Paul Boag wrote an article a while back entitled "The 5 hidden costs of running a CMS" over on Vitamin/Carsonified and I really thought it was a useful item to ponder over as a CMS user. Then I thought, "This totally applies to digital asset management software as well, somebody should write up the same thing for DAM." So here goes (with all due respect to Mr. Boag).

The ever burgeoning amount of digital items generated by a person or company is quickly outgrowing our ability to handle and track them. These assets (digital images, designs, layouts, training clips, music tracks, digital videos, presentations, documents...) are quickly filling up our CDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays, external drives and server space and we likely don't have any idea where a particular file might be, much less have any useful information attached to it. We may well be recreating assets that we have lost or don't know exist in some other division of the company. So we naturally turn to digital asset management (DAM) software and hope it will streamline and organize our work.

Besides the initial price tag, there is a lot more to consider when making a DAM investment and achieving a successful implementation:

  1. The cost of training
  2. The cost of ingestion
  3. The cost to quality
  4. The cost to functionality
  5. The cost of redundancy and flexibility
  6. The cost of commitment

Let's take a closer look at each of the six cost areas.

1) The Cost of Training

Training consumes a lot of time. So many users, so many roles, so many different groups to train. Super users, core users, editors, viewers, not to mention the Help Desk staff... Brand managers, salespeople, graphic artists, marketing, legal... At times it seems it will never end. And it won't. People will leave, new people will arrive, partners will come on board, and depart, and somebody will have to keep track of it all and make sure the users know what they are doing and where to properly do it.

Is the user manual well-written for every user type or do you require a custom "quick start" guide that covers all the basics for each group or role? What about creating a screencast for each role as well? How many languages do your materials need to support? These training questions (and many others) may change from client to client, from project to project, so make sure you have the capacity to keep up with the needs of your users.

2) The Cost of Ingestion

Who is going to upload your assets? Who is going to attach metadata to all the assets? This is always a surprise once the system is chosen and finally installed. No matter how much it is discussed in the planning phase, the reality doesn't hit until the DAM is launched and the core users start uploading the assets. "Hey, this takes a lot of time! I thought this was going to save me time!"

Many systems allow you to attach a drive and ingest gigabytes or terabytes in short order. While this seems like a time- and money-saver, keep in mind that these should all be clean, approved assets (not just a dump-and-index-it-later process (see 'quality' below) as that tends to never happen) and your DAM system needs time to actually index the assets, the metadata, and generate thumbnails and previews (I've seen 100,000+ assets take almost a full WEEK to process).

Even more surprising is that if your DAM tool supports multiple languages it probably requires a person to sit down and translate the metadata labels (likely just a few times) and contents (all the time, for every asset). People seem to expect there to be a magic "translate" button in the software that will just know how to decipher all their special lingo and naming conventions, but guess what? It'll probably take real human time and knowledge.

3) The Cost to Quality

The complexity of the DAM is largely related to the price of the package as the low-end solutions typically do not have such things as an approval process or workflows. Perhaps they cannot allow you to be as granular as you need when doling out privileges and permissions (they are grouped together, for example). This poses the question of who adds assets and who approves them for general consumption and where are they stored in the system.

Allowing anyone with a user account to add content to the DAM might quickly lead it to becoming a dumping ground for assets of questionable use and quality (the graphic designer's show-dog photos that he just had to store somewhere? MS Word docs that marketing is saving "just in case." 23 versions of a package?).

Because digital asset management software becomes really useful when metadata is attached to an asset, the entry form for any new item might have five to twenty fields that should be filled out as fully as possible. Since users are busy (and simultaneously quite possibly lazy) it may frequently occur that the metadata content is minimally populated or any details present are just lumped together in the description field.

This results is a garbage-in, garbage-out situation and makes the DAM less useful than desired for all users of the system. And who exactly will fix that mess?

4) The Cost to Functionality

Everyone always seems to think of a DAM system in a different light than, say, Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop. For some reason, desktop applications are just accepted as-is. DAM software is expected to do everything imaginable and be easily customizable.

The fact of the matter is that while the code may be tweakable and an SDK might even come with it, the time/cost factor is usually prohibitive (every change seems to take a month and be $10,000). Keep in mind that if you do go down this road, you then have a custom DAM installation that must be maintained and updated every time there is an upgrade from the vendor.

Invariably, someone in the company wishes to tie the DAM database to some other system for exporting final files or data for PLM or even hooking into a partner's system. Since these are database tools, this can usually be done.

But does your internal IT department have the bandwidth to handle these modifications or are they contracted out to the DAM vendor or some other third party?

5) The Cost of Redundancy and Flexibility

Every DAM system does a few things the same way -- you have to be able to view thumbnails and download assets of course -- but once past that point the feature sets can vary widely. Since there are reported to be over 85 different DAM software vendors and nobody owns more than 5% of the market, the companies typically try to do as many things as possible.

Your system may allow very granular control over user groups and privileges and permissions and users and folders and domains. Perhaps the DAM tool allows graphic artists to search and use assets from directly inside their creative applications. Maybe video files can be played, scrubbed through, searched and cropped to specific segments. You get the idea. The complexity seems quite valuable but the time involved to apply the feature set in question might seem to require a degree in the graphic arts or library sciences. And if the features are overwhelming to the average user, will they ignore them and/or fumble ahead and make mistakes?

And make sure your DAM system can take a hit and keep on running. It happens. You need a backup system that is fully mirrored on a regular (short) basis.

6) The Cost of Commitment

Finally, the high cost of DAM commitment covers several segments:

  • The time for research and testing
  • The investment in implementation
  • The ongoing cost and time of user training
  • The expense of add-ons or plug-ins
  • The investment in asset ingestion

Building up a useful digital asset management platform, whether locally or globally, certainly takes a lot of time and money. Choosing the right DAM software is critically important. You could wish to change your approach in the future and how would you go about exporting the file structure, assets and the metadata? It can be done, but will likely require the expense of custom scripting and/or programming.

A well-implemented digital asset management system is invaluable in organizing files, attaching useful metadata, allowing global insight into the company's various regions and brands, re-purposing of assets, and cutting production time from a busy schedule with digital workflows. Any one DAM solution may not do all things as you wish, but most any DAM is certainly better than no DAM at all. Keep your eyes and mind open and become aware of all the costs in time and money and you will build a successful DAM implementation today, one that will be flexible and capable of your growing DAM needs tomorrow.