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An Intro to the Five Foundations of Digital Asset Management

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intro to five foundations of digital asset management

First off, if you’re researching digital asset management (DAM) for the first time, welcome to the world of DAM puns. You’ll have plenty of DAM meetings, DAM calls, and DAM work to do.

You’ve likely heard that DAM provides benefits like increased brand control, improved productivity when finding and sharing content, and an accelerated time to market. But is that just marketing speak? If not, how do you make that a reality for your organization?

While DAM software is critical to providing the organization and structure, how it’s set up and maintained is just as critical — if not more.

In an earlier article, we walked through the key abilities of a successful DAM admin. In this article, we’ll explore five core concepts that build out the value of DAM. These foundations lay the groundwork for businesses to realize its benefits.

The five foundations of digital asset management

  1. Governance - Control access to your digital assets.
  2. Metadata and taxonomy - Increase searchability and organization of your assets.
  3. Automatic processing - Conversions on-the-fly make visual content reusable and adaptable.
  4. Create Once, Publish Everywhere (COPE) – Share links and embed files all from the DAM system.
  5. Analytics – Analyze the performance of assets and your DAM system.

Before we jump in, a quick definition of DAM. DAM is the management, organization, and distribution of digital assets like videos, images, and creative files from a central content hub. Ok, back to the foundations.


Governance is your key to consistency. It’s the guiding information that prevents your DAM software from becoming a dumping ground for everyone and everything.

But what if your governance rules are only in one person’s head? What happens when they change roles? Or win the lottery and leave? As they leave, so does all the planning and strategy around how to keep the DAM system functioning. Don’t let that knowledge leave. Put it into a governance plan.

Your governance plan should answer why your DAM system exists and include the vision, value, and purpose of the system. It should also guide, direct, and control how the system is used. As an admin, it’s your guardrails on how to manage the system. For users, it sets expectations for the whole DAM system and what they’ll find in it.

Your governance plan will help address questions like:

  • Can this go in the DAM system?
  • Should Tom in HR have access to the same things as Sue in global marketing?
  • What should I name this asset?
  • Who’s going to help me apply metadata?
  • Should this file be uploaded as a new version of an existing asset or as a new digital asset?

A governance plan demonstrates how your digital content supports your company and outlines the security, mission, and policies for your system. It also evolves as your company and DAM system evolve. Recognizing that your governance rules are ever-changing can be overwhelming, so how do you keep up and how do you even start creating a plan?

A governance document is a living entity.

A governance document's rules can change and flex as your organization evolves. If you are already using a digital asset management system, a site audit is a great way to take its pulse. An audit provides a way for you to understand how your system is currently functioning and supporting the needs of your users. It also helps identify opportunities for optimization and ensures you have a good handle on what’s happening within your site.

As you work through your site audit, you’ll be able to refine your governance plan. You’ll consider things like:

  • Categories: Does it help initiate a high-level search for your users?
  • Workflow: How are digital assets uploaded?
  • Users: Are there any approvals required for accessing certain assets?
  • Rights management: Do you have licensing requirements?
  • Security: What qualifies an asset to be released?
  • Brand guideline expectations: Who’s monitoring digital assets added to the DAM system to ensure they’re on brand?

As you can see, there’s a lot to think about when it comes to DAM system governance. But it’s this level of structure that’s a key difference between an asset dumping ground full of unusable, out-of-date content and a system where people have access to what they need, and not more or less.

To effectively and efficiently maintain all of the moving parts, we highly recommend having a dedicated digital librarian. While you may have several admins who maintain your system, including your librarian, a digital librarian sets and maintains the strategy for how everything works together. Implementing a DAM system is a significant and valuable investment, and a digital librarian should be considered part of the package when you’re making that investment.

Thinking about your own governance plan and system needs? A governance planning document offers a good foundation on which to start this process. Once you’ve identified your needs and put rules in place, revisit it regularly to ensure you’re staying on track and achieving your desired DAM goals, both current and future. You spend a lot of time and energy creating valuable content. It’s important to always be able to use it when, where, and how you need to.

Metadata and Taxonomy

Metadata and taxonomy are arguably the most important foundations of DAM. Without taxonomy and metadata, you won’t be able to find, use, or analyze your assets.

So, what is taxonomy? It’s the way in which objects are classified, or more specifically for our purposes, the way digital assets are categorized in a DAM system.

DAM admins usually choose to categorize assets according to type or function. This decision is driven by what’s best for the company, but no matter which classification type is chosen, it should be consistent for the entire site. For example, you could choose to categorize your assets by type, product, department, or another classification that’s important to your business needs. While categories are a great way to group like assets, they’re most effective when kept at one to three levels deep.

Here’s an example of a taxonomy structure in a DAM system:

digital asset management software and taxonomy

In these examples, there are “parent/child” relationships occurring, with subcategories (children) of the main category (parent). Keep this strategy in mind when creating your taxonomy. It’s often best to have a broad parent bucket and then use child categories to narrow the results. This makes it easy for users to drill down to what they need by following an organic, logical, and easy-to-understand framework.

As you’re defining your taxonomy structure, you’ll likely find that you need more information about your assets than just whether or not they’re a logo or a slide deck to effectively hone your search results. There are dates, creators, keywords, descriptions, and other pieces of information that will describe your digital assets and make them findable — that’s called metadata. This asset-specific data creates sub-levels of taxonomy and picks up where your parent and child categories leave off since it goes into even more detail of describing your assets.

In fact, metadata is often referred to as “data about data.” Here are some examples of metadata that are typically found in a DAM system:

  • Keywords
  • Description (what the asset is about)
  • Type (photo, video, document, etc.)
  • Content source (photographer, creator, etc.)
  • Rights management details (internal use only, stock-licensing agreements, etc.)

To effectively tailor metadata for each desired input, a DAM system should offer options for setting up metadata fields and values. Understanding these options and selecting the right one for each field also makes the tagging process more appealing to users and improves efficiency.

As you can see, metadata and taxonomy are critical aspects of a DAM system. They’re the backbone of search, and without them, you won’t find a DAM thing. For help with generating metadata and taxonomy, try this metadata brainstorm exercise.

Processing (Conversions)

With proper governance, metadata, and taxonomy, your teams will be able to access and find the digital assets they need. From there, it’s automatic processing that makes the assets usable across channels.

Automatic processing enables you to upload just the original master file to the DAM system. There’s no need to store multiple variations of sizes and formats; the system takes care of it. When you or others need a different file format or size, the system converts the file for you.

Each downloaded file conversion is time saved

By setting up conversions based on common use cases, you’re able to free up your design resources. Designers will no longer act as a vending machine for the rest of the organization, taking in requests for different use cases and manually creating and sharing the new files.

It also removes the bottleneck for marketing, HR, sales, and all other departments who are dependent on when the design team has time to create specific formats.

With the right file formats readily available and intuitive descriptions guiding users to select the appropriate one, you can prevent mistakes like crashed PowerPoint presentations due to massive image files.

If there’s a new version of a file, just update the master file. No more wondering if you’ve updated all the different formats with the latest version.

File conversion options

File conversion options are typically available for image, audio, video, and document formats. For example, a PSD file may be converted to JPG, PNG, TIFF, or GIFF. An audio file may be converted to MP3, AAC, or WMA. Or a video may be converted to MP4 or WMV.

Set up file conversion options based on common use cases

Here are some steps to setting up file conversion options.

  1. Research how your teams are using digital assets. Talk to your users about what assets they use from the DAM system and where they are using them. Write down or record how they refer to the different uses. You can also send out a survey to them.
  2. Gather your data into one spreadsheet. Look for common needs and use cases.
  3. Create names, descriptions, and file formats for the use cases identified.
  4. Determine permissions. Which roles have access? Do they have access to view the format for download as an option? Should it require approval from the DAM admin?
  5. Update the conversions in your DAM system.

COPE (embed codes)

Another foundation of DAM is the ability to Create Once, Publish Everywhere, or as it’s more commonly known, COPE. This repurposing concept of sharing, linking, and embedding digital assets across multiple systems, channels, and websites extends the value of your content.

To benefit from the COPE approach, your assets need to maintain a connection with the master file in the DAM system.

COPE in action

For example, your designer creates an infographic. In the past, your designer emailed everyone an attachment of the infographic for use. Emails can get lost, people have to manually resize the infographic, and a file stored on someone’s email or hard drive never did anyone any favors.

With a DAM system, your designer can upload the infographic and that becomes the central source of truth for that digital asset. When any updates are made, a new version of the asset is available for everyone to use. And if embed codes were used to place the infographic on a website, for example, the asset on the website will be updated as well. No work to be done, just automatic.

That brings us to embed codes. Embed codes are great because of the scenario described above. Sometimes, when an asset is updated, not everyone is notified, so there could be different versions of the same content out on the web. This is harmful for brand consistency and accuracy. Imagine if you did a rebrand and changed your logo. Now your web designers — who could be spending time making new content — have to go and find every instance of your logo on the website and update it. With embed codes, the designer would just have to upload a new version to the DAM system and the embedded logos would be updated automatically!

There are also further opportunities for repurposing digital assets with integrations. For example, you can integrate the Widen Collective with many different content management system (CMS) platforms. What this means is that you’ll be able to directly access assets stored in your DAM system right inside your CMS. No more downloading files from one system and uploading them into another. There are also custom APIs that can be built for apps you may use in tandem with your DAM system.

For example, one of our customers built a custom integration with a client-facing, map-based app called Seek. Seek showcases inventory by area. When someone searches by market in the Collective, they’ll get a list of results of locations with a market photo that’s shot with cars travelling toward the billboard. Those shots live in the Collective, and when the photos are updated in the DAM by a marketing manager, they’ll show up in the app immediately.

There are many different ways you can repurpose digital assets with a DAM system. These are just a few. Once you maintain a central source of truth for your assets, you’ll begin to truly learn their potential. No one is going to COPE if they can’t find the asset in the first place. That’s why you need a central source of truth.


What’s a marketing tool without analytics? But really, analytics play a key role in the success of DAM at your organization. DAM analytics give you insight into how to improve your DAM system and how to evaluate your content.

As you work towards an organized and easy-to-use site, you’ll need feedback on the effectiveness of your efforts. You spend time training users, reviewing metadata, and creating collections, but are your efforts worth it? The only way to find out is with data.

With endless data possibilities it can be a little overwhelming when you’re first starting, so start small and build from there.

When thinking about where to begin, the most important thing to determine is what you want to accomplish. Start by asking yourself, “Do I need to understand my content or system performance?” or “How is the information I collect going to guide my next steps?” This will get you thinking about what data to start with.

Questions to answer with DAM analytics

Some data to consider analyzing in order to understand your content, system, and/or users might be:

  • What are your top/least downloaded assets? Understanding your most/least popular assets can help you identify new content opportunities.
  • Who are your top downloaders? These are your power users. They can provide great feedback on your site and can be powerful advocates for the tool.
  • Where are your assets being accessed? Knowing where your assets are being viewed, shared, and downloaded can help guide additional language and metadata needs, as well as potential training opportunities.
  • Which digital assets are embedded? This is important to understand before you delete or expire assets because doing so will break the embedded link.
  • What are your top search terms? Identifying your top search terms is a great way to understand new metadata and asset opportunities. You should also make sure that the top search terms are returning the expected results.
  • What’s NOT being used? Knowing what’s being used is helpful, but so is what’s not being used. If digital assets are not being used, they should be removed from your site to keep your active assets clean and easy to navigate. Before deleting them, check for reasons why they’re not being used and update your asset-creation strategy to reflect your findings. This can help avoid creating unused content in the future.

We also recognize that not all charts are created equal, and it can be helpful to visually display data differently to convey the message most effectively.

The Collective includes a built-in analytics app called Insights, which helps dig into how the assets in your DAM are being used. Insights allows you to build custom charts and dashboards using a variety of view options to best represent your data.

digital asset management analytics dashboard

You can also rely on analytics tools such as Google Analytics and Adobe Omniture to gather more high-level data.

When it comes to content analytics, its reach goes beyond understanding your assets, too. The data within your system can also help you justify the purchase of your DAM system as well as the time spent maintaining it. Calculating your DAM ROI is important and should be based on the goals of your system as they relate to your company initiatives.

While gathering data is half the battle, sharing it and taking action is imperative to its usefulness. Make time regularly to report on a set of key metrics. This helps keep your system in check and also helps keep it top of mind, which is important for engagement and adoption.

If you’re dedicating time to pulling data to answer specific questions, make sure you’re reserving time to also take action on the data. And revisit the changes you’ve made. Did they accomplish your goals? If not, try again. Your DAM system is a living tool that should be in a constant state of optimization.

At the end of the day, data helps you fail faster. Having insight into your content, system engagement, and usage is critical to your DAM success. But it’s only as good as the actions you take, so be sure to make time to understand and act on all of the powerful data you have at your fingertips.

Build your DAM foundation

Master these concepts, and with the right DAM tool, you’ll transform how your organization works. Don’t just take our word for it. Read these trailblazing lessons from other DAM pros that were shared during the 2017 Widen Summit.

watch a demo

Topics: DAM

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