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TL;DR

MarTechExec takeaway

“DAM is such a powerful tool that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Marketers mistake it for being just another file repository. But DAM is instrumental in giving structure to the creative process, and it’s only gaining more valuable features every day.” — Lana K. Moore, Executive Editor at MarTechExec (@martechexec)

Definition

Digital Asset Management (DAM) is software used for creating, organizing and maintaining a central repository for your business’ media files. More than just providing storage, DAMs also enable team collaboration with a structured system of asset sharing.

Guiding principles

Sometimes, our busy schedules as martech maniacs only permit a few minutes of free time each day. But it’s no skin off our nose.

Whether you skim through during a coffee break or save the full read for Friday night, be sure to note these three pillars of DAM:

Set up a system

DAM survives by way of standards. As a creator, establishing DAM processes should be your first priority. Determine a taxonomy for organizing assets, plus a hierarchy of your team’s access permissions. Then, create guidelines on best practices for searching, tagging, sharing, etc.

Enforce your system

Knowing the right way to navigate a DAM is your team’s first defense against silly mistakes. Use your guidelines to train your team, and explain the reasoning behind the taxonomy you choose. Work toward creating a culture of shared accountability so your DAM system stays in place.

Adapt your system

Use analytics and team feedback to evaluate your DAM technology and procedures every 6-12 months. Combine this with regular QA to check for outdated assets, technical issues, etc. See to it that your DAM strategy adapts to your business’ needs for speed, storage and scalability.

What is Digital Asset Management (DAM)?

In marketing, an asset is simply a creative material that’s used repeatedly. An asset takes many forms, which, when it comes to DAM, are all strictly digital (hence the term “digital asset” management).

These assets include things like logos, videos, typefaces and case studies, as seen in the screenshot below from Bynder.

For the sake of absolute clarity, I’ll elaborate by saying that physical items, like paper brochures and product packaging, are not digital assets. But considering nearly all of us keep digital versions of the assets we print, we can argue that DAMs work with 99 percent of our marketing materials.

Moving on.

DAM vs. MRM vs. CMS

It goes without saying that the idea of storing business files digitally isn’t a revolutionary idea. In fact, marketers often work with a barrage of different tools that all serve this exact purpose.

So, what — Are we just hoarding tools and throwing caution to the wind? Unlikely.

While many thousands of tools in the martech landscape share similarities with DAM, they by no means replace it. To see what I mean, let’s compare three commonly confused tools: Digital Asset Management (DAM), Marketing Resource Management (MRM) and Content Management Systems (CMS).

  • We’ve already defined DAM technology as “software used for creating, organizing and maintaining a central repository for your business’ media files.”
  • CMS technology is used to “create and manage website content. It simplifies website upkeep by giving the user front-end control and eliminating the need for a back-end developer.”
  • MRM technology “helps users manage marketing processes so companies can be more agile in planning, management, and execution on marketing programs and campaigns.”

While all three of these tools are designed to keep marketers and their files organized, they differ in a few key ways:

  • DAMs give marketers access to all the “bits and pieces” of brand collateral, AKA assets, that the marketing team uses to make other things
  • CMSs act as platforms for full-fledged content that can be published to a website and/or shared internally among the entire organization
  • MRMs help marketers keep track of how things like assets and content are being used to reach the marketing team’s objectives

DAM terminology

I’ll be frank: DAM can get pretty dense. My goal is to make it as clear and simple a concept as I can, but a little base knowledge will serve you well.

Keep a mental note of these DAM terms as you go:

Blockchain

Blockchain is a technology that creates essentially endless “chains” of transactional data. Connecting this data together makes purchases easier to validate, making fraud less likely. This comes in handy when you start working with third-parties to license your digital assets.

Data governance

As the name suggests, this process involves “governing” who has access to certain files and how the files are shared. Data governance, most importantly, ensures that you’re in compliance with government regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Digital Rights Management (DRM)

The legal aspect of DAM is known as Digital Rights Management (DRM). While all digital assets are copyrighted by default, DRM offers an extra level of protection. And many DAM technologies have DRM functionality built in.

