Digital Asset Management Is Not Content Management
Last week, there was a post on one of the LinkedIn DAM groups by David Diamond, Reason enough to say that “digital asset management” has died for us? For anyone who does not have access to the group, this is the post:
“Major players in the Financial sector are using “digital assets” to describe Bitcoin and related “digital” financial resources. They’re calling the tools used to manage those resources “digital asset management” systems. I say that, as an industry, we abandon this term before companies like Fidelity take over all the Google search results that matter to us. Let’s just call it “content management.” I realize that people currently associated that term with website content management, like WordPress. But those tools are content publishing, not management. (Plus, in a few years, there probably won’t be much difference.)” [Read More]
I tend to find myself agreeing a lot with what David Diamond says. I’m a big fan of both of his books and I have had a number of conversations with him about DAM-related topics over the years. On this occasion, however, I don’t share his opinion. The limitations of LinkedIn’s discussion boards where they have decided to restrict the number of characters per post make it difficult to debate this topic in the depth that it deserves, hence why I am posting on DAM News.
Firstly, let’s consider the frame of reference. Earlier this month, I posted a definition of digital assets on our new title, Digital Asset News, the short version of which is: “a collection of binary data which is self-contained, uniquely identifiable and has a value” and I based this on two DAM News articles I wrote in January and February 2016. As David has described, other subject domains are now independently using the term ‘digital assets’. He points to the financial sector, but there are governments and legislative bodies across the world also referring to them in the context of ownership and inheritance of social media accounts if the owner dies or is incapacitated. These are digital assets too, for example if you have a social media account with a very large number of followers, this is a substantial asset, i.e. it has a lot of value and it is digital, hence ‘digital asset’. A few months ago, we published an article by Medhat Mahoun, Digital Assets From IoT To Blockchain Will Become Everyone’s Business which also raises the same point about collections of Internet of Things (IoT) data. The title of this piece was very well chosen, he is exactly right. Rather than being taken over, digital assets as a description is being utilised by lots of other fields because it is equally relevant to them. The majority of readers of this publication are interested in ‘content’ or ‘media’ assets, i.e. images, videos and (to a lesser extent) documents. The definition I provided also applies, at the base level, they are no more than a self-contained collection of binary data which you can uniquely identify and has a value. You might call this field ‘Content Digital Asset Management’ or perhaps ‘Media Digital Asset Management’, but you are still dealing with digital assets and therefore, Digital Asset Management remains a legitimate description.
Apart from semantics, why is this important? Let’s go back to that interoperability subject that everyone in DAM claims they care about (even though most of the evidence suggests otherwise). If there is a core entity (i.e. a digital asset) then connecting all of these pieces together becomes a lot easier, along with extracting untapped value which might not have been possible hitherto. Readers with some knowledge of software engineering (in particular object-oriented methods) will be familiar with concepts like ‘base classes’. For those who are non-technical, this is like the atomic unit or core data element in computer programs where models which represent things in the real world are used to hold data. Having a standard model which everything else is derived from makes it far easier to exchange data and combine tools or techniques in ways that were not originally conceived of. Digital assets are just such a model which lots of different systems can utilise as containers of data. The terminology is subject-agnostic and emphasises that adding value is what everyone and everything who is associated with an organisation (whether commercial or otherwise) is supposed to be interested in.
The previous example is the a lower-level rationalisation for why digital assets are a suitable description, but there are higher-level, business-oriented reasons to use it it too. Many Digital Asset Management initiatives I am involved with currently are part of a wider Digital Transformation programme where Content Digital Asset Management is one piece among many. The business case for Digital Transformation is that by converting manual processes into digital equivalents they become easier to manipulate and re-model, then analyse and improve. The yield (or product) from these new digital processes has to be measured and as such, digital assets hold the raw data (aka ‘facts’) that can refute or prove ROI and also provide an opportunity to continuously improve them. Digital assets are therefore the tangible value which you can count, audit, exchange and re-use, hence why they are a metaphor that many domains now want to employ for their own unique purposes. If you talk to a C-level executive about ‘content’, some of them from different functions such as marketing might be interested. If you mention ‘asset value’, this is an area that has potential relevance to all of them.
On the topic of Google searches and keywords being used by large financial institutions to describe blockchain or crypto-digital asset innovations, the implication of this is that interest in digital assets is growing. The issue about confusion over terms and competition between different interest groups is not new, I doubt I’m alone in still getting cold-called by sales people from firms who deal with business assets like cranes, fleets of company cars etc (or even non-digital financial assets again such as stocks, bonds etc). The instinct is not wrong, they are assets, it’s their failure to correctly identify the specific types that I am interested in which is at fault. The same will occur with digital assets, so users are more likely to prefix with the term with something more specific to their needs, e.g. I am not looking for just ‘a car’, I want an ‘electric car’, or an ‘ estate electric car’ and so on. Prospective digital asset users need to be credited with a bit more intelligence and vendor marketing people need to apply a bit of lateral thinking to their marketing strategies (this is arguably somewhat overdue anyway).
The idea that the term ‘content management’ is going to be haven of untapped relevance for ‘ex-DAM refugees’ simply because there aren’t financial institutions competing for AdWords or organic search rankings is delusional. Tech marketers are more likely to use on-line marketing channels to access prospective customers which means there are a number of ECM and WCM marketers already very actively pursuing it (and in many cases, they have bigger budgets to spend also). The cost of switching to an alternative where there is already an established group of vendors who target these terms will cause further price inflation in ‘content management’ as a keyword market (which is another digital asset domain in itself, I note). I can foresee a somewhat ironic scenario emerging here where ECM vendors decide to rename their products ‘Digital Asset Management’ to avoid the over-crowded ‘Content Management’ space and to simultaneously take advantage of the fact that a lot more people are now interested in ‘Digital Assets’. There is some evidence that this is already happening now.
Prefixing ‘Digital Asset Management’ with ‘Content’ or ‘Media’ to differentiate it is an idea not without merit, but digital assets are what is at the heart of all this. The more the protocols used to manage them are integrated with sectors that deal with other types of digital asset, the more useful (and therefore valuable) they are likely to become. The sector represented by what is currently called Digital Asset Management has decades of accumulated expertise in all the important strategic and tactical considerations of digital assets (metadata being key among these) and that knowledge should be leveraged, not disposed of. Rather than simply giving up and ceding their stake in the ‘digital asset’ term, the content DAM industry should be making its case to be considered an equal partner. Enough people in DAM complain that senior executives do not care about what they are doing and treat it as an irrelevance, this seems like a very good opportunity to demonstrate to them that there might be more to it than they previously had given it credit for.
I have discussed Digital Asset Supply chains before on DAM News and (in the context of Digital Transformation) there is quite a considerable scope for innovation by fusing blockchain technologies with Content DAM to realise them. Up until now, not much work has been done in this area, yet it has vast potential in terms of both revenue and available investment capital. Last year, we covered Mediachain, a startup using blockchains to improve attribution of digital content. I discussed this with various people in DAM and the consensus was that it was interesting, but very far from being production-ready. Medichain had already raised $1.5m in funding prior to that article and were acquired by Spotify eleven days afterwards. Other than the fact that most Content DAM vendors lack the imagination to see the potential commercial value in all this, I don’t think many would have technical difficulties with the implementation, it just hasn’t occurred to them to do it because they see still digital assets through a very restricted prism. We talk about a lack of innovation in DAM a lot (with good reason) and when not only an entire technology comes along which might offer it, but it is also accompanied by substantial amounts of liquid cash waiting to be invested, apparently (based on the post referred to at the top of the article) the best the Content DAM market can come up with is to rename itself to an existing adjacent field which is already over-crowded and positively thrives on vague objectives (with acknowledgements to the Dilbert cartoon anthology of the same name).
I believe there is an element of desperation at work here. While profits at many Content DAM vendors have increased as they have become more efficient and skilled at delivering implementations, their top-line revenue is not growing at a fast enough rate to be taken seriously as an investment proposition. The modest amount of sector-consolidation that has come about to-date is because the owners of the firms in-question have given up trying to grow any further and have elected instead to throw in their lot with some other larger (or richer) suitor.
Among the vendors who are still left on the shelf, there is confusion and fear about what to do next. Technology suppliers who do not innovate are more likely to die off because tech markets are usually deflationary (i.e. prices go down, not up). While not the only factor, the value of a tech businesses is primarily based on their ability to keep coming up with new products. If that doesn’t happen, cheaper alternatives come along and erode margins until they fall to zero. There is usually a short period of unusually high profitability between innovation drying up and price deflation setting in – this is the phase we are in now. To use an analogy, tech firms are like shops that stock innovation; if it is not replenished, there is there is a short-term uplift in cashflow because more money is coming in than going out, but soon they have nothing left to sell and therefore no means to generate any revenue. De-stocking is a strategy shops use when they are about to close down, not expand. Some vendors have realised this and they now need to get access to other markets before it it is too late. Content DAM, in particular, is a software market characterised by very high fragmentation and numerous smaller vendors. Those who want to acquire enterprise clients (i.e. budgets of six figures or more) need to create some clear points of differentiation between their offerings and the multitude of ‘me too’ copycats who are now getting their running shoes on in preparation for the race to the bottom.
I believe many of the sell-side DAM interests eager for everyone to drop ‘Digital Asset Management’ and transition to ‘Content Management’ are committing the mortal business sin of coveting their neighbour’s positioning (and the vagueness of it as an end-user proposition, in particular). The word ‘content’ is a linguistic cop-out, as evidenced by the ease with which you can substitute it for the word ‘stuff’ and still have sentences that make sense (even if you wouldn’t get away with using that term in a formal document). As I understand it, prior to its usage by Bill Gates in 1996, ‘content’ was a generalised description that lawyers came up with to refer to media in a generalised sense (and presumably so they didn’t have to say ‘stuff’ either).
I am not advocating that those companies offering Web Content Management need to ditch the terminology that their brand heritage might be based around (nor even those who currently choose to call themselves ‘Content Management’) . Further, as explained above, I don’t object if the prefix ‘Content’ is applied, or another specialisation by those in Digital Asset Management who want to draw some lines of demarcation between themselves and others who deal in other types of digital asset, but make no mistake, digital assets should be front and centre of what all this is about, because they self-evidently already are. I have been actively involved with digital assets for a period in excess of 20 years, it has taken me somewhere close to the same length of time to get a proper understanding of why the term is a better one than it first appeared to be. I do accept the argument that ‘Digital Asset Management’ should probably not have been used to describe what were early photo management systems (a number of which I was involved with implementing myself). But that was then, this is now. Giving up on DAM when it has become established as a term is akin to the apocryphal story about the prospectors who spent many years digging a mine without finding anything, then gave up and sold their apparently worthless asset for next to nothing to someone else who subsequently struck gold after continuing for just a few more feet.
I regard the interest in digital assets from other subject domains as a significant opportunity, not a threat (and one I intend to fully explore). If you hold an alternative opinion and take the view that ‘content management’ is a better description of what you do, then that is your choice and you need to prepare yourself for a substantial amount of work re-branding everything you have done to date and managing the risks associated with big positioning changes of this nature. I think this is folly, however and I intend to remain an active promoter of the value of digital assets in all the increasingly diverse forms that they are likely to take as the subject evolves and grows.Share this Article: