It's a Digital World (2,835 words)
Maybe you print six catalog versions a year or mail 50,000 envelope packages every month. Most likely your company hosts a Web site with at least a half a dozen pages. Perhaps your marketing department utilizes CD-ROM for complex promotions.
Your company doesn't have to be doing all of this to be in the direct marketing game. Chances are, however, the more media used to promote your products and services, the more time your departments spend on creating communications. And time is everybody's biggest competitor.
The best way to get better control over time is to get better control over your message and how it is produced and re-packaged—better known today as digital content management.
What is it?
More than just a buzzword, digital content management embodies a whole new avenue of thought on how to create, store, access and reuse information vital to generating revenue and promoting your company. While the products and services themselves set your company apart from the competition, so does the way you market them.
Digital content management is the process of digitizing your images and text, archiving them and then retrieving them over and over for placement in catalogs, marketing collateral, CDs, Web pages, etc. These files are stored in a main database that is indexed so all items may be found by those who need them. Software is used to archive the files and retrieve them later on, as well as to control the manipulation and updating of all files.
To make the most of digital content management, according to Frank Leibly, director of digital content management at Banta Integrated Media, a company needs two things: a good customer database and a good content database.
Banta's Digital Content Management Solutions Center consults with organizations on the way staffs handle the flow of information within their companies. Depending upon the level of involvement each company wishes to have with the content management process or the end goals to be achieved, Leibly's team brainstorms a probable configuration of databased content and workflow.
These two sides of a company's data come together to help it understand the relationship between its offerings and its customers. You have the operating data on one end that tells you where your customers live, what they have bought from you, when they bought these items, how much they paid and in what form and what type of offer brought them in. The other stack of data is your communications content—the images, copy, audio and video you use to communicate your offers and messages.
The link between these information warehouses supports your company's ability to maximize its sales potential across all media, customer segments and product lines, says Russell Keizer, of Cascade Systems, a privately held software developer and systems integrator located in Andover, MA.
Cascade Systems markets a software program called SureCast, Keizer explains, that helps companies look in both directions—at the sales and behavior history and at the assets—to make marketing decisions. When companies determine what products get marketed to which customer segments, the software enables them to make sure it's the right time for the sales pitch by linking operations data to image data for a complete look at the possible connections.
What's Your Plan?
Before you can reap the benefits of digitized content, you have to decide how to set up your system. Naturally, you'll have to consider whether you want to outsource or bring the operation in-house.
Three immediate questions, says Banta's Leibly, are:
(1) Does your company have the expertise to handle digital content management in-house? While your firm probably has some key people who understand what's needed to create this new workflow, can you spare employees from the jobs they do every day to handle this important function?
(2) In planning for the size of the system, can you quantify your business' needs—how many users, the amount of content, the number of mailings put out using this content and the complexity of your operations? Such components greatly affect the type of work team constructed to oversee this new set-up.
(3) What is your time frame? For instance, how soon do you want to be up and running? The faster you want to implement this change in workflow, the more likely you'll need to depend on an outside vendor to handle most or all of the job.
Leibly advises direct marketers to take a phased approach, where the challenge is to build upon each step and not start all over again for each addition of content, users or media. You don't want your costs to go through the roof every time you add another piece to the puzzle and realize you don't have the infrastructure to support the next step.
According to Francesco Rietti, product manager for Cascade's Mediasphere software, the bulk of his company's customers set up an in-house system. For example, Sears Canada stores its digital content in one place while its print vendor is in another location and its creative somewhere else, too; all operations are linked via a digital content system server that allows teams access to the latest images for up-to-the-minute marketing campaigns.
Who are the Users?
Obviously, when you're talking about content and creating communications, you tend to focus on the team that develops your efforts: the creative department.
However, both Leibly and Keizer believe that it will pay off in the long run if you look beyond the obvious and seek the opinions of other teams that help shape your customer focus. Managers from merchandising, marketing and customer service should be in on the plan, as their departments all have contact with customers and help determine how they are marketed to and with what kinds of communications.
In short, anyone who needs access to the latest technical information needs to be linked to the digital content database so there's no hold up in any one department, explains Leibly.
On the front end, Banta's team usually begins talking with the marketing department first, because "these people are the primary drivers of what the content can do and should do." Then, the direct marketing company's information services (IS) staff is integrated into the discussions because it knows what the current operating system is like, what will work with the system and how best to go about it.
The operations part of this digital puzzle hinges on the initial plan: keep the system in-house or outsource to a second party?
Depending on the type of control you would like to retain, you'll need a software and hardware configuration that suits your needs. Banta's team determines software solutions in the consulting phase, tailored around what the client's goal is and how it wants to manage and access content.
The size of your user-group is paramount, as well. Small work groups won't need an industrial strength database, Leibly explains, but enterprise-wide functions point to a more complex package.
According to Rietti, most Cascade customers usually don't have large storage capabilities or the server technology to handle an image database on top of current operations; most need to add some type of network support, but it's not a complicated process.
In terms of set-up time, there's really no benchmark to hold up as the time needed to convert images, train staff and plan the change in workflow depends largely on the complexity of the undertaking.
However, industry experts concur that it is feasible for a small-scale operation to get an image database ready in a month or two, whereas a larger company could take a year or more to set up an in-house system.
Selecting a Partner
Some companies choose not to bring the process in-house and would rather rely on a knowledgeable partner to incur the operations and upkeep expenses.