Licensing

Licensing gives a third party permission to use your digital assets in exchange for a fee. These licenses act like a contract, setting terms for which assets can be used, how they can be used and for how long. Licenses are managed with DRM.

Metadata

Metadata is data about data. In other words, it’s any information that describes a digital file. In DAM, metadata includes details like file upload date, file size, file type, tags/category and what user most recently edited the file.

Taxonomy

This technical-sounding term really just refers to how you name your digital files. For example, you could set a rule that file names should always use dashes (CampaignA-Video1.jpg) and never underscores (CampaignA_Video1.jpg), or vice versa.

To understand DAM, we need to look at how it’s applied to the everyday activities of marketing teams. The best way to do this is to look at it from two different perspectives: that of asset creators versus asset users.

Asset creators

Those who write, design and produce your assets — AKA your creative team — are known as asset creators. They usually get dibs on overseeing the DAM, since they’re most familiar with the asset creation process.

But that’s not the only process they’re responsible for. Whoever the creative team designates as DAM manager will take on an array of other tasks — the most important being taxonomy, metadata and permissions.

Let’s take a look at what each of these involve.

Taxonomy

Like I explained earlier, taxonomy is your method for naming files. The goal of taxonomy in DAM is to make files easy to find and organize. And the key to doing this is consistency.

Start by creating an inventory of current files — Your taxonomy should reflect your inventory so that navigating it is intuitive for your team.

Taxonomies always start at the broadest level and work their way down. For example, if you’d like to organize your assets like this...

… your taxonomy could look like this: Brand-Strategy-Campaign-Content-Asset.

This would render different name lengths depending on the “level” of the file, while keeping a consistent format that makes DAM navigation super simple. Using this taxonomy, your assets would look something like this:

YourBrand-Q1Strategy-CampaignA-Video1-Scene1.jpeg.

When it comes to taxonomy, granularity is good. Make sure to define not only the chronology of your file names, like in the example above, but also the specifics about how they’re written — Are letters capitalized? Are words abbreviated? Are acronyms used? You'd be surprised how even tiny variations in file names can throw a wrench in your DAM strategy.

Metadata

If each of your different digital assets were a donut (let’s say jelly-filled, just for fun), then metadata would be the sprinkles on top.

While taxonomy gives your digital assets a basic structure, metadata allows for even more detail. And this makes it all the easier for you and your team to search for and find files.

The metadata elements and values you use will depend, in part, on the DAM tool. But there’s also a good chance your DAM tool will give you the option to add custom fields.

Permissions

DAM permissions make it possible to limit or restrict access to files based on certain factors. This is another reason why creating a granular taxonomy with rich metadata is so important.

Let’s say you’ve decided that Bill from Sales should only have access to the latest version of your business’ pitch deck (for the sake of avoiding another major mishap, perhaps). If you don’t keep tabs on version numbers in your DAM, you’d have no easy way of restricting Bill’s permissions.

Like with metadata, the amount of specificity you have with permissions will vary with the DAM tool. You may be limited to only editing permissions at the campaign level, for example, or by user type.

In other cases, like with the tool shown below, you may have more freedom to edit permissions based on individual user, category, tags, etc.

Asset users

Those who take your digital assets and utilize them for various projects are known as asset users. They could be members of your sales team, for instance, who are collecting assets to use on a business presentation.

While they’re pretty uninvolved in DAM operations, much of the success of your DAM depends on asset users. This is why it’s vital that asset creators take time to offer thorough training on things like:

  • How to search for a file
  • How to download a file
  • How to tag/categorize files
  • How to request a different file type

Content Marketing Institute conducted a survey on the educational challenges of digital asset management and found that the #1 challenge was “how to better use [the] technology.”

Why marketers love DAM

For creators, digital assets are akin to brand treasure. And the prevalence of aforementioned tools like MRM and CMS prove that file storage solutions are no stranger to martech.

In fact, 92 percent of content marketers agree that content is an asset for their organization. At the same time, though, only 46 percent have a point-by-point strategy for “[treating] it as such.”

