DAM Basics: Beginner’s Guide to Digital Asset Management

If you are interested in learning about the fundamentals of digital asset management (DAM), then this article is a great place to start. Together, let’s walk through the following DAM information:

What is digital asset management?

DAM is the management, organization, and distribution of digital assets from a central repository.

To better define digital asset management, let’s start with what a DAM system isn’t.

A DAM system is not simply a desktop folder, shared drive, or a Dropbox account where you dump files. It’s a marketing technology (martech) tool that allows you to manage all of your digital assets from a secure, centralized location, and enables you to connect theses assets with customers, other internal systems, revenue sources, and beyond.

In the following video a Widen DAM user explains what a typical DAM system looks like, including the assets, users, and related workflow.


Of course, any conversation about managing your assets requires knowledge of what digital assets are. Quite simply, they are any digital file, including photos, videos, illustrations, audio files, documents, design files, and presentations.

Assets can live on a range of devices — such as computers, tablets, phones — or in the cloud. They have some value to you or your organization; and they have a life cycle comprised of four phases: creation, management, distribution, and preservation.

What a DAM system allows you to do

A DAM system gives you the ability to control and manage digital assets throughout their lifecycle. Files can be ingested, annotated, cataloged, stored, and shared with specific users. Here are a few examples:

  1. Search for assets using business-specific keywords
  2. Allow access to assets by roles and permissions so users can easily find and download the assets they need
  3. Maintain multiple versions of an asset under one URL, reducing the possibility of outdated versions being used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 our blog post Defining characteristics of a DAM system.

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.

SaaS: Also known as cloud-based or web-based digital asset management, SaaS is delivered to you as a software package over the internet. A good SaaS DAM system is scalable and can be accessed anytime by anyone with an internet connection. Because you are not responsible for maintaining any hardware or servers, SaaS is often attractive to companies on a limited budget. However, it’s important to clarify the scope of services included in the provider’s fees, to confirm if includes upgrades and what kind of support you can expect.

On-premise: This DAM system type is purchased and installed on your hardware, meaning you provide the storage space,  machines, and IT support to run the application. On-premise use is common among organizations that have special security needs for proprietary information. It gives your internal IT team complete control, and in turn requires a good amount of IT support. With an on-premise DAM, your team will need to consider how they will manage software updates and data backups.

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 advantageous when it comes to new feature development; but can also have the downside of less security. Keep in mind that open-source options will require a big commitment from your IT team. For more information on this topic read our blog post New Open Source DAM Option Emerges.

We recommend that the selection of any DAM system is made with the feedback from from a range of stakeholders, including people from IT, marketing, and management. There are a lot of factors to weigh — including budget, support, and capabilities — and the key to selecting the appropriate software is really understanding your organization’s unique DAM needs.

Metadata and DAM systems

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. And good metadata allows you to easily pinpoint specific assets during a search.

Each DAM system differs in the way it organizes 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 permissioned categories allows you to control what each user sees 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. Read more about understanding roles and permissions in a DAM system.

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

Your DAM journey has begun

This overview of basic DAM functionality and features should begin your DAM journey on solid footing. There is a lot to think about as you plan for and configure a DAM system. But luckily, each phase in the process of selecting, implementing, and ultimately maintaining a DAM build on each other, so your efforts pay off every step of the way.

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