Try it now
Request a demo

Enterprise Content Management (ECM) vs. Digital Asset Management (DAM)

by ,

Block letters spelling "DAM" and "ECM." Mix of colorful, solid block letters and outlines.

In this day and age, we seem to have more of everything. As consumers, we have more gadgets, products, and services than we know what to do with. As businesses, we rely on more and more content than ever before to communicate with our audiences. And the data, ohh the data! Keeping digital shopping experiences updated with changing SKUs, product descriptions, and inventory is enough to drive anyone in circles. 

With all this “more” piling up, how do you keep your content and information organized and accessible for the people, teams, and partners that need it most?

Luckily, technology can help. Today we’ll talk about two tech-related terms — enterprise content management (or ECM) and digital asset management (or DAM). We’ll discuss what they are and how they can help you.

What is ECM?

Enterprise content management (ECM) is the management, organization, and distribution of content and information across the entire asset lifecycle, from content and data creation to archive and disposal. 

ECM does not refer to a single process, strategy, or tool. Rather, it is an umbrella term that describes the various disciplines surrounding the management of content and information, which can include product data (e.g., descriptions, inventory, dimensions, features), digital assets and materials (e.g., marketing collateral, images, videos, guides), business documents (e.g., contracts, invoices), and more.

ECM technologies make it easier for organizations to support their ECM efforts. Like the discipline, ECM technology is also a relatively broad classification. It does not refer to one specific type of system or platform. Examples of ECM technologies include content management systems (CMS), workflow management systems (WMS or WfMS), information management system (IMS), product information management (PIM) systems, digital asset management (DAM) systems, and a whole slew of other acronym-loving platforms.

What is DAM?

Digital asset management (DAM) is a type of ECM that deals specifically with the management, organization, and distribution of digital assets (also known as visual content) from a central hub.

Unlike ECM, DAM is a discipline that has a single technology dedicated to its support. A DAM system makes it easier for organizations to manage and access marketing and creative content, such as promotional videos, brand images, design files, and sales collateral. As part of their ECM efforts, a business may use a DAM system to store and organize their entire library of content and digital assets rather than using a file-sharing tool like Google Drive, local servers, or external drives, and disks.

The difference (and relationship) between ECM and DAM

The difference between ECM and DAM can feel a little convoluted, so it’s helpful to think about them in terms of their relationship. As discussed, ECM is an overarching category that DAM falls within. ECM is kind of like the term “color.” Color is a general term, but then you have all the reds, oranges, and pinks that fall within it. So in this analogy, ECM is color, while DAM (and all the other ECM technologies) are the specific colors.  

There are many technology capabilities that support ECM, including what we call the five foundations of DAM. These foundations are specific to DAM technology, as they support the management, organization, and distribution of content and digital assets. They include:

  • Governance: A DAM system has permission-based controls that allow you to automatically enforce rules and securities around who can access your assets, and how they can be used. This gives you control, but it also helps you ensure teams are only using approved, up-to-date assets.

  • Metadata and taxonomy: These are the building blocks that support the complex nature of visual-content search. They make it easier for system users to find assets within the DAM platform. Taxonomy establishes the high-level categories necessary for search. For example, you might have a stock category or a marketing content category that ties like-assets together. Then metadata adds even more depth with search-friendly data like usage rights, file type, colors, and sentiment to individual assets.

  • Automatic processing: Any technology that falls within the ECM family aims to improve and streamline workflows by making them more efficient. One way a DAM system achieves this is by enabling users to create file conversions on the fly. For example, if someone needs to convert a PSD to a JPG, PNG, or TIFF, they can automatically export assets in the desired format without the help of a designer.
  • Create Once, Publish Everywhere (COPE): The concept of COPE centers around the idea of having one master file, or single source of truth. The benefit is that when you distribute assets by sharing, linking, and embedding them across multiple systems, channels, and websites, you only need to make and manage updates within that master file for changes to automatically update everywhere else.

  • Analytics: What’s an ECM tool (or any tool for that matter) without analytics? Analytics are integral to the success of your technology and content investments. DAM analytics give you the metrics you need to understand which content is working and how your teams use your system and content. This allows you to improve and optimize your efforts and system.


Advantages of ECM

While you should hone in on the particular ECM technology or combination of technologies that suit your business needs, it’s also important to take a step back and think about ECM as a whole. The advantage of ECM is that it’s big picture. Having an ECM strategy allows you to think about your whole content and data lifecycle and all the people, workflows, processes, and systems involved from creation to archive. This kind of high-level thinking ensures you can:

Identify gaps and opportunities 
By looking at every content and data touchpoint, you can figure out which workflows you need to fix and where there are opportunities to reduce redundancies and costs. For example, let’s say you evaluate your content and data lifecycle and determine that you don’t have a scalable, secure archive solution or a process in place to ensure that your teams don’t discard valuable content you may need later. You’ve identified a costly issue, and now you can remedy it.  

Invest in the right combination of technologies
Unlike DAM, ECM is not supported by one specific technology. Depending on your needs, it could be. But more often than not, ECM is supported by a combination of technologies that work together (typically through system integrations). By evaluating your entire content and data lifecycle, you can evaluate the tools you currently use and better identify new or alternative technologies you need to achieve your ECM goals. 

Fuel better customer experiences
The biggest advantage of ECM is what it does for your prospective and existing customers. With better management, organization, and distribution of content and information, you can work faster. You can better connect your customers with accurate, up-to-date information. And you can deliver more personalized engagements and solutions. After all, isn't this the key to positive, memorable brand experiences that inspire your customers to take action.

Advantages of DAM

Many of the advantages that apply to ECM also apply to DAM. However, there are specific ways a DAM system can benefit your organization and ECM efforts. Here are a few of those advantages:

Central source of truth
Many organizations consider DAM software a “core” technology because of its ability to integrate with and power an entire ecosystem of marketing and creative technologies. With a DAM solution at the center, you can ensure that your teams and your technologies have access to the most recent, up-to-date brand assets and content. For example, let’s say you have a DAM, a PIM, and a customer relationship management (CRM) platform. With DAM at the center, it supplies your PIM software with the most recent product images, which are then accurate and up-to-date across your channels. And when connected with your CRM software, salespeople have the materials they need right in the CRM system, ensuring they can quickly and efficiently communicate with their contacts. Add and subtract other technologies to this scenario, and you’re looking at one well-oiled, DAM-powered machine.  

Brand consistency
Although you may not realize it, the videos, images, sales collateral, photos, and other content that you rely on are your brand. They define your unique look and feel, tell your story, and help you differentiate yourself from competitors. As such, you must care for them. A DAM system can help you manage your brand. It has all the bells and whistles you need to protect your brand and control how people — your partners, sales teams, marketers, resellers, and more — communicate it. With built-in version controls, COPE, and permission capabilities, a DAM system helps you put a consistent brand face forward.

Access and automation
A DAM solution provides the people that communicate your brand 24/7/365 access to your most recent, approved digital assets. With intuitive, search-and-find capabilities, DAM users have easy access to the content they want to share with audiences. Via embed codes, a DAM system also automates the publishing of content to your website, emails, social networks, go-to tools, and other digital channels — extending your reach further.

Risk mitigation
A DAM solution protects your brand from improper use by ensuring that people only use approved, on-brand assets. The same safeguards, permissions, and expiration rules that help you do this, also help you avoid legal issues with managing digital rights. Many DAM systems even have copy protection (e.g., watermarks) to prevent users from copyright violations that occur when people screenshot and use restricted assets.

Customizable backend
Another advantage of a DAM system is that you can make it your own. Metadata is customizable for each asset and is set up to meet the specific needs and search behavior of your users. For example, a photo of a product may contain metadata for the product name, product number, photographer, and description. A video asset may contain metadata for location, producer, language, and description. You can build out your metadata types and fields to support the information that’s most beneficial to your users and organization.

Which ECM technologies do you need?

Determining the ECM technologies you need to manage your content and data lifecycle starts with understanding your unique circumstances and needs. If you put your big-picture ECM hat on and look across your entire content and data lifecycle, you’ll get a good idea of what’s working and not working. A good place to start is to make a list of all content and information challenges that exist throughout your organization. Get your list going, but also consult other marketing and creative teams throughout your business. 

For example, here’s a list of common challenges that could indicate you need a DAM system:  

  • The volume of content and digital assets at your organization is overwhelming.
  • The people, teams, and partners that need access to your content and digital assets do not always have it.
  • Nobody can find files scattered across shared drives, desktops, and file-sharing systems.
  • There’s no streamlined way for people to collaborate or review and approve creative assets.
  • Your creative team spends too much time on file conversions.
  • Your assets have restricted or regional-specific use cases, but violations are common.
  • You struggle to protect your brand and build a strong brand presence across channels. 

Sound like the DAM challenges you’re experiencing? Discover how our ECM solution, the Widen Collective® can help you better manage your content and data lifecycle. And if you’re ready to see it in action, request a demo today!  


Note: This article was originally published in September 2008 and updated in January 2019. It has been refreshed again to incorporate new functionality and information.

Topics: MarTech

comments powered by Disqus

The Widen Blog

Where marketing and creative teams find actionable advice, practical resources, and success stories to flourish in a world connected by content.


Like what you're reading?

We can send you our best articles.

2022 Forrester DAM Wave report

Get the report

Widen, an Acquia company, named a Leader in the 2022 Forrester DAM Wave report

Get the report

Enrich Customer Experiences With Product Content

A Forrester Consulting study: Enrich Customer Experiences With Product Content

Forrester research report
Gartner research helps leaders evaluate solution benefits and technology choices.

Get the study


DAM+PIM for customer experience

DAM+PIM: Creating Highly Compatible and Quality Customer Experiences

Learn how DAM and PIM technologies work together to create meaningful conversations with customers, and anchor customer experience success.

Get the white paper

Are you ready for a DAM solution of your own? Request a demo