What’s Holding DAM Back: The Media

This article by Ralph Windsor, DAM News Editor is the third in a series of three others around the subject: “What’s Holding DAM Back”.  The other two articles cover the Customers and the Vendors.

My segment of this series of articles is billed as being about ‘The Media’, but it is more about the PR output generated by the DAM industry and how that constraints progress.  With any discussion of media-related topics, a fair amount of the analysis has to involve consideration of the subjects covered themselves and I will be doing that also within this item.

Current DAM PR Themes & Trends
The following are a few recent themes in DAM:

  • DAM and technology fashions
  • DAM ROI and the lack of understanding about what it is and how to measure it
  • The current deficit in DAM innovation
  • The declining appreciation of the role of metadata
  • Facile and over-simplified educational materials

These are all expressed through the medium of press releases, blog posts and trade press articles. Having set myself the task, I am obliged to not only proceed with it, but also to endeavour to consider some methods to transform what is currently a less than optimal situation into something more useful. With that in mind, I will aim for this article to be balanced and fair, but not uncritical where I believe it is warranted.

DAM and technology fashions
There are many people who think Digital Asset Management (and the issues associated with it) did not exist until around 2010.  This is despite the point about its longevity being made on numerous occasions by those who have been involved with it for an extended period.  For anyone still labouring under the misconception that DAM is a recent phenomena, be aware that specifically digital media management systems have been in existence since 1990 and the term was coined in 1994 (although attribution for who came up with it is a subject of some debate).

DAM is a continuation of non-digital stock photo and video library management techniques and a number of the metaphors and terminology persist now.  It is not at all new: people have needed to organise media for at least multiple decades (some might even reasonably argue centuries).  Further, they have been devising many techniques for it which are at least the theoretical basis for the systems people use today.  In pure trend following terms, compared with other technology markets, the DAM industry has had a longer and far less steep upward trajectory with only the last six or seven years looking anything like a boom or bubble.

The corollary to the sudden belated interest in DAM from technology fashion followers is now a number of them want to claim that it is now ‘last year’ and being usurped, or at least subsumed by the invention of other more recent software classifications.  This links into a number of the other points I will discuss and as should become apparent, there is a lot of overlap between them.

DAM systems are not like iPhones and as much as many vendors are keen on developing interfaces for their products that you can use with them, you will be dealing with DAM issues and systems that claim to help resolve them for many years.  In all likelihood, for the duration of the time you still have media assets to catalogue, you will be relying on a DAM of some kind to help you fulfil the task.

Trends in tech fashions might somehow force a rebranding of the term, but the base elements of what you need to do are not going to be any different. Those who choose to ignore this reality are destined to perpetually repeat the mistakes of the past.  This already happens in other technology sectors, for example Customer Experience Management (CXM) and earlier incarnations like Customer Relationship Management (CRM).  You can change the name but the problems that the technology was developed to solve usually stick around for quite a lot longer.

The continuous refreshing (or ‘rehashing’ to use an alternative term) of technology concepts holds back DAM because it necessitates the re-learning of techniques and the same problems needing to be solved many times.  This resetting effect is a common theme of many other technology markets and while the IT fashion business might be a lucrative one for some, it is not positive for any genuine innovation and progress that may have wider benefits.

DAM ROI and the lack of understanding about what it is and how to measure it
One of the key DAM PR themes from a few years ago was the multitude of DAM ROI infographics in circulation, usually devised by vendors (although there were a number of other consultants who joined in too).  The essence of many was a premise that you can derive an average time required to find an asset, compare that with a similar number without a system and then multiply that by the average hourly rate of an employee.

The obvious flaw in these evaluations is in arriving at an average number either before a system was in place or afterwards and the issues surrounding accurately identifying what that is as well as the vast range of statistical divergence which might negatively impact the value of the data obtained.  In some cases involving searches for recently originated or accessed assets, it can be proven that DAM systems actually slow users down.

I see less of these graphics now, although I suspect they have merely gone into suspended animation ready to be brought back to life when those responsible think they are less likely to be taken to task about them in publications like this one.

The lack of understanding of DAM ROI by those responsible for developing the products where ROI will be won and lost is revealing about the nature of the DAM software industry.  It suggests that those developing the software lack the tools to analyse ROI or do not know how to do it.

Most of the ROI proposition in DAM is about incremental improvements and sequential optimisation.  Each interaction with most solutions or the media assets they contain is too short and not discrete enough (i.e. cannot be isolated from other activities) to be easily measured.  This means that classic ROI techniques that might be used in subjects like logistics and manufacturing do not easily translate without the measurement exercise itself becoming complex to organise.  Most of the infographics use them anyway and just chose to ignore this flaw when applied to DAM.

Effective DAM ROI measurement has to be based on an analysis of the data based on a given business objective.  For example: does having a DAM system enable marketing campaigns to be delivered more quickly and why?  This has to be looked at with reference to each case.  The answers are often not obvious, they require a deductive process that involves both quantitative analysis of auditing data combined with non-quantitative approaches such as user interviews.  In some cases, the answer might not be positive, but that prompts a series of other questions which could help identify the cause.

The failure of DAM vendors to make a compelling ROI case in their marketing literature is mostly due to over-simplistic techniques used by the individuals responsible for marketing them. DAM solutions are tools for ROI measurement and optimisation – that is their key ROI proposition.  Once your assets are satisfactorily organised you can see more clearly exactly what your organisation is doing with them.  This point seems to have been missed by large sections of the DAM industry, including both the solution vendors and the consultants who are supposed to tell people how to get the most from it.

A lack of a plausible ROI explanations that do not read like they are just marketing communications flannel is another factor holding back DAM and damages the trust that prospective users might place in the claims made by the industry.

The DAM innovation deficit
I have covered this topic extensively in my comment on Jeff Lawrence’s articles for CMSWire.  What appears to be emerging is a deficit in DAM innovation: the market is just not moving forward.  There are several reasons for this:

  • Many vendors are preoccupied with developing functionality that other firms already have so they do not appear to be missing anything.  The result is the time and resources available for them to innovate are restricted.
  • Most of the low-hanging fruit in terms of DAM innovation has been picked, what remains is of a cosmetic or trivial nature.
  • Many of the user problems which would benefit from innovative solutions are too hard to economically solve without specialisation within a given area of DAM, but vendors are wary of taking the risk of entering it for fear they will lose market share if they do not offer every conceivable DAM feature.

Many DAM vendors appear to hide behind user feedback and appropriate this to avoid tackling the more demanding issues.  What they are not grasping is that the users are not systems architects, they can explain a problem, but not necessarily write a scoping brief on how to resolve it.  So now when I read blog posts and press releases from many vendors about their latest editions, they tend to describe more cosmetic or simplistic alterations.

At present there appears to be an impasse or blind-spot.  The users know there are problems, but often they either think they are unsolvable or they are too deep and complex for them to explain satisfactorily.  The vendors are looking to the users to tell them what to do and the net effect is both parties staring at each other with blank confused expressions wondering what happens next.  This is where we are now with DAM in 2015; the media output of much of the industry reeks of uncertainty and a lack of clarity goals or purpose.

There is a difference between market research where you just do what customers tell you to and understanding their needs (i.e. looking deeper into what they are saying rather than treating it like an instruction to do something).  The DAM software industry only ever got started because the firms involved at the inception of it were prepared to take some calculated risks and essentially gamble that they would pay off.  The margin accrued from that trade is now running out and someone will need to have the foresight and capital to repeated the exercise for further progress in DAM to be made.

One big difference which ought to make this less of a high-risk undertaking is that there are now some expert users who have a lot of experience of both the software and how to make effective use of it, i.e. digital asset managers.  Some of this group might be able to explain in information architecture terms how potential solutions might work and what modifications need to be made to products.  The cosmetic modifications are like the construction equivalent of plastic and wood: they change the perception of the structure (and do fulfil an essential role) but there is a limit to what can be done using them.  The core of the building, however, is made from concrete and steel and that is where many of the issues now present themselves.

I expect many vendors to find these kind of modifications both hard and unappealing to carry out, but if they want to remain as DAM specialists and not be forced to dilute their offer by moving into adjacent markets (with all the alternative risks that entails) then they are going to have to face this head-on.  Some vendors already understand this point, but there are too few of them prepared to engage with the problem.

The declining appreciation of the role of metadata
Since DAM acquired a more visible role than it has had historically, a number of people who may have previously written it off as a some kind of photo librarian’s backwater have subsequently been obliged to take it more seriously than they may have done hitherto.

In their eagerness to give the impression that DAM is a subject they know a lot about, first they seem to have misunderstood the fundamentals of it and now they go on to compound the error by making false associations or conflating the subject to something else that they find more appealing (and one which they may also believe they are more familiar with).

To tackle these issues, we need to get some perspective about what DAM is and why it has a practical benefit that might appeal to users.  In essence, it is about taking disorganised collections of digital entities (‘assets’) and arranging them into some kind of logical order so that they can be quickly analysed with a view to more efficient completion of tasks that utilise them.

I acknowledge that once assets are in an organised state (‘tagged’, ‘catalogued’, whatever you preferred term is) there are a number of other potential opportunities which many find more compelling than search and metadata alone.  For example, gaining insights into how they were used (the ROI subject mentioned earlier) or maybe providing some applications to automate re-purposing and re-use such as branded collateral generation, distribution to social media.  These are all useful by-products of having an organised collection of media assets but what makes them possible is metadata models and the intersection of different methods of classification such as controlled vocabularies, taxonomies and ontologies.

In order to support any new purpose which you want to use your digital assets for, there has to be the metadata present to enable it and someone or something has to be able to apply that.  Even in the case of the automated application of metadata, human beings still have to devise abstract rules to govern the process and quality control it later.  Metadata is the start, beginning and end of what makes DAM useful, this is why those who have worked in DAM and related fields for any significant duration soon grasp why is such an important subject.

The on-going refinement of DAM metadata provides a near-limitless source of opportunities to exploit assets and gain an advantage from them (however that manifests itself for your organisation).  Apart from the exponential growth in the volume of digital assets in existence, metadata is the other key factor that will sustain Digital Asset Management principles for a very long time to come – even the subject itself might end up being called something different in the future.

Many, especially those who were late to the field of Digital Asset Management, find metadata, taxonomies, controlled vocabularies etc to be dull subjects that hold little interest for them.  They prefer to quickly move away from that conversation and instead switch into how assets are used – especially the more prominent visual aspects.  The problem they either have run into now or will do soon is that if the essence of DAM (the metadata) is not continuously improved, refined and re-analysed, the opportunities to profit from digital assets start to become more scarce.  It is perhaps not a surprise that the decline in DAM innovation mirrors the reduced value applied to metadata and enhancing the scope of what can be done with it.

Many of the latecomers to DAM who write about it appear to not have given themselves enough time to distil their understanding of the significance of metadata and to grasp how it is the DNA that underpins practically everything you decide to do with an organised collection of digital assets.  For them, the opportunities offered by DAM will diminish (where the opposite should happen).  What I find increasingly now is a kind of ‘grass is greener’ effect in-play amongst this group.  They want to connect DAM up to some subject that appears to be wider and more substantial, but in reality actually narrows down the possibilities of what you can do.  It is reasonable that DAM concepts need to be applied to real-world organisational problems but by strongly associating it with one (e.g. marketing) the scope for ongoing innovation will diminish until its role is deemed irrelevant.

With DAM, the ability to abstract the principles behind it and re-apply them to new challenges is what will give it value.  To avoid holding DAM back by misunderstanding what it is capable of, both a theoretical and applied perspective is needed to strategise about it effectively.  DAM consultants, vendors and others with an advisory role need to not just talk about what a good idea metadata is, but improve their own understanding of the subject and enhance the knowledge and expertise of those who they supply services to.

Lack of high quality DAM educational materials
Digital Asset Management is a complex subject with a number of important decisions that users have to make as well as techniques and practices which they may not be already be familiar with.  As easy to use as vendors would like their products to be, there is a consultancy element to implementing DAM and a reasonable proportion of the guidance must be provided both before and after deployment of the software.  For that reason, the availability of high quality learning materials is not only important for users it is equally essential for the solutions market to function effectively.  If users don’t know how to use DAM software properly, then they probably won’t bother with it at all.

