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Why version control is necessary in digital asset management

Version control is essential to DAM systems, as it enables multiple iterations of documents and rich media while retaining the original copy, benefiting marketing departments.

As people continue to work from home amid the COVID-19 crisis, there is an increase in images, audio and video captured to record meetings, decisions and events. And keeping track of these digital assets, their usage and versions will drive an increased usage of digital asset management systems.

While version control is a key feature to managing any type of content, it is even more important when evaluating digital asset management systems.

DAM is a process for organizing, storing, transforming and retrieving media -- such as photos, videos, music and animations -- and managing permissions. DAM systems differ from enterprise content management (ECM) in that they typically manage creative content, while ECM systems focus on business records -- primarily text-based documents. Rich media are key hallmarks of any marketing effort. But beyond the world of marketing, organizations use pictures to document insurance claims, meeting outputs and anything created in the physical world that needs to be preserved.

It is important to fully understand how versioning is not only different in the world of DAM, but why it is important that it matches how businesses use digital assets.

Why digital asset management version control matters

The most important part of Version control in DAM is the preservation of the original source material. Subsequent versions of this material are more than just iterations on the original -- they are versions created to serve a specific purpose.

The most important part of version control in DAM is the preservation of the original source material.

Not every version, edit and change made with the original is going to be perfect; there will be times where a process needs to start over. As anyone who has ever edited pictures for Instagram knows, for the best quality, every editing process needs to start with the original.

Digital asset management version control is also important because every version provides value. One could be an edit to crop the image or trim the excess video from the original. Subsequent versions may fix colorations and resize the media for different outlets. From there, artists may add branding, captioning or effects to enhance the digital asset for its final purpose.

By saving every stage, the next time someone needs to use the image, they don't need to start from scratch. They can find a version that someone has modified close to their requirements and then create a purpose-specific version. By saving the various versions of the assets, organizations can track each subsequent usage.

Overview of CMS and DAM version differences

In most content management systems (CMSes), versions are sequential. A CMS counts up using numbers -- 1, 2, 3, etc. -- and possibly by using minor versions -- 1.0, 1.1, 2.0, etc. While the need for sequential versioning is useful when storing interim progress, the goal is different in DAM systems. Documents in a CMS are always evolving to create a better -- or more current -- version of the content. In DAM systems, users create different versions of content for multiple purposes.

The result is that in a CMS there will be a "current" version and potentially a "draft" version. In a DAM, however, there will have an "original," "web," "social media" and other versions of the content. These may later expand into "social media for fall campaign." While organizations still want to go back in time in a DAM system, they also need to be able to find the versions that exist for a specific purpose.

Moreover, like in a math class, it is vital to show work in a DAM. Every digital asset has different digital rights. If a user owns full rights to the original, the system needs to show the evolution to prove they have rights to the transformed versions. If a user only has partial rights, showing how the image evolved can mean the difference between having rights to use the asset for a specific purpose or not. When determining the need to track usage rights to digital assets -- and how they change as people edit them -- it is important to work closely with those artists and creators.

Versioning is beyond simple numbers. In DAM systems, versions serve a purpose. While version numbers are useful, version labels are more important. Unlike in an ECM, where labels tend to be "draft" and "final," version labels in DAM systems indicate the purpose for an organization creates a digital asset. Users may find the perfect image and can then grab the one that is edited and approved for email campaigns, where "email" is the label on the appropriate version. Sometimes there even need to be multiple version labels on the same asset -- such as "web," "fall campaign" and "close-in shot" -- to clearly identify the use for each iteration.

Versioning takes space, so keeping everything is not necessarily the best approach. However, the cloud helps with that constraint, as it mitigates the storage problem.

Using cloud DAM systems

Cloud storage in DAM systems is relatively inexpensive when compared to on-premises systems. Sometimes, storage isn't even a significant factor in the total cost.

But there is a downside. Even if unlimited versioning is now feasible, businesses may have network issues. Digital assets can take a lot of bandwidth to move around, especially if an organization works heavily with videos. The use of cloud tools can limit download times, but those tools tend to have limited functionality compared to many desktop suites.

But with the current shift to remote work, the network connectivity is becoming less of a problem. Based upon trends in the marketplace due to COVID-19, the odds are increasing that remote work will become more of a default behavior. This will enable businesses to potentially plan for the shifted network burden.

A final reason to look at the cloud is that most IT shops do not prioritize DAM systems unless digital media is the actual product, like it is for online newspapers. A cloud DAM system enables businesses to keep it up to date without it languishing from lack of attention.

Choosing a DAM system

When choosing a DAM system, it is important for businesses to understand their specific use case. Each business will need a DAM for a different purpose. Perhaps it's marketing, managing videos or even storing images taken while conducting everyday business.

Digital asset management vendor comparison chart
Digital asset management vendor comparison chart

Organizations should document their use cases -- both primary and secondary -- then evaluate leading cloud vendors serving those DAM use cases. Businesses should tell vendors what they are trying to do and watch them demonstrate versioning digital assets within their system to ensure it will serve their needs.

Enterprise DAM systems can typically handle any type of rich media use case. While they each have different strengths, they are fully capable of handling any type of rich media users place within them. Many are long-established vendors and typically have both on-premises and cloud offerings. Among enterprise DAMs are Adobe Experience Manager Assets, MediaValet, NorthplainsNext and Nuxeo.

Many DAM systems, while they can be used at the enterprise level, really shine when they focus on marketing. This is because most DAM vendors began by supporting marketing use cases. There is an emphasis on images and enabling images to be managed around campaigns. A few examples include Pica9's CampaignDrive, Stylelabs and WebDAM.

It is important for businesses to begin with a large net of vendors and narrow them down as they learn more about their use cases. Every DAM vendor excels in at least one set of use cases, so it's important for organizations to explore their options.

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