And then the martech gods said, “Let there be DAM.”

This technology is tailor-made for that latter percent. Here’s why.

Front and central

DAM is, in part, a file repository — a designated location where teams can store and share assets in a secure way. And it’s this feature of DAMs that makes centralization possible.

In short, centralization involves venturing far and wide to gather your digital assets from the many desktops, email accounts and other places they might reside. Then, those assets are uploaded to your DAM and organized using whatever structure you so choose.

DAMs also allow you to upload variations of your assets for use in different media — like full-color and grayscale versions of your logo or a PNG alongside a JPEG.

Considering how many different types of assets we marketers create, it’s a relief that DAM technology makes consolidation so simple.

Forrester’s report on the 2017 DAM Vendor Landscape makes a clear point that centralization is a key benefit of DAM. “DAM offers productivity gains just by centralizing assets,” the report reads. “Content gets to the website faster, and marketers waste less time trying to find the right asset.”

Vary necessary

Creators have a tendency to carelessly name files, especially when updating “final” versions. The below image is an exaggerated — yet somewhat accurate — depiction of this bad habit.

But we aren’t singling you out, designers. The truth is that we’re all guilty of perpetuating this messy system. According to eMarketer, “managing version control” is among the top five biggest challenges for SMB marketers in the U.S.

Version control is a core functionality in DAM. As explained by Laurel Norris from DigitalAssetManagement.com, “Version control in a DAM system allows you to upload multiple files with the same name in the same location — keeping the most recent upload at the forefront and still allowing easy access to the older versions.”

You gotta govern

Even the tiniest change to a digital asset can send your marketing plans — or worse, those of your client — totally awry. And though it might seem contrary to the point of centralization, asset governance is actually vital for making sure these mistakes don’t occur.

You should note, though, that asset governance is not designed to:

  • Create siloed teams
  • Imply any team member is untrustworthy
  • Encourage a superiority complex

In other words, asset governance isn’t about governing people — it’s about governing files. DAM technology “can efficiently implement employee permissions and access levels” to ensure none of your files are accidentally edited, deleted or moved.

Why marketers hate DAM

As beneficial as it may be, DAM isn’t the easiest tool to manage. Both DAM creators and users have a few bones to pick with the technology.

Here’s what marketers have to say about barriers to DAM investment, structure and adoption.

Balancing act

The three most sought-out characteristics of DAM — storage, speed and cost — are often mutually exclusive. And that presents a conundrum for marketers: We can’t have our DAM and eat it too.

Consider this:

  • The speed of your DAM depends on the amount of storage you’re using
  • The amount of storage you’re using depends on how much you buy
  • The more you store in your DAM, the slower it performs
  • The more speed you add to your DAM, the more you pay

In other words, speed depends on storage, which depends on cost. And unless your organization has beaucoups of cash, investing in a DAM can seem like an uphill battle that you just can’t win.

This forces DAM-seekers to rethink, reprioritize and often settle for a DAM tool that isn’t a good fit for them.

Tidy taxonomy

One of the biggest hurdles of DAM isn’t in the tool itself but in sticking to a DAM taxonomy. According to Content Marketing Institute, only 14 percent of content marketers have an asset taxonomy in place.

That’s a slim population to begin with. How many of those taxonomies are intuitive, easy to navigate and adaptable to their organization's growth? Surely, it’s not 100 percent.

Even the current state of auto-tagging in DAM isn’t super helpful. In an article for Digital Asset Management News, Martin Wilson writes that both auto and manually-added tags “are mostly generic and provide little in the way of client-specific customisation.” For example, he says, “What organisations in the UK might call a “pavement” Google probably calls a “sidewalk”.

Seeing as how taxonomy is one of if not the most useful features of DAM, teams that can’t get their asset taxonomy in order won’t see much benefit from a DAM tool in the long run.

Not hot to adopt

Research from eMarketers shows that only 11 percent of North American B2B marketers use DAM. Yet another eMarketer study shows that among content marketers, specifically, that percentage is more than double.

