What is an ETF, really? What does it look like? Can you pick it up and hold in your hands? Take it for a test-drive? Can an attractive influencer wear it around to garner interest?

Of course, if you know anything at all about ETFs, you know the answer to all of the above is a resounding no. ETFs are tasteless, odorless, colorless, weightless bits of investment methodology that, in a practical sense, exist only in the conceptual realm.

At their core, ETFs represent different outlooks regarding the market and how to gain the right exposure (and to which parts)—this outlook informs the strategy behind the fund, the messaging, and, perhaps most importantly of all, the marketing.

Mind the gap

But where to begin? ETF issuers are up against a unique challenge when trying to get the word out about their products: they simply don't exist in the physical world. As a consequence, the educational gap can sometimes be huge (many retail investors still don't even know what ETF stands for); and the more complex a product is, the higher the educational barrier, including financial advisers, retail, and institutional audiences.

Couple this with the sometimes onerous compliance requirements and legal restrictions regarding the claims issuers can and cannot make about an investment product, and it may be difficult to know where to start.

It's probably a great time to start thinking about education as soon as the pre-launch phase of an ETF, if not sooner. Garnering AUM means convincing investors that a given product is worth investing in. This hinges on a key consideration: most investors will not put their money into an ETF they don't understand, nor do they have the time or inclination to conduct in-depth research into multiple funds, reading lengthy whitepapers or reports.

Clarity of message

This is where educational marketing comes in. Educational marketing is critical to ETFs because it takes what may be a relatively complex product and boils it down to its basic three or four selling points: what does this fund do? What sets it apart from its competitors? Where might it fit in an investor's portfolio?

By addressing these questions in marketing materials quickly, succinctly, and with clarity in marketing materials, ETF issuers stand a much better chance of bridging the all-important educational gap and getting prospects that much closer to pulling the trigger on an investment.

By their very nature, these marketing materials will look very little like conventional reports or white papers. Instead, they may take the form of a colorful one-pager or infographic.

To take this approach a step further, animated videos of two minutes or so in length can serve a critical educational role in a marketing campaign, particularly for investors casually browsing a website. They may not have 30 minutes to read a report, but they probably have 120 seconds to soak in the key selling points.

Short, punchy marketing materials such as this can prime the runway for lengthier, more in-depth research as well. Such materials can be positioned behind email sign-ups, allowing issuers to capture potential sales leads for later follow-ups.

ETFs may seem mysterious or ethereal to the layperson, but by boiling down the selling points and communicating them in punchy, lively materials to investors, issuers stand a much better chance of bridging the educational gap, gathering AUM, and successfully competing in the marketplace.