails, for all the reasons I mentioned above, but don't actually have available to find on your website for a week or so after you've sent it to your list. * This is something I'm working on setting up @ Create & Sell.

  • Send exclusive content to your list. And by exclusive content, I don't mean hard-hitting pitch emails. Email is a 1-to-1 medium. Blog posts aren't. Leverage the superpower of email to create personalised conversations with your subscribers.