Generator, Aggregator, Curator: The Changing Roles of Online Communicators

October 12, 2012

By Susan Balcom Walton, M.A., APR, and Timothy J. Pasch, Ph.D.

Just a few years ago, preparing for a career in public relations was a fairly straightforward proposition. While the industries or companies we worked for varied, and the array of products, clients or issues changed, the skills they required were similar. And, whether we were in media relations, issues management or marketing communications, the certain knowledge that we were simply communicators was underneath it all.

However, the advent of social media has added a few more “-ators” to the lineup of PR roles.

While practitioners have traditionally been trained to be generators — writers and creators of content — the changing social media landscape also demands some new capabilities for PR professionals — specifically, the roles of aggregator and curator.

Who does what?

One of the most challenging tasks in defining the changing roles of online communicators is differentiating between them. Since most professional communicators possess and nurture a variety of skills when working online, it can be challenging to define how and when these roles evolve and merge.

For the purposes of this article, we will employ some basic definitions, with the understanding that these definitions are flexible and can overlap:


Generators, as previously noted, are creators of online content. A generator is an individual who creates, evokes or otherwise initiates the genesis of some form of online artifact that can be transmitted and subsequently received by others in a digital (or other) format. Generators deal with their own content, rather than content from other sources, and, whatever their area of expertise, they have the vital responsibility of creating content that is meaningful and relevant to their audiences.

Jonny Bentwood, global head of analyst relations and influencer engagement in the London office of Edelman Public Relations, also describes this concept of a generator as being an idea starter.

According to Bentwood, idea starters are, in many ways, the first stage in a new paradigm of creating and leveraging online influence on a global scale.

“This small collective of people are the creative brains behind many of the thoughts and ideas that other people talk about,” he says. “Even though they may not necessarily have a large audience themselves, their insightful opinions often flow and are repeated throughout conversations long after they have left.”

Historically, communicators who wanted to share ideas and influence others would need to meet with gatekeepers and attempt to convince them of the value of those ideas. But the paradigm shift of social media means that anyone can now “start” ideas by taking them directly to the audience.

And so, a new group of individuals, known as new influentials, can generate ideas and leverage distribution technologies to enlighten people, engage in global conversations and create information that resonates.

Brandon Andersen, manager of global SEO/social media product development at Cision in Chicago explains this new form of direct communication further.

“We have to understand who our audience is, now more than ever. Back in the day, that key audience was mostly members of the media,” Andersen says. “But now, we are going to the audience directly, and we have to ask, ‘Who are the people who will potentially purchase my product?’ We have to understand what they want, and what they need, so that the information we create and curate is valuable.”


Aggregators are publishers who deal primarily with other people’s content. To do this effectively, an aggregator may need skills related to Web crawling or detailed online searching in order to gather all potential information related to a particular subject online.

Many tools are available to aggregate information, ranging from RSS feeds such as Google Reader, Reeder or NetNewsWire; to sophisticated Boolean search engines such as DevonAgent for research, HootSuite for social networks, and TweetDeck for Twitter accounts. You can also use organizational tools to leverage and combine collections of social media accounts, resulting in aggregators such as Rebelmouse, Vizify, Hypemarks and Glossi.

Bentwood refers to individuals in this phase of the online communication chain as amplifiers.

Consider a website such as Reddit, for example. Simply by being posted on the site, a piece of information will gain prominence online. The more often disparate sources collect things, the more likely their relative importance will become amplified. It will be augmented through the act of its “flocking” with other similar forms of information, and will gain a higher likelihood of being of flagged by those looking for patterns, who are prepared to recognize them.

Simply collecting data — as essential as this stage may be in the online communicative process — is not enough to take the thoughts of generators or idea starters and move them to the next level. For this, the skills involved in curation come to the forefront.


Curators gather material like aggregators do — but there is one critical difference. “Being a content curator is not unlike being a museum curator — you are determining the value of what you have. You are sorting the wheat from the chaff,” explains Andersen.

Curators invoke judgment, knowledge and experience to determine what is valuable to their readers, and they provide content that meets that need. Curators are specialized experts in their areas, and are able to sort through pre-aggregated information and adapt the information for their audience. They allow the message to resonate and begin to achieve the broader impacts inherent in its content.

For this reason, the ability for online communication professionals to identify and engage with curators is an essential attribute.

Another way to understand the roles that particular individuals may play in the online communicative process is to relate them to the life cycle of an idea.

Let’s say that a professor at a university has a brilliant idea. Perhaps someone writes a paper and a peer-reviewed journal publishes it. An online aggregator, such as academia.edu, may initially pick up this paper’s title, abstract and metadata.

However, the content will not achieve its greatest effectiveness until an expert in the area curates this paper after having taken note of it via the aggregation source.

Putting popularity in its place

All too often, content generators who want to broadly disseminate their ideas simply search for the most popular individuals on social networks. But popularity is not the most significant indicator of influence online. Popularity is — perhaps more than anything else — an indicator that the “popular” individual may be effective at aggregating, or amplifying, information in a valuable way. 

When gauging popularity, Andersen looks for more than simple popularity as an indicator of true influence.

“Although we look at the analytics as far as what is the most popular, we also look for the lowest bounce rate (not bouncing off the page), to help you to understand what content is valuable to your audience,” Andersen says.

And Bentwood continues the popularity discussion. “We have intuitively known this for some time in our discipline: trying to see how influential someone is just by how popular they are is fundamentally flawed,” he says. “This is because influence is not just about popularity. If you are popular, then you are a message amplifier. But being popular doesn’t mean that you are creating ideas.”

The payback comes by determining those individuals who are the idea starters and the best curators of information.

So, if an online communicator desires to influence an idea in order to disseminate it widely in the online community, then it is important to identify and engage with the message creators and curators, rather than merely those with the most followers.

The “timeless skills”

While many new skills are required to navigate the social media landscape and to be effective generators, aggregators and curators, it’s encouraging to know that many of the core skills of public relations have remained important — or have become even more so. Here are some of the essential ones:

  •  Being flexible: We need to understand where we fit into specific online conversations, and where our expertise lies in each case. Are we the subject-matter experts, the audience experts or the content quality experts? As Bentwood notes, “We enter the conversation in whatever — and wherever — place we can disseminate the message best.”
  • Understanding your audience: We all learned how to identify and assess our audiences as part of our PR training.
    And as Andersen points out, understanding the key people in a conversation is even more important in online communications. “That’s critical,” he notes, “Because on the Internet, our audience can leave us in one click.”
  • Knowing where to find and how to access information: The communicator’s role of seeking out and finding key information is significant in the online world. But it can also be difficult. Bentwood observes that since one person doesn’t form information alone, it’s important to find out where conversations are happening.
  • Realizing your objectives: Are you trying to increase trust? Build sales? Change behavior? Grow the size of your online community? As in all strategic public relations, you should ask this question early in the process.
  • Having strong writing skills: Good writing remains the fundamental cornerstone of all communications, including those that take place online.

    However, as Andersen says, “It’s important to understand that writing for the Web is different than it is for any other form of media.” The key, he stresses, is to understand the basics of website usability, or how people read content online.
  • Being aware of current events: As PR people, it’s our job to be aware of news and trends happening throughout the world. Whether we are generators, curators or aggregators, we can use our knowledge of trends to create opportunities for our clients. Our unique skills and perspectives enable us to add value to the conversation and build relationships — which is, after all, the essence of public relations.

Susan Balcom Walton, M.A., APR,  is vice president for university and public affairs at the University of North Dakota. She has also held communications management positions at various Fortune 500 companies.

Timothy J. Pasch, Ph.D., is assistant professor of communication at the University of North Dakota, where he researches cyberculture and culturally optimized social media localization.


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