DAM Basics

Ready to learn about the basics of digital asset management (DAM)? A good place to begin is by reviewing the following:

  • How to define digital asset management
  • What a DAM system allows you to do
  • How DAM can benefit your organization
  • The different types of DAM systems
  • Understanding metadata and its importance in a DAM system
  • The function of user roles

What is digital asset management?

To answer this question, let’s start with what a DAM system isn’t. It is not a desktop folder or a Dropbox account where you dump files. And it’s not a shared drive. Think of a DAM system as a marketing technology tool that enables you to connect your digital assets with customers — and by extension with revenue sources.

The following video with a Widen DAM user is a great introduction to digital asset management systems as a whole. It overviews what kind of digital assets, users and end products you might expect to see.

As a formal definition, DAM is the management, organization and distribution of digital assets from a central repository. It is a system that allows you to manage all your digital assets from one place.

Of course, any conversation about managing your assets requires knowledge of what digital assets are — photos, videos, illustrations, audio files, documents, design files and presentations. In addition, it’s important to understand that all digital assets have a lifecycle.

Understanding the lifecycle of digital assets is essential to understanding why a central content management hub is important. We’ve identified four phases of the asset lifecycle:

Understanding the Lifecycle of Digital Assets
  1. Creation: We see creation as more than the action of shooting video or developing artwork. Defining asset needs, generating ideas, planning and development are part of the creative process.
  2. Management: Includes the approval, version control and the logistics of giving people access to view and comment on digital assets.
  3. Distribution: Internal and external groups may be part of distribution. Internally, an asset might move between departments, to affiliate partners or be routed to salespeople. Externally, your website, social media platforms and affiliate partner marketing collateral are all destinations for your assets.
  4. Preservation: Whether an asset is stored for regular use or is buried deep in the archives, knowing what you have and being able to access your assets is a key part of the digital asset lifecycle.

What a DAM system allows you to do

A DAM system enables you to control and manage digital assets throughout their lifecycle. You can ingest, annotate, catalog, store and share digital assets. Here are a few examples:

  1. Comment on artwork in one central location.
  2. Allow access to assets by user rights so that your partners can easily find and download the assets they need.
  3. Maintain multiple versions of a video under one URL, reducing the possibility of outdated versions being used.
  4. Include usage guidelines with logos or brand assets.
  5. Access archived marketing materials to inform projects in development.

These examples merely scratch the surface of the capabilities of a DAM system. For more in-depth information about DAM capabilities, see the blog post Defining characteristics of a DAM system.

How a DAM system can benefit your organization

A DAM system can revolutionize the way you do business. That may sound a little grandiose, but it’s true. And you can expect these kinds of benefits as a result:

  • Save time searching for and delivering digital assets to people
  • Save money by moving projects faster, making assets available for repurposing and eliminating lost files
  • Utilize the talents of your staff to focus on important and enriching work instead of dealing with outdated methods of asset delivery and recreation of missing artwork
  • Improve organizational knowledge through a central, searchable repository for assets that drive engagement and power marketing efforts

The DAM system adoption journey (and your company’s internal policies) will probably necessitate an examination of the return on investment (ROI) of a DAM system. Visit our ROI resource for quantitative and qualitative methods to determine your ROI.

Types of DAM Systems

When it comes to selecting a DAM system, you have three options: Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), on-premise or open source. Below is a short overview of each.

SaaS: Also known as cloud-based or web-based digital asset management, SaaS is delivered to you as a software package accessed over the internet. There is no hardware or servers for you to maintain. A good SaaS DAM system is scalable and can be accessed anytime by anyone with an internet connection. SaaS is a great place for a company on a limited budget to start using a ready-to-use DAM system. That being said, there are a couple of things to watch out for. Make sure you know if upgrades are included in the fees and what kind of support you can expect.

On-premise: This DAM system is purchased and installed on your hardware, meaning you provide the storage space and the machines to run the application. On-premise use is common among organizations that have special security needs for proprietary information. On-premise gives total control over to your internal IT team, and in turn requires a good amount of IT support. Things to consider include how your internal team will manage updates, as well as data backups and making assets available to users as necessary.

Open source: This DAM system can be hosted by a third party or on-premise. Either way, the source code of the software is publicly available. Open-source software is typically developed in a public, collaborative manner, which can be a benefit when it comes to new feature development — but with a downside of less security. Keep in mind that open-source options will require a big commitment from your IT team.

Regardless of type of system you adopt, we recommend the conversation include people from IT, marketing and management. A lot of factors weigh in, like budget, support and capabilities. As always, the key to selecting the appropriate software is knowing what your organization needs from a DAM system.

Metadata & Digital Asset Management

Metadata is the language of your DAM system and is defined as “information that describes and defines an asset,” or “data about data.” Metadata can be descriptive, like title, author/creator, creation date or keywords; it can be structural, referring to the format or dimensions; or it can be administrative, giving important information on digital asset usage guidelines and copyrights. Metadata is important because it contains key information about your digital assets. Good metadata allows you to easily pinpoint specific assets during a search.

Each DAM system differs in the way it organized metadata — from text fields, to drop-down menus, to palettes and checkboxes. When deciding on a DAM system, it’s important to think about your approach to metadata and how you want to develop a metadata schema in order to evaluate vendor offerings. Some systems come with pre-set metadata fields, while others allow you to customize and create your own.

For an overview of “standard” metadata fields, check out the Dublin Core metadata schema. We also offer a “Metadata Quick Start Guide”, which is a great place to gain a better understanding of metadata and how to evaluate your metadata needs.

DAM User Roles

One of the great things about a DAM system is its ability to assign different levels of access, or permissions, to users by group. Creating permissions categories allows you to control what users see and what they can do with digital assets in the system. For example, you can enable your graphic designer to upload assets, edit metadata fields and post new versions. You can also give your webmaster permission to retrieve embed codes, and allow your sales team to simply view and download digital assets.

As with most aspects of a DAM system, the user roles you choose and the level of access you give each role will be contingent on your business goals, workflow and user groups.

Here’s how one manufacturer has determined the roles and permissions for their digital asset management user groups.


There is a lot to think about as you plan for and configure a DAM system. Luckily, the key phases in the DAM journey build on each other, so your efforts pay off every step of the way.

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