You could reasonably advance the case that one of the contributory reasons DAM took such a long time to acquire momentum was the lack of decent free educational resources that explained the key concepts to users before they had to put up any money to find out if it was likely to answer their needs.

The situation is better than it was a few years ago, but is still unsatisfactory and a lot is at the most basic level.  The counter argument is that many users are in need of basic introductions to the topic and the vendor’s primary marketing focus is usually on customer acquisition, so it is more likely they will front-load materials towards the needs of that group.  With that said, they also need to keep them as clients to sustain their businesses and consultants are likely to be dealing with users at all points in the DAM implementation lifecycle (including long after a system has been deployed).

I should acknowledge that there are several experts who have written highly credible and authoritative books about Digital Asset Management now and there are also an increasing number of training courses (delivered in both a conventional format and via online means).  In addition, the DAM Guru service which connects experts with those interested in learning more about DAM is an excellent idea which there is a clear need for (as evidenced by the level of participation in it).

While these resources stand out, there are a high number of others that are generic and over-simplistic. Much like some of the other subjects discussed earlier I gain the impression that some of the learning materials generated by DAM industry participants is more to tick a ‘content marketing’ box rather than to educate anyone about the subject.

Much of the advice offered is of a facile nature and it consists of telling readers what they should be doing, but skimming over how to actually do it.  For example, you can find a lot of articles that will tell you that metadata and taxonomies are ‘important’ but not so much why or how you go about devising one yourself.  It must be said that a lot of the material is paraphrased from other sources (especially the books referred to earlier).

On the metadata subject, I also periodically read advice from those who claim to be experts that this is a topic that is not that important and you should just proceed with cataloguing assets and worry about refining metadata models later.  While I can appreciate the necessity to get assets ingested and made available quickly, having to reprise your metadata model once you have already ingested many thousands of digital assets could be an expensive undertaking and not one that the software (with or without batch processing features) will necessarily be able to save you from.

Other issues relate to some obvious prejudice or self-interest that the vendor or consultant has, for example pro and anti-cloud DAM interests (although the number of the latter is in steep decline these days).  The facts are with this that, even now, there is not a one size fits all option that cannot be applied without reference to your individual circumstances.  Further, the only serious article discussing the options for hybrid DAM has been written by my co-contributor in this series, Jeff Lawrence.

The lack of a wide range of freely available and high quality educational resources where vendors and consultants can generate sales opportunities by proving their expertise is undoubtedly a factor that holds the industry back.  It means that many DAM users are having to re-invent the wheel and learn, first-hand about common DAM problems.  This reduces the chances of users getting satisfactory ROI from their investments into DAM.

My general impression of many DAM educational materials is that no many are written by those with a lot of genuine experience in our subject, nor much interest in acquiring expertise either – which might explain why a lot is generic and so obviously borrowed from other authors with superior expertise.  There is an understanding that content is needed, but there is not enough in sufficient depth to make it useful nor understand what form that might take.

There are a number of marketing managers who work for DAM vendors and consultancies who have a lot of expertise in Digital Asset Management (both my co-contributors being not least among this group) but they are the exception rather than the rule.  Many of the senior managers, who are still quite often the people who founded the business originally (at least the DAM element of it) and their service delivery staff who implement DAM for their customers have copious knowledge they have acquired on real work for clients.  I do not fully understand why they do not have a more active role in production of freely available learning resources about DAM on their websites.  Most prospective users would prefer to read their thoughts and experiences rather than some generic content marketing articles that have clearly been written by an author who has been paid to author web copy rather than because they have an interest in the subject and care about it.

Conclusion – Not Waving But Drowning
The problems in DAM are not insoluble ones, but in terms of what is holding the industry back, it could be said to be tying itself up in knots through its own actions.  Most of the issues relate to the reactive behaviour that many operators engage in – few have the time or willingness to see beyond that, i.e. they lack the vision to envisage anything else.  The real issues are structural or architectural in nature, instead these get confused with the implementation of bigger and more bloated solutions.

