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Academics Alum Features

SJU graduate building wide TikTok audience, one minute at a time

This week, John O’Sullivan ’08 returned to the same classroom where he once was a communication major at Saint John’s University. In the mid-2000s, he was just a kid from Mankato, Minnesota, with thoughts of becoming a journalist.

His advisor and instructor then was Kelly Berg, who still teaches students from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s on the third-floor of the Quadrangle Building in Collegeville – a historic brick edifice that dates to the 19th century but has been tastefully and strategically remodeled through much of the past 100 years.

O’Sullivan’s pursuit of journalism never really took off, at least in part because he graduated in the teeth of the Great Recession. A former Johnnie got him in with Fallon, a well-known Minneapolis ad agency, then he became a digital media specialist with the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune – neither position lasting as long as a year.

“There was a time when, every day, you would hear from people you knew about how they were getting laid off,” O’Sullivan said. “I decided to go overseas for a year, and 12 passed by.”

The evolution and continual re-creation of John O’Sullivan was why Berg invited him to speak to one of her upper-level communications classes. The students, arrayed in what he lamented are more comfortable chairs and surrounded with more accoutrements than he knew, are studying strategic social media marketing. And almost two decades after he decided to enroll, O’Sullivan has to be one of the most visibly successful alums in the field. When he came back to campus this time, he wasn’t alone. He brought along more than 30,000 TikTok followers and showed how his videos have been generating more than a million monthly views recently.

“I have a passion for storytelling, I just didn’t know how that was going to fit in my career,” he said. “Now, in the Twin Cities, I probably get stopped two or three times a day when somebody says, ‘Hey, it’s that TikTok guy!’”

A niche in the travel industry

O’Sullivan’s path began at Saint John’s, where he was news editor at The Record, the student newspaper, and witnessed the seismic rise of social media – predominantly Facebook, at first – on campus. He also studied abroad in Galway, Ireland, and discovered that he could apply for citizenship since his grandfather was a native Irishman. That led to him becoming a tour manager for a travel group that specialized in leading tours for up to 50 people through 10 countries and more than 40 cities throughout mainland Europe.

That also was the genesis to becoming a “serial entrepreneur.” He became an independent tour guide and travel consultant, leading tours of London and two-week European bus excursions. He worked as brand manager for Sail Croatia, a British cruise line operating in the Adriatic Sea. For a couple of years, he adapted a similar approach to leading group tours by RV in the United States. Then he moved to Melbourne, Australia, where he developed a walking tour business – Depot Adventures – that continues today.

“Some of it was like, if you were visiting Melbourne, what bar would you want to go to?” O’Sullivan said. “What kind of drink should you order? Where would the coolest place be to get breakfast? The idea was to be a new best friend for visitors who wanted to experience local culture.”

Of course, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, social distancing and the touring and travel industry didn’t exactly go hand-in-hand. But O’Sullivan co-founded a business that helped companies run offline events – albeit through a form of video conferencing software. He sold his interest in 2021.

“The best thing I’ve learned as a business owner is that it’s OK not to know what you’re doing,” O’Sullivan said. “You can’t be afraid to fail.”

For the past two years, coinciding with his return to Minnesota as a travel design and purchasing manager for BI Worldwide – a global engagement agency with headquarters in Minneapolis, his interest has heightened on TikTok and Instagram for a brand called One Minute Tours. They are just what the name promises, one-minute videos celebrating places he loves.

John O'Sullivan in Melbourne

John O’Sullivan (blue sweatshirt, center rear) shows an insider’s tour spot to people in Melbourne, Australia. He has used his communication degree from CSB and SJU to broaden his reach as a travel industry specialist and to generate a wide audience via short-form social video.

Students well-suited to social media adaptation

While relating his story to Berg’s class, O’Sullivan showed slides on an overhead projector demonstrating his brand style guide and strategy. He grabbed a backpack and pulled out a gimbal-mounted selfie stick. He showed how he can deliver motion in his videos with a smooth, professional feel.

“It’s a weird, new media landscape we’re living in today,” O’Sullivan said. “Through some of these platforms, you might see a video from a news organization. Next you might see something from Stephen Colbert. Then you might see me. When I started on TikTok, I didn’t know what I was doing. Most people over 30 have no idea how it works.”

Put simply, a TikTok algorithm suggests videos you might like. Depending on what you watch and for how long, it tailors a stream with the intention of keeping you engaged.

“You don’t tell it what to watch, it tells you,” O’Sullivan said. “Social video is a place of great opportunity today. It’s similar to what Facebook was before big business got in and took over.”

To succeed, he said, you have to think with the attention span of a 2-year-old (which is helpful because O’Sullivan and his wife, who is from Australia, live in Minneapolis with their two young children).

“It’s quantity over quality,” he said. “It matters whether you post a lot, not necessarily whether what you post is really good. You never know what is going to go viral. Since quantity is the only thing you can control, it’s best to produce something and move on to the next video. This is not (Martin) Scorsese or high cinema.”

But it’s been good enough to warrant many media appearances – including on WCCO and KSTP TV, and his reach continues to grow.

Eyeballs can equal monetization

Some of O’Sullivan’s videos have produced more than a million views in a six-day period. While he’s carefully deciding how to monetize his reach, it’s easy to see the possibilities. If he markets a product – a T-shirt for example – that even a small fraction of his followers eventually buy, his profit could be in the thousands of dollars on a margin of even $5. He already fields appeals to act as an influencer on shoe brands, among other items.

Such activity and how he’s achieved it can be an eye-opener to college students – many of whom already have a solid knowledge of many social media platforms.

“This class is about social media marketing and we’re studying how that fits into the bigger picture of a marketing plan,” said Berg, who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri-Columbia and has taught at CSB and SJU since 2002. “The things John talked about – a branded style guide, goals and objectives, deliverables – those are exactly what we want them to be able to develop. Many of them already know a lot about social media, but it’s doing it within a brand that’s key. That’s how you monetize an outcome, create relationships and enhance marketing.”

So, while O’Sullivan didn’t wind up as a journalist, he has used his education to reinvent himself and his career as needed. He said he never would’ve had opportunities to see the world, let alone experience success, without studying communication as part of a liberal arts education.

“The value in that is that you don’t have to accept the premise that ‘I’ve got to do this and this and this’ to have a career or get where I want to go,” O’Sullivan said. “I had all kinds of classes in college – like German, history and philosophy – that helped prepare me that weren’t necessarily part of my major. I may not have always realized it or felt like it, but I was well qualified to go after everything I’ve done.”

And the conduit to his current job at BI Worldwide also came to light through an acquaintance who is part of the Bennie-Johnnie network of alumni. How he’ll balance that with being an influencer and what other aspirations he may find (perhaps becoming the Anthony Bourdain or Stanley Tucci of TikTok?) remains to be seen. Stay tuned.

“I have no plans to stop,” O’Sullivan said. “I’m having a lot of fun.”

John O'Sullivan in St. Paul

John O’Sullivan ’08 (left) speaks with guests on a tour a little closer to home in St. Paul, Minnesota.

John O'Sullivan returns to campus

John O’Sullivan ’08 returned to the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University this week to visit with students following in his footsteps in communication. His former advisor and instructor, Kelly Berg, invited him to speak to her social media marketing class at SJU. O’Sullivan, who initially considered a career in journalism, found himself traveling the world in the wake of the Great Recession and has carved a niche for himself as a tour guide with a tremendous following on social media, especially TikTok and Instagram.