DAM Champ: Susan Pleiman
What’s it like to review 30,000 images a year, submitted from 4,300 locations around the globe? We interviewed Susan Pleiman, Marriott DAM Systems Manager, about her role within the Marriott Digital department and the challenges and excitement of supporting a global hospitality brand.
DAM champ: Someone who supports finding, setting up, or maintaining a digital asset management system (DAM). There is a wide variety in DAM champions, who come from positions in production, creative, management, IT, and marketing.
I work within the Marriott Digital department at Marriott headquarters in Bethesda, MD. I am the DAM systems manager supporting the day-to-day website photography operations and workflows, and focus on system enhancements that pertain to the Marriott digital team, which serves as Marriott.com.
The team I work with reviews about 30,000 images a year. These images are submitted by 4,300 hotels globally. They are then processed through our team, published on Marriott.com and then distributed to numerous digital channels.
We have a large DAM used by many departments use for a variety of purposes. Being one of the larger stakeholders we rely on our custom built approval workflows.
How long have you been doing DAM or been responsible for the DAM system?
We launched our DAM in 2015, so I’ve had this role for about two years, but Marriott Digital been doing our own form of DAM since the launch of Marriott.com in 2004. Managing photography for our website has been happening for a long time, but was done offline using Microsoft Excel. When I joined the team in 2010, and we were managing our digital assets on servers and spreadsheets.
Is your background in library science or is it more on the creative side?
My background is in photography, so creative. I’ve been a professional photographer for about 15 years, but I came to Marriott in 2010 ready for a new challenge and new kind of career related to photography. I do photography more for pleasure now. But I really enjoy kind of where that starts, how I started with a BFA, at a tiny liberal arts college, and how I‘ve come here to this point…and overseeing the management of photography. It’s been a really fun change. Obviously, having a tool to assist with that other than Excel is awesome.
How did you find out about DAM systems as a way to deal with digital assets?
We had been using a hybrid of servers and Excel to manage things, and then over time, kind of migrated to fancier, basically, conversions of Excel. We moved to a different tool for a while, which was more of a brand asset management tool that had a little piece of a workflow, the way hotel systems received their images.
Eventually, we really knew that the first kind of giant rock that we had to deal with was all the legacy assets, so we knew we had to get all our legacy assets off of servers. We knew we needed to collect metadata and pull that metadata out from our content management system, then also unite all these things together with licensing documents.
So we knew we needed a tool to kind of pull everything together, and that requirement gathering probably started around 2013. We knew we just couldn’t do it the way we had been doing it and had to find a better way. Which lead to my first visit to Henry Stewart and this epiphany moment of, oh my gosh, there are all these things out there that can help us to do this. It doesn’t have to be such a manual process. That started in 2012-2013 and was when we really started requirements gathering.
How do you interact with DAM and digital assets in your day to day?
Day to day, I oversee approvals of users of the tool. That’s kind of one thing I do pretty often, but like I said, I work with a group of people. It’s probably about six people total that are reviewing photography submissions that are coming from our hotels. And we review about 30,000 images a year.
Then this group reviews imagery. We get different types of assets, but it’s mostly photography. We are reviewing video, PDFs, and floor plans, but when I talk about digital assets, I mostly live in a world of photography. We’re reviewing that photography for quality, compliance to brand standards, technical guidelines, taxonomy, metadata, things of that nature that we have to review to make sure the imagery can move on to production and be put on the website.
You said you touch every digital asset that’s created?
No, no, definitely, no, but the team does. I work on a team of six people, and the team definitely touches every asset, but I have more of an overarching view of things. If there are issues, I go and consult, but I’m often times reviewing. Because there’s a lot of information, the photography metadata is being supplied by our hotels, so I’m often going in and reviewing to make sure that they understand how to enter the taxonomy properly…that they understand the difference between taxonomy and keywords or descriptions.
I work a lot with licensing and the usage rights that our legal department asks us to get, because actually I don’t know the percentage of our properties at our franchise, but Marriott doesn’t own the property, so we don’t own the images either. The properties own the images, so we have to make sure we get the right type of licensing for all the photography to make sure we can use it in our DAM and on our various digital channels.
What would you say are the top one or two areas of responsibility and ownership that make you proud to be a DAM champ?
One of the things that I do that’s kind of separate from our digital DAM tool is that I oversee our preferred vendor list. So, having a background in photography, I actually work directly with our photographers…not all of them, but we have about, I’d say, 45 photographers that we recommend to our properties to use. I work directly with the photographers, training them on how to use our DAM tool, training them on our standards and guidelines, and making sure that they have all the tools necessary for the right type of photography that we need to support our hotel’s…product.
There are all different types of professional photographers out there, but our concern is to support our hotel website. It’s specifically architectural photography, so we work directly with the photographers because there’s often a lot of people involved in the photo shoots — regional and field marketing managers. There are directors of sales and marketing, and they’re often working with those people, but often times certain things get missed in the shoot planning, so I work directly with photographers to make sure they have everything they need to ensure we have what we need to post on the hotel’s website, so they can properly sell to our digital channels.
