This problem is especially apparent in how R&D specialists market their services. Some are up-front and truthful in their marketing, leaving potential customers well-informed about HMRC’s qualifying criteria and the work involved in making a claim. Other providers argue that marketing is just throw-away fluff, designed to stimulate new conversations, and not something to be taken too seriously as long as the quality of submitted claims is acceptable.

So, to what extent does marketing matter in R&D tax relief?

Why marketing matters

What you say in your marketing matters. It directly affects how people perceive your brand and make decisions, from potential claimants trying to work out if they are eligible for the relief, to HMRC evaluating if you are a provider of concern – and potentially opening enquiries into your clients’ claims.

HMRC is taking an increasingly rigorous view of claims and SMEs are getting savvier about choosing an advisor. With this in mind, it’s never been more important to be – and to be recognised as – a responsible and ethical R&D provider. But what does that mean in the context of marketing your R&D service?

The R&D Community’s Good Practice Marketing Standard

In conjunction with members of The R&D Community, we developed a ‘Good Practice Marketing Standard’ (which you can learn more about in our new course “How to build Strong Ethics and Good Marketing Practice into your R&D Service”).

This new Standard is designed to help R&D tax relief providers to identify and replace problematic marketing messages, and lays out what a responsible approach to marketing an R&D business looks like. We have tried to be as objective and specific as possible in defining good and bad practice in marketing R&D tax relief services. We focus our attention on two key areas: Content & Messaging and People and Customers.

Content & Messaging

One of the biggest reasons that potential customers may be looking at your website is to learn more about the R&D scheme and whether they may be eligible to apply. The more information you give them, the better informed they’ll be and the more likely it is that you’ll get to work with a company that a) has genuinely done R&D, and b) has realistic expectations about the process and its results.

Good practice in this area generally relates to clarity and accuracy. Making sure that your website contains references to HMRC definitions of key terms and requirements is a good start. HMRC has a very specific definition of R&D tax relief. Making prospects aware of this helps them make a more informed decision about whether to pursue a claim. Information about the potential eligibility of R&D projects should also be clearly communicated with suitable caveats.

For example, using phrases like “your work may be eligible” as opposed to “your work will be eligible” gives your reader a more nuanced and accurate understanding of how the rules apply to them. It is also a good idea to regularly fact-check your website and other materials for statements, facts, or figures that may need to be updated. This gives visitors to your website up-to-date information and protects your credibility as an adviser.

While responsible marketing is up-front about the risks and demands of submitting a claim, irresponsible marketing veers in the other direction. Encouraging people into making claims by misrepresenting eligibility requirements or by using scare tactics (such as “Government funds are running out, get your claim in today!”) can give potential prospects the wrong idea about how the R&D tax relief scheme works. It is also important to make sure your clients are well informed of their responsibility when submitting a claim. HMRC has made it clear that they expect clients to be involved with claims, and should an enquiry be opened, it is on the client (not the adviser) to respond to HMRC’s questions.

People & Customers

It takes a lot of time and expense to build a team of R&D specialists, and many business owners are understandably wary about listing staff on their website in case they are approached by recruiters. On the other hand, businesses looking at your site will be trying to gauge your level of experience and expertise. This is much more difficult if they can’t see who would be undertaking, or responsible for, the preparation of their claim.

There are a number of ways that you can responsibly demonstrate the strength of your business. Showcasing the senior members of your team and their experience allows potential customers to more accurately judge your level of experience and specialisation. Providing identifiable testimonials can also give your customers the opportunity to understand more about what it’s like to work with you by checking with an external source.

If you are a member of a relevant professional community (like The R&D Community), highlighting this to your customers can reassure them that they are working with an adviser who is up to date, well connected, and well supported. Bad practice in this area is not just failure to provide this information, but misrepresenting your team, experience, qualifications – or relationship with HMRC.

How would implementing these changes affect my business?

If you’re concerned about whether following this marketing standard will constrain your business, we’d argue exactly the opposite – that it will increase its value and longevity.

Good marketing generates good prospects, which lead to good clients, which lead to good claims, which lead to a good relationship with HMRC, good testimonials and yet more good prospects. So much starts with and depends on how you market your R&D service.

The benefits of maintaining a high standard of marketing are:

  • Less unwanted attention from HMRC.
  • More respect from other advisors.
  • More consensus and a level playing field between advisors.
  • Better educated clients with realistic expectations.

Ethical marketing is not just a buzzword; it’s really the foundation of a trustworthy and long-term R&D tax relief service. By being up-front and informative in your marketing, you’ll not only protect your brand but also contribute to a more robust industry with higher overall standards. This will hopefully lead to a more measured approach from HMRC and more trust between HMRC, advisors and their clients. We covered some of the basics here, but we have additional in-depth resources that you can use to further strengthen your business’ marketing messages: