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Understanding The Difference Between Digital Marketing And Digital Asset Management

by Ralph Windsor on September 21, 2015

An issue I seem to encounter a lot when dealing with organisations who require assistance with their Digital Asset Management initiatives is a widespread misunderstanding about the difference between Digital Asset Management and Digital Marketing.  You will often find those with responsibility for the latter being asked to make executive decisions about the former.  How enthusiastic they are about the prospect usually depends on whether they have been given a dedicated budget for DAM or just expected to fit it into everything else they do.  The confusion leading some to merge the two terms has become so prevalent that it is at risk of becoming an accepted fact, even though it does not stand up to  more detailed analysis.  I have begun to wonder if this misinterpretation is driving some of the analyst and vendor announcements that I am seeing recently, or perhaps it is simply because both the terms have the word ‘digital’ in them.

In case there are people reading this who might still not know the difference: digital marketing usually refers to the delivery of marketing communications using digital technologies, especially as they relate to electronic communications channels (e.g. the internet).  Digital Asset Management, by contrast, refers to retaining, organising, manipulating and distributing media essences (images, videos, documents etc) and associated metadata, i.e. the assets.

When these two terms are examined at the same time, it becomes obvious that while they might have a potential relationship with each other, they are not the same thing.  The difference should be clear enough: one faces your audience (whether that is your customers or another group of individuals) the other is an operational component or utility service which primarily has a supporting role and preferably a wider one than just a single business function.  Even if you stopped doing any digital marketing tomorrow, your DAM should still have uses across the rest of the business.

A lot of readers might think that marketing is more or less the only one that matters to them, but when I assist clients with preparations for DAM initiatives, collections of other digital assets seem to crop up in numerous unexpected places and even more tend to present themselves at various points, post-launch.  Some relatively common examples might include: training materials, operational assets (e.g. photos of sites, incidents, events etc), HR staff photo libraries, research and development media assets and publishing assets (either by actual publishers or organisations acting in that capacity).  In the case of some scientific or medical organisations, training assets can be considered more important than their marketing counterparts and the product training information is almost considered a form of marketing in itself because their clients and customers will make purchasing decisions on the basis of it.

Even within marketing, there are many more uses than just digital ones, for example, in-production assets, print media, point of sale and B2B businesses who acquire customers via high value tenders where proposals and pitches are more conventional.   Moving outside corporate environments, there are also use cases like preservation, culture/heritage, law enforcement, sports operations and educational institutions (many of which have further specialist subdivisions of their own).  While there are common themes and re-use opportunities for DAM technology (as most vendors will be aware) the requirements and priorities of the end users are quite different – especially in relation to metadata.

To put it in simple terms: DAM is not solely a marketing technology, even though it can be used for that purpose (as well as a wide range of other operational concerns).  Limiting the scope of your strategy to just customer/audience communications production prevents you from extracting the maximum possible ROI from your investments into DAM.  There are two other big risks to viewing DAM through the prism of digital marketing: the first is that you will create silos full of digital marketing content which are not integrated with the rest of the business.  The second is that the owners of all these other digital assets used for other purposes will determine that their needs are not best-served by a digital marketing DAM solution and go out and buy one that they believe does better fit their needs.  In other words, even more silos than there were before and very little motivation to connect them together.

A point I have made in the past, is that if there is a comparison, DAM solutions should be viewed more like your email system than a marketing-specific tool, i.e. a utility or service.  Email is likely to be used by nearly every employee in many organisations, but there are certain departments, for example, Human Resources or Legal that are heavier users of the management tools associated with it.  They may have specialist requirements that other departments do not.  Just because one of these groups has more demanding or unique needs, it still wouldn’t be considered appropriate to start referring to it as say, ‘Human Capital Communications Management System’ and then leave everyone else in the business to figure out how to relate a department-specific solution to their own various situations.  What usually happens is that generic needs are addressed first and then specialist features and integrated systems get added to deal with those who need them in a bottom-up fashion to avoid having multiple incompatible products that have to be integrated with each other.  If anyone needed it, this should be giving you the clue about how to formulate a more robust, scalable and long-term DAM strategy that can help break down the silos rather than just building bigger ones with grander titles.

The one area in DAM where strategy intersects directly with the implementation is metadata.  In all the written material I have read about DAM and Digital Marketing recently, the coverage of metadata is light and (at best) perfunctory.  I will refrain from naming the vendor and the analyst involved, but in one co-sponsored paper I have read (which certainly has DAM in the title, even if not so much in the text) the respective fortunes of Facebook and Twitter get a page or two of copy, but metadata has just half a sentence.  I get the sense they don’t really want to talk about digital assets, either because the subject is not interesting for them, or they don’t know a lot about it to be able to discuss the topic in any great depth (perhaps both).

It should be obvious that even if you do buy into the proposition that DAM is exclusively a component of customer experience strategies, the action still has to be in the metadata because it sets the agenda about how you segment your customers and decide what assets are optimal for each group (as well as collecting and storing data about what results were obtained – one of the critical differentiators of digital marketing, I believe).  I read very little that tells anyone how to go about building a metadata model for Digital Experience that you can implement using DAM solutions.  I suspect this is because not many people have actually done it and vapourware is about to emerge once more in DAM (having been absent for a while) in a vain attempt to fill the innovation vacuum which has opened up  in the DAM software market.

There are some relatively simple methods to arrange metadata strategies as they relate to digital assets so you can not only optimise their use for marketing purposes (digital or any other kind) but across the rest of the organisation also.  I intend to cover these in subsequent articles, but the process of just thinking about the issue in a more holistic manner (and your own common sense) should derive a decent proportion of the benefits available without any embellishments provided by myself or anyone else.

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