Why is DAM so important?
Well, that’s a loaded question. I mean, it’s just so crucial for our business. We can’t sell hotel rooms without showing the customer what they look like. We do a lot of research within the Marriott digital department here, finding out what customers interact with best, what type of photography, whether it’s video, it’s 360, it’s virtual tours versus still photography. We’re constantly doing research to figure out exactly what we need to share with our customers.
“We can’t sell hotel rooms without showing the customer what they look like.”
We did do a project a couple years ago where we ran an A/B test where we showed customers a hotel’s website that either didn’t have up-to-date photography or didn’t have very much photography. And then we ran a second website at the same hotel where we had gone out and actually photographed the hotels ourselves. We had one website that ran the exact same time as another one, but with different types of photography to see if we could prove our case that the right type of photography helped conversions.
And after running that test for, I think it was six months, we found there was a 13% lift in conversions for the properties with the sites that had all the appropriate photography to sell the hotel. A lot of our hotel owners, when they hear 13% increase in conversions, that really gets them to listen. You can tell people that photography is important, but you need to give them that hard evidence of what the difference will be if they take the time to invest in the right kind of photography.
What’s the best thing about DAM — your DAM or any DAM? What’s the thing you think of when you talk with somebody who doesn’t know DAM, what’s the best thing about it?
Based on my personal experience and my background, it is just that metadata is so cool. I love everything about how all this information is stored in a digital asset. I just love it. You can see the latitude and longitude coordinates for a photo, where it was originally created, every time it was edited, and the photographer’s copyrights. You can get so much useful information into an image, and if you have the right kind of DAM tool, you can see that information and then you can add to it. It’s astounding.
I just go back to shooting films back in the day where, if you wanted to remember very specific things about your camera setting, you had to keep a notebook and keep track of every single frame and shot to remember what made that image so great. These days, so much is just stored in the camera and it’s right there for you to see once you’ve loaded it onto a computer…and really that whole lifecycle of an image can be captured with DAM. It kind of blows my mind.
I love that thinking. You’ll never be without a job when your line is “Metadata is cool.” The biggest barrier to DAM adoption is metadata, and if you embrace it, you’re always going to be in a good place.
Yeah, I just think about being in college and shooting black and white film, and was probably never thorough enough to keep recordings of how you shot stuff, so it was always a guessing game later on, like, oh, what did I do that made that photo so awesome? And now, so much of that is just there for you to learn right off the bat, and it’s so cool, especially with the use of imagery on websites and social media, where you can actually see the information about how people react to an image. It’s just astounding. I can’t believe how much you can learn from images these days.
What’s your biggest challenge as a DAM champ?
Oh, I don’t know, there are just so many challenges. I think when you’re in a smaller company, you’re worrying about funding. And when you’re in a really big company, it’s ownership. And it’s not necessarily a lack of funds, but it’s how you get the money and who manages what. Then having to agree on how an enterprise-wide system should be run for a giant global company…we’re constantly trying to work through that.
I can only imagine what you deal with from owning the lifecycle and assets that need to represent hotels around the world.
Yeah, so mostly it’s just education. There are so many different people that you have to educate, from at a corporate level down to on a property level; it’s educating them about the importance of it. We have hotels often that, say even in 2008, were still submitting images sometimes through email. That was pretty easy to understand. There was a Word document they would fill out, and they attached some pretty small files to an email. And if they had more than maybe 10 images, they’d send a couple emails and send it off to our team. And then production started.
Now, they have to learn a system, and they have to upload and tag the images. So trying to get someone maybe just working at a front desk to understand the importance of why they’re doing that and why it’s not as easy as filling out a Word document and sending off an email…it can be a struggle. So educating all levels of users is part of my everyday job.
What advice would you give to people who are trying to get a DAM system in their organization, or if they have one, increase adoption?
I guess from where I stand today, just that you’ve got to stick with it. It’s never really over. You might finally implement your tool — the DAM that you purchase or you build — but once you do that, there’s still tons of work to do. And really it’s just never done, so you have to be really persistent and stick with it. And I think a little bit of passion for it goes a long way.
Absolutely. It’s been said that it’s not a project, it’s a product. There’s not a start and end date, it’s ongoing.
Yeah, and from my education and learnings over the last couple of years, when I really got into DAM, understanding the tool is really important, but there’s so much [to understand] about the people who are approving the images or who are cropping images. It’s so people-oriented that you really have to understand it’s not just the tool but the people and the process behind the tool.
“It’s so people-oriented that you really have to understand it’s not just the tool but the people and the process behind the tool.”
Agreed. That’s more important than any tool. Well, is there anything else that you’d like to share with the community that you want to inspire or instill in DAM awareness and experience?
I think first of all, it’s such a young industry and I think it’s just going to grow and grow. There’s going to be more need for people to master this type of work, because I think the internet is not going away, social media is not going away. And photography is such an important part of the thing, and assets and content, but there’s such a need for more people to grow in this industry.