This suggests that there’s a discrepancy in the value of DAM for creators versus the value of DAM for users. And this doesn’t just result in a tizzy between right-brained and left-brained folk — It affects adoption rate of the DAM tool as well.

With an internal-facing technology like DAM, the likelihood of success depends on widespread, consistent use across teams. 

But it’s tough enough to bring teams on board with new technologies — 43 percent of technology executives site “resistance to change” as the top challenge to implementation.

Asking yours to adapt to a new tool and a new management process on top of it? That can be a burden, to say the least.

Choosing the right tool for DAM

You can reap the benefits and avoid the pitfalls of DAM by staying cool, calm and collected during your DAM search.

DigitalAssetManagement.com created a DAM solution guide that helps you do that by breaking up the selection process into four steps: strategize, research, justify and evaluate.

  1. The strategize step includes pinpointing what your business needs from a DAM, both in terms of features and functionality.
  2. The research step includes digging through reports and advice from reputable sources in order to better understand DAM technology and how it benefits businesses.
  3. The justify step includes prepping your strategy and research so that you can present your team with the reasons why DAM is a smart investment.
  4. The evaluate step includes comparing different DAM solutions based on your strategy and research, plus any team feedback from the justify step. More than anything else, this stage should focus on solutions that have proven track records with:

    1. Search functionality, which allows you to “look up files according to file format, keyword, metadata, owner and many other variables.”
    2. Advanced tagging, which “can automatically tag your content by year, topic, event, and content type.”
    3. Faceted classification, which “effectively manages the relationships between the various objects and categories in the system.”

The future of DAM

Though it’s slowly but surely helping to solve martech challenges, current DAM technology is nowhere near perfect.

But there are big changes on the DAM horizon. We asked some of martech’s top DAM professionals to give their predictions for the evolution of DAM.

Here’s what they had to say.

Linking and syncing

John Horodyski from CMSWire explicitly said that when marketers “think DAM, think integration.” He goes on to explain that DAM will never work if it’s treated like “an island” in our sea of other martech tools.

It won’t take long for marketers to realize that, like we’ve seen with other tools, integration is key.

“Connecting [DAM] to tools like print-on-demand software to deliver customized local printed materials and ads across a distributed network will be an essential step towards having a complete marketing solution.” — Amy Galabinski, S4 Marketing Resource Center Services Manager at Suttle-Straus

“The rapid growth of content being created for social media will require DAM systems to evolve to be integrated with social media distribution.” — Neil Bottrill, Digital Operations Director at DMS

“Rather than just being a file management system, DAM needs to evolve towards an integrated enabler for productivity for streamlined marketing operations.” — Nicolas Athanasopoulos, Digital Marketing Manager at OneSpin Solutions

“In addition to facilitating rapid project development and execution, DAMs will offer greater searchability and integration with multimedia assets and marketplace at scale.” — Ross Smith, Chief Architect at PITSS

AI/machine learning

It’s impossible to keep up with the rate at which we’re creating new data. In fact, Deanna Ballew from Widen said her company’s customers went from having about 250,000 digital assets on hand to over a million in just a few short years.

This leads to more metadata, she notes, which leads to more metadata input from DAM creators and users. AI and machine learning will take some work of our plates by automating different parts of the DAM process.

“Once DAM platforms start combining extensive asset metadata with machine learning and predictive analytics, they will enable content creators and content users to deliver smarter, personalized and more impactful customer experiences.” — Maria Osipova, Vice President of Marketing at MediaValet

“DAM technologies in the future will put much more emphasis on auto-extracting data from documents such as extracting entities, relationships and topic codes by using a combination of natural language processing and human-trained machine algorithms.” — Emily Kolvitz, DAM Consultant at Bynder

“DAM systems will dramatically simplify the user experience for both types of users - asset organizers and asset consumers. For those organizing brand assets, automation such as AI-powered metadata tagging, facial-recognition and pixel matching will play larger roles.” — Leslie Weller, Director of Marketing at Canto

Blockchain gains

Because of its innate security, blockchain will undoubtedly play a part in the exchange of digital assets between marketers, clients and asset licensees.

According to eMarketer, 31 percent of U.S. executives have already incorporated blockchain into their business. Another 17 percent say they're planning to do so.

“We’ll start to see digital asset management platforms exploring or starting to incorporate blockchain technologies into their system builds.” — Emily Kolvitz, DAM Consultant at Bynder

“A distributed registry of “perceptual hashes” and entitlements will be implemented via blockchain technologies and can help ensure digital asset rights across platforms and distribution channels.” — Maria Osipova, Vice President of Marketing at MediaValet

Current trends in DAM

In martech, wishful thinking only takes us so far. And our experts aren’t banking on sheer hope to stir up change in the DAM market.

Here are the current trends in DAM that indicate the aforementioned predictions will soon come to life.

Flex to fit

DAM solution providers are beginning to adapt to the evolving needs of creators and users — whether by supporting new content types or integrating with other martech tools.

This added flexibility of DAM means that the technology is starting to become more accessible to businesses of all sizes.

“Companies want, and can expect, capabilities that aid in content creation, reviews and approvals, brand management and asset management.” — Bob Hickey, General Manager at Webdam

“The process of moving [assets] into the cloud and the costs of storing them 'on-line' are much higher than putting them into an LTO library on premises. Lower cost options like Amazon Glacier start to make the economics work for certain customers.” — Straker Coniglio, Vice President of Media Asset Management and Digital Publishing, Asia Pacific at Vizrt

“DAM is finding its way into enterprise solutions. Each major player in the marketing and business solutions provider market is dedicating resources to the improvement of their built-in DAM features and making sure it integrates with others.” — Charlie Townes, DAM Consultant at Townes Consulting

Creators’ autopilot

DAM without automation is just… a list of files. Marketers realize that the value of DAM lies not in its use as a file repository but in its ability to create a smart, structured, accessible and automatically updated library of digital assets.

According to eMarketer, 54 percent of IT and business decision-makers in the U.S. have “significantly” improved digital transformation by using automation to make decisions.

“Even though powerful DAM tools for searching are available, people still are trying to organize content for their users to speed up the selection process.” — Fergal Glynn, Chief Marketing Officer at MerlinOne

“Facebook already has intentions to use artificial intelligence via DAM in changing the entire workflow of auto-tagging and image recognition.” — Chirag Sharma, Digital Marketing Head at DataLifeHealth

“Dropbox's announcement of their Showcase solution was developed for as a means for sharing and promoting their work. If it becomes enabled with a rich, automated metadata capability, it could quickly end up blurring the lines between a traditional data repository (disk) and a Work-in-Progress Dam.” — Anthony Welgemoed, Founder and Chief Technology Officer at Ziflow

Grade A assets

Analytics in DAM makes it possible to learn what assets perform best in a given context.

With this feature, marketers are starting to see DAM as less of a simple file repository and more of a dynamic, analytical tool that supports their data-driven efforts.

“AI and analytics are poised to accelerate the speed of asset ingestion, marketing execution, and performance tracking/ROI.” —  Bob Hickey, General Manager at Webdam

“The investment on media analysis technology by Google, Amazon, and Microsoft (see the latest announcements at AWS Reinvent Summit about IA applications on media, by Amazon) show a strong trend toward DAM IA.” — Olivier Grenet, Chief Technology Officer at Wedia

“The data science field has also emerged in the recent times and DAM technology will further be evolved with the data scientists trying to analyze all content related assets and their results so as to help marketers make better decisions.” — Ravissh Hasan, Digital Marketing Manager at qordata

Conclusion

DAM technology is at the crossroads of creativity and analytics. It offers a safe haven where brand assets are shared and a logical structure by which asset performance is easily monitored.

And as DAM tools evolve with the times — expanding integrations, adding security and automating everywhere — it’s imminent that they’ll be fully embraced.

Our featured expert Howard Scott, Director of Digital at Shed Brand Innovation, said it best:

“The needs of DAM remain in many ways the same as they have been for the past decade or so — but the ways in which things need to be controlled, published, manipulated and created in the first place has changed exponentially, and will only continue to do so.”