The key to forging a solid partnership lies in knowing how much access and control your departments need over your content. Today's technology allows for the quick transfer of files between companies and outside suppliers via T1 or T3 lines, so your content is never more than a few keystrokes away.
Or, companies that would like to access their PDF images from a remote location can do so via a secured password and Internet connection in conjunction with Cascade's software products.
Right now, the main providers of digital content management programs for direct marketers are printing companies looking ahead to when marketing is more evenly distributed amongst media that aren't paper-based, says Leibly.
While this means you may find some advantages to working with a print vendor for your content solutions (after all, they can help you translate your content into printed products quickly and help reduce your time to market), you also don't want to be in a sticky, political position of not being able to shop around on all your projects when your content is tied up with one vendor—a situation that translates to agencies, service bureaus, etc.
To protect the interests of all parties, draw up a contract that stipulates the services you are paying for and what control you will retain—not to mention what will happen to your business relationship should you take some of your business elsewhere, Rietti advises.
Leibly adds that it makes sense to implement a system that is not proprietary to the vendor with whom you'll be working, otherwise your partnering options are limited from the outset.
The main element of digital content is, of course, the content. A good place to start is with an in-depth review of the communications you currently create and the projects you'd like to take on in the near future.
Based on these plans, determine what content you'll need digitized, such as photo collections, text files, audio clips, video clips, charts and graphs, statistical information, diagrams, illustrations and other data. Anything created anew will be developed in this digital atmosphere as part of your normal operations, but older content will have to be converted.
You don't have to go crazy converting the past 20 years' worth of images and text, says Leibly, but you do want to archive into the new system files that will be used again. Unfortunately, this is where the bulk of time will be spent on moving to a digital content environment. Conversion of files can be a long, tedious process; the benefits, however, prove to be substantial.
As Rietti explains, most software requires you to tag data with META codes (key words) once in the archival process that are later used for extraction. Cascade's MediaSphere allows users to create a digital library of data that automatically stores data based on such codes and—combined with retrieval language—pulls data back out to repurpose images and text for the Internet, CD-ROM, print, etc.
You can add codes to files at any point when databasing content. It just makes more sense to set up a standard archival process to eliminate time wasted locating missing files or items not yet processed. This standard process includes building your codes into a sort of pick list for all items in the image database. While the files stored can be indexed by variables such as SKUs, product families or types of data, the list should be common to all departments accessing the files.
While a good deal of time is involved with creating this digital database, the pay-off comes when the marketing and creative staffs are able to find images and text in less time than before, when employees can see the history of a particular asset and cut down on overuse of certain content and when images can be used for multiple media without the need for expensive, cumbersome alterations to their formats.
Just as critical to setting up a good content database as the input of files, extraction of the images requires some planning, too.
As the process is called digital content management, you need to decide who will retain responsibility for the database and which groups will be given what kind of access to the images. Most companies appoint a sort of gatekeeper, says Rietti, who may impose strict extraction procedures, such as only the most current images are to be used for future projects.
According to Cascade's Keizer, the same rules apply to a digital content database that go with feeding and caring for your operations databases: garbage in, equals garbage out. If you don't pay attention to workflow and ensure the images are created and injected into the database in a controlled, thoughtful manner, you may end up with a handful of bad files, corrupting other items, or you will wind up with many similar but not identical images that serve to confuse other database users.
For example, the last thing you want your creative team doing the day your catalog or mailing goes to press is looking for the correct version of a product image.
To get the maximum impact from your digital database, it helps to integrate your various systems, department-to-department and office-to-office, so you can share data seamlessly, advises Leibly. The effortless transmission of data between teams is one of the major reasons to convert to a digital workflow.
Backing It Up
Most companies do have some sort of back-up system protecting their operations databases in case of emergency. The same principle applies to your digital content database.
Your firm's IS department plays a starring role in creating the initial system, but it should also help you develop a back-up plan so the company is not crippled in the case of crashes.
You can implement several different levels of security, depending on the complexity of your system and the need for a fully operational database at all times. Leibly notes that some companies tie their back-up system to the main database while others develop a separate system just for the digital content.
As Rietti explains, companies may explore various levels of protection beginning with running RAID, where if drives go down, the system writes the data across multiple drives to safeguard data and so stored items can be reconstructed later. A second level of protection would add daily back-ups of images via a jukebox that holds literally gigabytes of data. A third level becomes more expensive as you need to have an entire second operating system housed at another location, something only time-sensitive operations (like newspaper publishers) that cannot function with server delays or system crashes rely on.
An additional safety precaution is to keep a copy of the database index, as well, so in the event of corrupt files, you can revert to a prior version.
Database security is one area in which outside vendors can provide an advantage; most invest in state-of-the-art systems not usually rivaled by most marketers.
According to some informal research performed by Banta with its clients, creative staffs might spend 25 percent to 50 percent of their time looking for content to create communications. Another sliver of time is devoted to proofing and double-checking the finished work to verify all images and text are the right versions.
A final time-saver is the ability to send projects digitally across T1 or T3 lines to the different managers who need to sign off on all communications before the job goes out. What used to take days, now may take only a couple hours.
For Information: Russell Keizer, Cascade Systems, Andover, MA; (508) 749-7000. Frank Leibly, Banta Integrated Media, Cambridge, MA; (617) 497-6811. Francesco Rietti, Cascade Systems; (508) 749-7000.