How Terrell Johnson built The Half Marathoner, his newsletter for long distance runners

Welcome to the latest edition of Creator Collab House. I’m your host, Simon Owens. For those who don’t know me, I write a media industry newsletter you should definitely check out.

Today’s featured creator is Terrell Johnson, the person behind The Half Marathoner, a popular newsletter for long distance runners. I’ll start by asking him a few basic questions, but my main goal is for you, the audience, to ask him questions of your own. Terrell is an expert on everything from long distance running to building a successful paid subscription newsletter.

And if you’d like more creator spotlights like this one landing in your inbox, be sure to subscribe:

Ok, let’s turn it over to Terrell.

What's the origin story of The Half Marathoner?

The story really begins about 15 years ago, when I started the website that my newsletter grew out of, called Half Marathon Guide. Back then, I happened upon an article in the Washington Post about people who had started websites and were earning money with Google AdSense. It occurred to me as I was reading it, "you know, I could do that." I had learned HTML from my job as a content developer for The Weather Channel's weather.com, and I'd run a few marathons, so I decided to create a site devoted to running.

At the time, there were no sites devoted exclusively to half marathons, only marathons. My timing was incredibly lucky, as the 13.1-mile distance was about to become the most popular race distance in America in the next few years (or actually 2nd most popular, after the 5K). 

Fast-forward a few years and by around 2014, the site is doing well, it's popular in Google searches. But I experienced first one and then two things that really shake me up: the first, my website host went down for a day. It only lasted about 24 hours, but I realized that a small technical glitch could bring everything crashing down. And then second, Google (for some reason) applied "This site may harm your computer" tags in red to all my pages in their search results, which of course sent traffic plummeting. Again, this only lasted a day or so, and it was corrected and has never happened since, but it left a huge impression on me.

Around that time, the newsletter TheSkimm was becoming a big, popular newsletter, and so I subscribed. That's when I realized the genius behind it -- they were in their readers' inboxes every morning, and didn't rely on Google search results to reach their audience. They had a direct relationship with them, and that meant neither Google nor Facebook nor Twitter could come between them. That was brilliant, I thought.

So, in all honesty it was TheSkimm that got me started on creating a newsletter in the first place. I launched it in January 2015 (after collecting email addresses at my main website for the previous 2-3 months, using a Mailchimp form).

At first, I would send it out once a week, and featured primarily links back to my main website for races and training-related articles. But as I got a few issues in, I realized I needed some way to introduce the newsletter every week, so I started writing these very brief pieces at the beginning, just a paragraph or two. Over time, I got feedback from readers who liked them, which encouraged me to keep going and write more, and then that got more response from readers, which encouraged me to write even more.

As time went on, that became the heart of the newsletter, and really is what I focus on most now. The format I came up with in the beginning -- an opening essay on a topic related to running, training, life and the intersection in between those -- plus a list of curated races and links. And that's more or less what I've stuck with ever since.

What have you found to be some of the most effective growth strategies for getting new subscribers?

I need to be completely honest and open and say that most of my newsletter subscribers come from the form and popup I use to make them aware of the newsletter on my main website, Half Marathon Guide. I also have a Facebook page and a Twitter account (as well as an Instagram account, though I don't post there much right now), which deliver a few subscribers here and there.

I'm working on the Facebook page more lately -- I've really just revisited it in the past week, to be honest -- because, as a driver of traffic anyway, it leaves Twitter in the dust. Don't get me wrong, I love Twitter as a user. But as someone who's trying to use it to promote my newsletter, there's really no comparison between the results I get from Twitter and the results I get from my Facebook page

That said, I have had a lot of people sign up for my newsletter when it is featured in other writers' newsletters -- Edith Zimmerman has been kind enough to recommend The Half Marathoner in her newsletter, and when she did, I noticed a big surge in new signups. So if you can find the right newsletter with enough overlap with your subject area, I think that can work really well.

Can you walk us through the business model for your newsletter?

Right now, I'm using primarily paid subscriptions as the business model for The Half Marathoner. (The Half Marathon Guide website generates revenue primarily through Google ads.) Honestly, I still consider it very much an experiment. I've been doing the paid version for almost three years -- in June will be the 3rd anniversary of my paid newsletter -- and I've had some unique challenges with it, thanks to the pandemic. All running events have been cancelled since last spring, which spurred a lot of people to unsubscribe. 

So I pivoted the paid version to be about training together as a group for a virtual race we did together in November, and focused my content for the paid version on that. It was a ton of fun, and I feel like I got to know my paid members in a way I wouldn't have been able to earlier. It was tremendously gratifying and a kind of way to make lemonade out of lemons, so to speak, since we couldn't run real races together.

Right now, races are coming back online in different parts of the country, so I anticipate what I provide to my paid subscribers will shift again. That's taking shape still right now, it's still being born, so I'm not quite sure how to describe how that will play out. Stay tuned.

As far as how it helps my career, I'm a little bit like Kevin Bacon. I've worked at a number of different places -- from local newspapers early in my career to The Weather Channel later on, to roles in user experience for digital design agencies and now in-house for a big company -- so honestly, I'm kind of all over the place. I kind of have my head in the clouds a bit, too, so I float like a butterfly from flower to flower. I wish I had a better answer for you in terms of planning my career -- the honest truth is, I'm making this all up as I go.

What are some recent pieces that you're particularly proud of?

Here are a few:

1) Don't Make a Fault of a Virtue -- this one allowed me to weave in people I admire and literature I love in a way that I just feel like it clicked. I have a hard time explaining why I love different pieces, to be honest (they're like children, in a way), but this one got a lot of great responses from readers.

2) I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For -- I love to use popular culture/music/books as a way to illustrate the ideas I talk about in the newsletter, and U2's late-80s era song is one that inspires me and moves me, even all these years later.

3) What Jesse Owens Can Teach Us -- whenever I can reach back into running history, I love to try, because I think there's so much there we can learn from. 

4) How to Use Running to Improve Your Mood -- I love to distill books down to their essence for readers, and so this was a chance to look at Scott Douglas's "Running Is My Therapy," which got a lot of attention/criticism when it was published. This helped me sort through what I think works.

What are the newsletters from other people that you open almost right away when they hit your inbox?

Three I never miss are Clara Parkes' The Daily Respite, Edith Zimmerman's Drawing Links, and Josh Spector's For The Interested.

First, and I told Josh this, he's like the Ted Williams of newsletter writers. Every single issue, there's going to be something in there I find fascinating, or useful, or both, as a creator. Every time.

Clara Parkes' The Daily Respite always lifts my spirits. It comes every day, it's very short -- just a quotation, a video and a very brief message by her at the top. I can't put a finger on why I love it, I just do. It's something I look forward to every morning.

And Edith Zimmerman's Drawing Links, it's just wonderful. I loved to draw as a kid and dreamed of becoming a Disney animation artist, so when I stumbled across her newsletter, at first I was just intrigued to see what someone was doing with a comics-based newsletter. It's one of those newsletters that just grows on you over time, and it's fascinating to see what the world looks like through her eyes. It's another one of those, I can't really describe what it is about it that I love, but there's something magical about it. I always know I'm going to go on an adventure when I open it.

To be honest, those are the newsletters I love right now -- not the business-focused ones, or ones that will benefit my career necessarily -- but the ones I see that are works of art, especially like Clara's and Edith's. They're really special.

(Hold that thought -- there is one business newsletter I really like, Jacob Donnelly's A Media Operator. It's really, really good.) 

I'd also add to that category Katie Hawkins-Gaar's My Sweet Dumb Brain, your newsletter (of course!), The Browser, The Listener, and a new one I've only recently discovered, called The New Fatherhood by Kevin Maguire. It's excellent. 

Polina Pompliano's The Profile, which you know from your interviews with her, is just a fantastic read every Sunday. I love, love getting it and love the different lives I get to explore through it.

I also love Walt Hickey's Numlock News -- there's always something fascinating in it every day.

Want to ask Terrell questions of your own?

Go ahead and leave your questions in the comments section and he’ll dive in and answer them.

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