What is Digital Asset Management?

Upon hearing the word “dam” a structural engineer may visualize a structure holding back the force of water, while a parent hearing the same word may reprimand their child for uttering a mild profanity. If you’re someone who struggles with maintaining a large collection of files, you will have a completely different reaction to the word after reading this article.

Digital Asset Management, or DAM for short, is a hot technology TLA (three letter acronym) that simply means a centralized repository for digital media. DAM systems allow you to organize, archive, access and distribute collections of digital content such as images, documents, video, and other creative files. In this article I’ll cover why you might need a DAM, the benefits of using a DAM system, and issues to consider when choosing a DAM system.

The digital asset explosion

Many organizations are just now beginning to recognize the value of their digital assets and the critical need for a system to efficiently manage them. DAM has gained popularity due in part to the increasingly large amounts of digital assets we interact with on a daily basis. A  Gartner report once stated that by 2013, more than 25% of the content that workers see in a day will be dominated by pictures, video or audio. As these large amounts of digital assets grow, so does our need to manage them efficiently. Without a good system in place to manage digital assets, companies experience several problems such as lost time and productivity, chaos and confusion, no history of where the correct version lives, and choosing between continuing the search for an appropriate asset or recreating or repurchasing the misplaced file.

Growing Number of Assets

Many organizations are faced with the challenge of managing an ever growing number of files

Why DAM?

To understand DAM it’s important to have an understanding of assets and metadata. In  DAM systems photos, images, documents, audio and video files are called “assets”. The reason this strange definition was borrowed from the accounting world is that time, money, and other resources are invested into the creation of file assets. Hence the term digital asset management to describe the technologies and processes that aim to maximize the return on file investments.

When thinking about files stored on our Mac workstations and XServe file servers, we often consider the content of the file such as a photo of a holiday party, the text of an annual report, or a video of a dog riding a skateboard. In addition to content, the file also may contain metadata – or “data about data”. This metadata could include the date the photo was taken, the author of a report, or the duration of a video clip. The file’s metadata is important for locating files when performing a search. For example, the OS X Spotlight search feature utilizes file metadata as do most DAM systems. Metadata is also important for understanding more about a file and how it can be used. A file’s “Description” metadata may explain what is happening in a photograph or the “Usage Rights” metadata may restrict the file for non-commercial use only.

When a file is coupled with metadata it truly becomes a digital asset because it can be located, understood, and properly managed using a DAM system to provide several benefits:


In many organizations much time is wasted hunting down files on workstations, discs, file servers, email, and FTP sites. A key benefit of DAM is the ability to quickly find assets based on a search query. DAM systems build a centralized index of assets to help find assets quickly. You only need to look in one place since the system is a centralized database, and search results are instantaneous because the search is performed on an indexed and optimized database. Other types of file searches may only index local volumes instead of network locations, or slowly display search results as folders are inspected one-by-one for matching results.

Once an asset is located, further efficiency is gained since metadata is readily available for understanding more information about the asset. DAM systems also offer time saving file processing options that improve efficiency by converting file formats or automating image manipulation tasks.

Cost reduction

Along with labor savings from increased efficiency, DAM can reduce costs by eliminating the need to recreate “lost” assets. Other cost savings can be realized by tracking rights usage information in the DAM to avoid fees associated with incorrect usage, license violations, and other compliance issues.

Increase revenue

DAM can help monetize asset collections by enabling the sale or licensing of assets. DAM provides a way of managing image collections and providing a back-end database to drive an ecommerce solution. Stock photography and creative asset databases can track pricing, licensing terms, regions, and other sale information. DAM can also accelerate revenue by bringing products to market faster with increased accessibility to images and other documents used in the creation of products and the delivery of services.

Brand and usage continuity

The perception of a company highly depends on how its brand is represented visually. It is important that visual elements such as logos, artwork, and collateral are used consistently and correctly. DAM systems help ensure that the most recent and correct brand assets are easily available while preventing the use of expired or unapproved brand materials.

Customer service

Customer service can be enhanced by decreasing the turnaround time for delivery of digital media. This may involve automatic generation of product brochures for prospective customers, or providing an appropriately sized image download for an internal customer in the sales department.

Choosing a DAM solution

DAM systems run the gamut from simple single-user photo managers to extremely powerful, complex, and expensive enterprise solutions. Depending on your organization, you may have a few people or several departments that would benefit from DAM. When considering a DAM system, bring the stakeholders together early on to discuss what the current problems are, and what an ideal DAM solution would look like and how it would work.

Focus on problems, not features

When evaluating DAM Systems, focus on how the solution will solve your problems instead of focusing on what features are available. Remember that you are trying to solve business problems, not judge a software beauty contest.

Types of DAM systems

The good news is that you have plenty of DAM solutions to choose from. The bad news is that it would take too long to evaluate them all for a perfect fit. Instead, focus on solutions that can address your current needs and scale for expected future growth. While the DAM market is highly fragmented with a variety of players, solutions can be categorized into “photo organizers” and “workgroup” or “enterprise” solutions. Photo organizers typically cater to a few users with thousands of assets. Enterprise solutions handling millions of assets may reach into every part of the organization. Workgroup solutions bridge the middle ground with a compromise between price, complexity, functionality. When considering future growth, keep in mind that the scalability of DAM systems is often based on the number of files rather than the size of the files on disc.

DAM systems typically fall into three categories based on the number of users and files

Questions to ask

When evaluating DAM systems, try to understand how the system will fit in your environment and solve your business problems by asking the vendor the following questions:

  • Can I download a trial or access an evaluation of the system?
  • What other organizations like ours use your software?
  • Can you provide a customer reference?
  • Instead of asking “Can your system…” ask “How does your system…?” Again, you’re trying to determine how well the system handles your requirements, not which solution has the most features.
  • Can you give me a live or web-based demonstration?


If you or someone you know is responsible for managing a large collection of images and rich media files, chances are you can benefit from  some DAM good, I mean good DAM software. A DAM system will help you save time and money while providing you with tools to make life easier for anyone who manages or benefits from digital media.

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About Edward Smith

Edward Smith has a background as a Mac OS X and Windows system engineer, technical trainer, and DAM consultant. In his current position at Extensis, Smith is the in-house expert for all things digital asset management related and contributor to the DAM Learning Center. Edward often conducts customer training sessions, including product implementation tutorials and presentations at relevant conferences including Macworld Expo and the Extensis DAM conferences. You can contact Edward via Twitter or his Google+ profile.