The Digital Asset Management Identity Crisis And Its Impact On DAM ROI

Matthew Gonnering of one of the DAM News featured vendors, Widen, has written an article for the iMedia Connection blog on how DAM systems should embrace social media collaboration tools:

Clearly, the social collaboration model aligns well with the needs of DAM users and creative teams. The key, however, is not to reinvent the wheel. Vendors must stay as close as possible to the iconic features their agency and marketing users know from experience at, Facebook and other popular online destinations. Like it or not, they have already trained your users and set their expectations. While DAM vendors may be tempted to create a branded “exclusive” feedback system of their own, there’s far more value in features that users can grasp and exploit instantly.” [Read More]

On the whole, I would agree with Matthew’s analysis, but I think it’s a more complicated issue and I believe it highlights an underlying UX-driven identity crisis taking place in the DAM sector and the potential risk to the ROI that can be obtained from DAM as it progresses to a more mature phase.

DAM Growth Is Lead By Marketing End Users

The two factors which have kick-started the current growth trends in DAM are widespread availability of digital media origination devices in the last decade and a dramatic increase in demand from marketing personnel from about 2005-2006 onwards.  Prior to this recent interest in DAM from marketers, the productivity opportunity was understood by production departments who were closer to media origination tasks (and therefore were already dealing with larger volumes of it).

When I am involved in DAM projects these days, it’s rare for at least one person from marketing to not be involved.  Even if it’s for a preservation, sports or cultural requirement, there will usually be a  ‘designer’ on-hand whose remit is to ensure that the resulting solution adheres to basic usability standards and is at least presentable.

Most legacy DAM systems from the pre-boom DAM era were desktop applications and even the fully web browser based ones were often dressed up to look and feel like them.  The developers thought that having your DAM system behave like a desktop app was a positive benefit since they were still focussing on the production clientele that had hitherto been the buying authorities.  When marketing people began to take a greater interest in DAM, a common request was that they wanted their DAM system to be more like their corporate website (or maybe Intranet).  This is because marketing users tend to regard DAM systems as being partly a corporate marcomms project as much as they are about software implementation.  I’m not sure that viewpoint is an entirely accurate one, but you have to appreciate their position and individual remit within the wider business.

As well as being able to find media, the DAM system is also an opportunity to re-enforce corporate branding policy since staff and marketing oriented suppliers like agencies etc will be logging in frequently.

The need to have a DAM system that reflects your corporate identity has become a ‘maintenance’ feature now for marketers, so basics like being able to change the logo over are old news for most now.  There is an expectation that the DAM presentation options will go much further, so the style and substance may have equal importance (intentionally or otherwise).  Great though it is to be able to have the ‘glide and slide’ user experience, I think there are some issues developing here which may present forthcoming ROI problems for anyone who over-obsesses over this area to the exclusion of everything else.

Consolidating User Needs – Whose DAM System Is It Anyway?

Contributory to this challenge is that many DAM systems now are being commissioned to consolidate multiple needs and replace legacy systems from across the business and there are different grades of usage also.

60% of the users will be relatively light, casual visitors who need to get a logo, video of the latest commercial or picture of the CEO etc.  They might participate in some more involved operations, but it will happen infrequently.  Then there are another 20% who are moderate users – mainly marketing managers who want to keep track of projects and review potential assets.  They will be doing a lot of searching, preparing and reviewing lightboxes and maybe usage or upload approvals with some editing of metadata.

Lastly, there are a core 20% of very heavy users who are intimately involved with the DAM system.  These include digital asset managers, production staff  (e.g. in-house creative teams) and maybe also third party suppliers like agencies.

These people tend to be the major suppliers of assets and make copious use of any cataloguing, importing, exporting and any batch capabilities especially.  While this group only account for 20% of the users, if you take into account the time spent actually logged in and using the system, their usage is likely to exceed 50% of the total system utilisation, sometimes more.

While having a familiar interface that resembles shopping at Amazon or using Facebook etc might work quite well for the casual users and probably the moderate users too, these interfaces are unsatisfactory for the heavier users.  Like many people reading this, I have an Aladdin’s cave of stuff I’ve bought from Amazon cluttering up my living quarters and desk when at work too.  However, if I had to use it all day, every day to find assets, the shine might come off the interface fairly quickly because it’s just too slow and cumbersome for extended work.

The Diverging Needs Of DAM Users

It has been commented here on DAM News by my co-contributor, Naresh Sarwan on several occasions that professional digital asset managers tend to eschew their corporate DAM system in favour of a dedicated product like Lightroom and treat the DAM as an endpoint which they deposit assets into for colleagues to access.  Many DAM systems now directly integrate with some of the more common graphics production tools like InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator etc so production staff don’t need to leave them.  Similar trends are occurring in Web Content Management (WCM) also.

There is a risk that ROI calculations will be invalidated if they are simply based on the number of users and lowest common denominator needs rather than the depth of usage of each different group thereof.  In many aspects of IT, it often transpires you need at least two alternatives for nearly everything to cope with either one product failing or not fully supporting all your requirements.  It looks like the same is true with DAM solutions too.  The asset might be shared between different stakeholders, but what they each need to do with them is remarkably different.

A Task Of Biblical Proportions

It seems clear to me that while it’s theoretically possible for one provider to offer a product that has the depth of functionality of Lightroom, fits inside Adobe suites and your WCM of choice while also offering the usability of Amazon (before we have got into other batch functions like transcoding), things have only just got properly started and this may soon become a task of biblical proportions.  Even if you can keep pace with this, the cost to end users may become prohibitive as all that legacy code (however obscure) still has to be maintained and supported.

We have discussed the DAM value chain and the necessity to start to separate the digital asset from a DAM system several times this year now.  Developments like embedded metadata (XMP especially) are beginning to make it feasible to disconnect asset metadata from the database of a single provider, but much more needs to be done with interoperability and integration of assets from one solution into another.

To conclude where we came in, I can agree with the suggestion that DAM systems need user interfaces that end users are familiar with, but that means fully appreciating the needs of all of the potential users and carefully assessing how much each of them utilise a DAM system in terms of the tasks they need to carry out.  There seems like a classic 80/20 Pareto optimality effect in play with DAM (as with many other fields).  Being able to ‘like’ assets and offer comments and ratings/feedback might help keep the 80% engaged, but the 20% who do a lot of the work to make those same assets available for everyone else will need something more demanding.

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