There is another trend in play which some might argue is wider than DAM alone (although as discussed in the main article, it could actually be narrower).  Some sections of the analyst community especially appear to have bet the ranch on these big ideas in the marketing technology realm and now have a lot invested in seeing them become accepted as a reality.

The theoretical basis they are using for all this is that there is a some catch-all classification which everything vaguely related to marketing technology can be placed into.  I can see what might be in it for them in terms of ownership of the subject (even if it is of doubtful tangibility) and all the lucrative client assignments, speaking engagements, reports and other information products that can be spun off from it, but I cannot see the benefits for the users of the solutions get wrapped up inside it.  If there is a key risk that will hold DAM back and return it to being the niche preserve it once was, then this is it.

Digital Asset Management, especially metadata has a far more flexible and powerful range of capabilities than being used solely to serve up variations of banner ads for e-commerce websites (or ‘omnichannel customer purchasing experiences’, if you prefer).  A more substantial opportunity for DAM is when digital assets can be integrated with concepts like Linked Data and the Semantic Web.  That is more powerful and flexible innovation which can be applied to numerous different requirements, not just those of a marketing communications nature but across the whole organisation.  In many ways, DAM is not yet an enterprise technology in the same way that other more ubiquitous examples like email are.  If those with a misguided and limited understanding of the subject get their way, it will not ever become one and that will be what ultimately holds Digital Asset Management back from achieving its true potential.

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  • Ralph, thank you for mentioning the value of structured metadata not just for workflow efficiencies in the service of marketing use cases, but for the potential to leverage assets using Linked Data!

    Those who have their assets cataloged with quality metadata and linked to controlled vocabularies (taxonomies and/or thesauri that provide semantic context to assets, as well as to URIs registered to namespaces) will be in the best position to link their data outside of application silos.

    A work in progress, the DAM Education guide (http://damdirectory.libguides.com/dameducation) within the DAM Directory is an attempt to aggregate quality DAM education resources. It is my hope that the DAM/LAM community will submit more resources and help grow this directory so that we have a place to share our collective intelligence!

  • I really like this article.

  • There is a lot of good information here and I concur with many of your points and in particular on metadata. It is also a good group of articles and a valid and interesting idea to approach it from the 3 view points you did. I have commented on each of the articles as I read them. My greatest surprise is actually how negative the tone of most of them seem to be.

    I view myself as a problem solver and I steer my company in the same direction. We certainly have clients whose need at the outset is straight-forward and metadata discussions draw the short straw. In those situations, metadata should draw the short straw as long as you have a competent DAM system. All our implementations have at least 500 fields of metadata which get automatically pulled from almost 200 asset types. This provides a lot of metadata without having had a single discussion – including full text of any documents – which the client can use. If the DAM system doesn’t support that in this day and age, I can’t see how it can be relevant.

    Those implementations, while straight-forward and less interesting, are still very valid uses of DAM which have good ROI for our clients. Of course, we prefer the larger challenges, especially those where the assets are part of a production environment where use is high and even critical. We have quite a few installs like this varying from traditional publishing to marcom to e-commerce to digital evidence management which is a bit of a specialty of ours. I would love to replace a PACS system in the health industry with a DAM. It is perfect for it and we have done a proof of concept related to this dealing with DICOM imaging which was very interesting and promising. It had 2200+ custom fields to satisfy a medical schema.

    My real point here is that I don’t need any functionality added to my DAM systems to be able to provide all of these solutions and more. I find all of this exciting. Why don’t you?

    Sure adding semantic web capabilities would allow for interaction between DAM systems and all sorts of web properties but I have yet to find a client who even wants this let alone needs it. I suspect when this comes to pass it will be a little plug-in to the Google web service to allow the DAM to be crawled and exchange schemas and metadata. It would be an interesting project as well.

    More interesting to me was a project we did to provide face recognition for digital evidence. We integrated with an existing face recognition technology so that crime scene photography and related evidence could be scanned for faces.

    I think DAM is mature and like most other mature systems the work to be done is to either integrate it with other systems or build vertical adaptations for it. In all the lack of innovation that has been discussed in these articles I can’t find any real innovations you are looking for.

  • Here is a good resource for existing metadata schemas…

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