Getting Your Assets in Gear

Keeping Website content constantly fresh, new, and in sync with your catalog and other sales channels is a challenge. Then there’s the task of managing all that content — not to mention other digital assets such as code, templates, and fonts — and ensuring that the content is accessible to everyone who needs it, and that it’s safe from everyone who doesn’t, such as hackers.

A good digital asset management (DAM) system can help you do all of this and more. With the right system you can streamline workflow, speed time to market, improve version control, and protect the assets that, for most companies, represent a significant investment of both money and time.

Digital asset management 101

Digital asset management — also known as media asset management — is just what it sounds like: the process of tracking and controlling all your digital assets, such as copy, images, customer data, and in some cases, pricing. For a small business (one with annual sales of less than $2 million), DAM may entail nothing more than establishing procedures for such functions as naming files and checking them out, similar to a library system, in which only one person can “borrow” a particular copy of a file at a time, in order to prevent overwriting. Larger organizations typically use tools ranging from simple file-management products to powerful enterprise-class systems that support the entire asset life cycle, from creation through archiving.

Whatever form it takes, a good DAM system offers the following benefits:

Control over all your channels’ assets. A DAM system virtually “collects” all your digital assets into a single data source that then feeds them to every user or output system you specify — programmers, designers, printers, the Web, and so on. With a DAM system, you can visually manage all assets from one login via thumbnails. You can also control who has access to what, create rules to prevent multiple users from altering the same asset at the same time, and automate time-consuming processes such as file conversion.

Improved print and Web team coordination. With standard file-naming conventions and a solid structure in place for managing assets, your Web and print groups can work in parallel, creating a more unified workflow and faster turnaround times for everyone. A DAM system can also improve versioning control through user authentication, check-in/check-out procedures, and other security features.

Better analysis. Because DAM systems store and track your assets and let you view all of them together, regardless of their location on your servers, they can also be used as tools for analysis and decision support. For example, if a query shows that 96% of your SKUs have alternate views (multiple shots of a single product from various angles) associated with them, but fewer than 1% have an audio file, you may decide to re-evaluate the cost-effectiveness of supporting audio on your Website.

DAM good advice

At its core, digital asset management is about good file-server practices: creating directory structures, establishing file-naming conventions, and setting procedures for check-outs, overwrites, server storage, and backup. Consider the following tips to streamline workflow and DAM:

Define workflow processes, then manage with DAM. To begin, you should should lay out a workflow system. For example, you could generate a report of all of the photographic assets associated with a single blouse SKU and use it as a checklist when photographing a new season’s collection. This improves efficiency — and saves money — by ensuring that you complete all the required photography at a single photo shoot, rather than in several separate sessions.

Establish scalable naming conventions. File-naming conventions should support every kind of asset and enable you to query your database with pinpoint accuracy. Say you want to find every color-corrected thumbnail photo associated with a clearance special from the third quarter of 1999. An efficient file-naming convention should allow you to do so.

If you want to be able to sort assets by SKU, for instance, you could create file names based on SKU plus a series of suffixes that represent each type of information you might want to query on. For a pair of black pants, you might name categories including type of asset (photography, text, video, sound), folder, user, file type, volume, color mode, resolution, and file size. Be sure to include Web-specific categories such as key words (for example, an item appropriate for Father’s Day could be tagged with key words such as “great for Dad”) and product attributes.

Create directory structures that make sense. Directory structures should be compatible with the way you use your assets. One company may decide to group files by the categories used on the Website, while another may group them by business unit, and a third might organize them by product line.

Regardless of how they are organized, the key is that the categories are well defined. Grouping similar assets together in separate locations gives you the freedom to create directory structures that support the way you use the assets, rather than having to make them all fit into a single structure. For example, for presentation elements (such as the photos and copy) of a Website, you could create a directory structure that mirrors the structure of your Website, so that if your site divides product categories among housewares, apparel, and accessories, you could group your digital assets similarly.

Separate development from site delivery. Group development, or the “behind the scenes,” digital assets such as code on a staging server while maintaining the visual assets such as graphics, fonts, and text files on a live server. This enables one team to work on content creation or site maintenance at the same time that another team works on programming or another back-end Website task.

Picking the right DAM

With more than 100 DAM systems on the market, how do you know which one is right for you — or if you need to create your own? Popular off-the-shelf packages include Cumulus (, Expressroom I/O (, and on the high end, QuarkDMS (Digital Media System;, which also allows for working with QuarkXPress files and XTensions. DAM packages tend to be costly, ranging anywhere from $25,000 to $250,000, depending on such factors as usage, size of assets, and the number of computers that can access the system.

You may want to consider building your own system. It is often relatively inexpensive to build a small access database, though you could end up outgrowing it quickly. On the other hand, you could also end up spending a lot of money to create your own DAM system when it might be cheaper and more appropriate to simply use a package.

Whether you decide to go for an existing DAM package or create your own, keep in mind the following functionalities:

Must-have features

Support for all your formats. Know the formats you use or plan to use such as Flash, Quicktime, Avi, Mp3, Realaudio, and Shockwave, and be sure your system can handle working with all of them.

Ease of use. Since everyone from project managers to graphic artists to software engineers will be accessing files via a single system, it’s important to choose one that is intuitive and easy to use. For example, the system should have drag and drop functions, rather than commands, and feature a limited number of steps. Some systems are so complex and offer so many features that they are difficult for multiple users to master. You also want to make sure that users don’t have to significantly alter their workflows simply to accommodate the DAM program.

Cross-platform capability. If your business is like most, your print or design department uses Macintosh, and everyone else uses PCs. Your system should be able to display all assets and all formats, no matter which platform they were created on or who’s accessing them.

Versioning and access control. You definitely want content-control capabilities, such as check-in and check-out; version control; metadata management (to support repurposing of content); control mechanisms such as templates and code-management tools; automated processes to deliver multiple outputs; user authentication and profiling (so that you can control who has access to what); and rollback capabilities (rollback allows you to salvage an original file in the event that you have uploaded the wrong file).

Power. A DAM system needs to support your maximum data transfer volume and number of concurrent users, with room for growth. Although power standards vary widely, typically it should be able to support 500-700 concurrent Web users in a live environment on a standard Windows NT box support.

Should-have features

Remote access. You should be able to access your system from any location via a WAN (wide area network), an intranet, or a Web browser, without having to pay for a separate seat for each client. In other words, you would obtain a server license entitling you to unlimited distribution on the Web. You should be able to perform queries and look at views from anywhere you need to — but again, limit check-out and overwrite capabilities to minimize errors.

Ability to customize. Every business has processes, typically those related to workflow, that are unique to it. The best products allow at least some level of customization to support your unique needs.

Security features. If you have lots of users or highly sensitive data, look for security tools such as enterprise-wide authentication, secure transactions, and data encryption.

Standards-based architecture. A product built on open standards such as Java and J2EE offers more trouble-free connection, communication, and data transfers to and from legacy applications. It is also likely to be more scalable as your business grows.

Nice-to-have features

Cross-platform, royalty-free browsing. The administration section should be able to run on both Mac and PC platforms. A good convenience option is the ability to view assets at remote sites, even without the application installed. For instance, you could burn a CD of assets to distribute to clients.

Support for removable media. While not necessary for everyone, this feature is a must if you use CDs for long-term storage of assets; otherwise you won’t be able to access them from your system. Some systems are so large, with so many digital-assets files, that they may run out of space on the system. To ensure this doesn’t happen, you could install removable media, allowing you to pull files off the system.

Regardless of whether you stick to the basics and simply establish procedures for naming and checking out files, or go all out, installing an enterprise-class system, digital asset management is essential for tracking and controlling your Website content and assets. What’s more, a DAM system can enable you to both lead and control change — and help you to stay one step ahead of the competition.

Ken Burke is president/CEO of Multimedia Live, an e-commerce technology company based in Petaluma, CA.

For more on digital asset management, read “Your New Technology” from the July 2000 issue of Catalog Age.

Don’t have a copy of that issue at hand? You can check it out (along with other past issues) at the Catalog Age Website at