By Ralph Windsor
Content digital asset supply chains are fast becoming the dominant paradigm for the implementation of integrated Enterprise DAM solutions. As we head rapidly towards 2020, the key differentiator between enterprise and departmental DAM systems is less about asset volumes and is more associated with the challenges of integrating both upstream sources of digital materials and downstream destinations where digital assets are sent on to. Modern Enterprise DAM users require a comprehensive suite of integration facilities which enable them to interconnect their DAM platform across the multitude of marketing channels they must now deal with.
For many organisations, their current content digital asset supply chain is built using an ad-hoc collection of connectors, custom API scripts and ‘belt and braces’ approaches like CSV imports. These all create major bottlenecks and increased complexity which slow down both the implementation process and the distribution of digital assets.
Vendors are increasingly aware of not only the challenge faced by their users when it comes to dealing with all this implementation complexity, but also the opportunity to embed their technology into the fabric of their clients’ digital asset supply chains. As a result, the last five or six years have seen a dramatic increase in the range and depth of third party connectors developed by DAM vendors and their partner networks.
The Upstream Content Provider Integration Blind Spot
While a significant amount of time and effort has been devoted to integrating with upstream third party systems such as Marketing Workflow, Work In Progress DAM, Photo shoot tracking etc, a lot less activity has taken place when it comes to integrating directly with media content providers who provide a lot of the material that resides within many corporate DAMs. By ‘content providers’, I am referring to stock media libraries, photographers, authors, video producers and all other creatives who supply the digital material which are the essences of digital assets.
Most enterprises make use of third party media like photography, graphics, video, audio and text, but typically the ingestion of this digital material is handled via some quite basic and low tech methods such as manually uploading images, cataloguing (tagging) by hand and relying on notes left for users to check that content licences are adhered to. Not only is this massively inefficient and a huge waste of staff time, but it also places the business at some risk of litigation if asset licences are breached.
The Enterprise Content Buying Concept
A frequent feature of Digital Asset Managers’ daily lives (and many DAM users who are tasked with uploading and cataloguing digital materials) is what might be termed the ‘hairpin manoeuvre’ where the user is required to manually download a file from one upstream source and then re-upload it to the DAM. This adds very little value and creates a bottleneck which makes digital asset supply chains far less efficient than they should be.
Enterprise Content Buying (ECB) completes one of the key missing links in enterprise content digital asset supply chains. How is this achieved? To answer this question, it is necessary to understand that the ECB concept works on two different levels.
At a simplistic technical level, an intermediary, integration-focused middleware service provider creates a connector that can communicate with the media providers that many DAM end-users are likely to already be customers of. A range of connectors are then implemented to integrate them into DAM solutions. For non-technical readers, a comparison would be like a multi-pronged plug or adapter that connects their DAM system directly into many upstream content providers.
The end user can access content from all the supported providers within their DAM, without the need to manually download and re-upload digital assets. Further, if new content providers are required, a simple upgrade will add support for them without the necessity to install lots of additional services.
The second (and more advanced) level is the management of contracts, licences and all the associated business processes. This is where the ECB concept develops beyond being about simple connectors and expands into a comprehensive and holistic platform for the management and integration of third party content across an organisation’s digital asset supply chain. The DAM is the hub or nexus where users interact with their content, but the ECB is the infrastructure (and associated services) which make it dynamic and responsive to their needs.
Metadata and ECB Platforms
Metadata integration is another benefit of the ECB concept from a digital asset supply chain efficiency perspective. Content providers like stock media libraries are effectively open DAM systems, as such, what they provide is a complete digital asset, not just the binary essence or media file, but the metadata component also.
When digital asset managers have to upload stock media digital assets to their DAM, they usually also need to manually transfer at least some metadata. This frequently has to be carried out by copying and pasting from one graphical interface into another. The process is highly inefficient and a very poor use of Digital Asset Managers’ time. If there are large numbers of stock media digital assets, batch imports can sometimes become worthwhile, but these often involve CSV imports or writing API scripts to read from one system and write into another. Both methods require time, resources and incur a cost.
With an ECB Platform, the transfer of metadata is automated and not only does the file get received into the DAM, but also the metadata. The complete digital asset (binary essence and metadata) is exchanged in a single, fully audited action.
Once in the DAM, further metadata can be added as required, but the core fields necessary to find the asset via common keywords and/or literal descriptions of the image are provided and do not require any manual data entry.
Contract and Licence Management with ECB Platforms
Licensing issues and compliance with copyright restrictions can present many challenges for DAM users. With a conventional approach to using third party media content within a DAM, usage rights and restrictions may need to be checked manually on multiple occasions. This can easily result in expensive mistakes as a result of accidental infringements of asset licences that lead to litigation.
With a DAM integrated into an ECB Platform, usage can be tracked and audited so there is full transparency and traceability. Further, the restrictions can be checked directly with the upstream content provider to not only avoid litigation but also streamline the process of using third party sourced digital assets and alleviate upstream bottlenecks.
Usage Tracking Via ECB Platforms
Related to licensing is the ability to track the usage of digital assets received from upstream content providers. Without a platform to handle this, digital asset managers are dependent on ensuring that all upstream content is coded properly with a predefined source (stored with other asset metadata) at the point of ingestion.
If they carry out this task themselves, this is simpler to administer although it does add a further bottleneck to the process of making content available to asset users. In many corporate DAM scenarios, however, responsibility for uploading files and cataloguing is federated out to users whose primary concern is not management of the DAM, and who may not properly tag digital assets such that the source could be lost.
While training can be provided and assets checked prior to release to the general population of DAM users, this generates an overhead which will ultimately fall back to the digital asset manager and their team (if they are fortunate enough to have one).
Using an ECB Platform vastly simplifies the usage tracking process for stock media content. Since the platform handles all integration with upstream content providers, issues with tagging the source are handled automatically.
There are further opportunities to gain insights into usage patterns by integrating the ECB Platform with the DAM API and/or its metadata/asset reporting features. Having accurate data about upstream content usage and being able to correlate this with wherever it has been distributed downstream offers marketers an ideal opportunity to gain greater visibility of their upstream digital asset supply chain and the ROI of their investments into third party content.
To offer an example of how this might be applied: data from digital marketing campaign response tracking tools can be correlated with upstream content usage records to allow marketing managers to more precisely pinpoint what types of content convert more effectively than others.
Achieving this without an ECB Platform is feasible but presents numerous costly and complex implementation challenges. Such projects have to compete for funds and resources with a range of other digital asset supply chain management requirements that may be under consideration by the business.
Using an ECB Platform with a DAM could be one of the few legitimate areas where DAMs genuinely offer top-line revenue enhancement benefits rather than productivity savings alone (which is what characterises the majority of current DAM use-cases).
Potential Issues with ECB Platforms
The main issue that prospective ECB Platform users are likely to encounter is the necessity to re-structure their business processes when it comes to licensing third party content. If you make use of a lot of media provided by a upstream content provider (especially if they retain ownership of the Intellectual Property) it is likely that existing agreements will need to be renegotiated.
A period of adjustment and (in all likelihood) a targeted Change Management programme will be necessary both for internal users and potentially any agencies or other third parties you might work with to deliver content to your DAM. ECB Platforms require a greater degree of rigour and regulation between upstream content providers and end-users. The transition to this model needs to be managed with care and skill. It could be argued that this is true of any supply chain management initiative, however and in order to reap the specific benefits of ECB Platforms, some alterations to whatever methods the business uses currently will always be needed.
Another potential issue is what support is provided for both downstream DAMs and upstream content providers. If the ECB Platform does not support your DAM, then it obviously cannot be used with it. Similarly, if the content providers who supply the majority if your stock digital assets are not covered then an ECB Platform is of far more limited use. In this case, you will still need to use manual or home-brewed methods of integrating with them. This scenario could present some issues when Digital Asset Managers are required to explain why they can provide in-depth usage tracking for one set of third party digital assets, but not another.
For an ECB Platform to provide sufficient value, the majority of third party providers you use now should be supported. Theoretically, the benefits available as a result of more efficient digital asset supply chains might offset the lack of support for one provider you use now, but this needs to be considered prior to deployment. It should be noted that where the provider of an ECB Platform has plans to expand the capabilities of their solution to allow a more open-ended approach to adding upstream content provider, these sort of issues can be minimised and eventually avoided entirely.
In spite of the issues and limitations described in the preceding section, ECB Platforms represent the missing link when it comes to integrating content sources with DAMs to enable a seamless end-to-end digital asset supply chain. This is a concept which meets one of the key challenges numerous DAM users are currently facing, and I would expect to see this kind of technology becoming more pervasive over the next few years.