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Upping the Ante on Hybrid Methodologies Brings a Holistic View to Positioning

by Jean McDonnell

In preparation for this month’s edition of Sylver’s newsletter, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the nature and evolution of what is commonly referred to in the insights industry as “hybrid” research. As someone who has been trained in both qualitative and quantitative methods and has used each approach individually and in combination for many years, this topic is especially intriguing to me.

For as far back in my career as I can remember, I’ve witnessed the territorial divide between qualitative and quantitative methods – always wishing and hoping that the two sides could “play nice” together and appreciate the unique and complementary perspective that the other provides. And so it was with great enthusiasm that I embraced the hybrid research “movement” that began to emerge, in earnest, roughly 8–10 years ago.

At that time, the concept of a hybrid approach to research was getting a lot of “buzz.” It was perceived to be a cutting edge, best practice solution for overcoming some critical “pain point” problems plaguing the industry – problems I discussed at length in my article “Better, Faster, Cheaper” in Jan. 2016. Thanks to the evolution of online research and improvements in web 2.0 technology, the practice of combining and mixing different methods into one initiative has steadily gotten easier and more efficient over the years, thus ensuring the continued use and popularity of hybrid research approaches. Looking forward, there’s no question that the demand for hybrid-based research will continue to grow and evolve. Indeed, most people in the industry expect (as I do) that the mixing and combining of methods and techniques will become such standard everyday practice, that the term itself will eventually become meaningless.

In fact, that’s exactly what has happened here at Sylver. Hybrid thinking (like design thinking) is in our DNA and inextricably linked to our method-agnostic, problem-solving approach. We no longer consider the act of doing “hybrid research” as differentiating. Rather, in most cases, its just what you do to ensure due diligence in your work.

What I find interesting is how universally the term “hybrid research” is used within the Insights Industry today. Yet, surprisingly, the meaning of that phrase — and thus the execution of “hybrid research” — is anything but universal. Let me shed some light on this …

What is hybrid research?

Most people think of “hybrid research” as a catch-all phrase for any “mixed-method” approach that a) combines multiple or mixed methodologies in general and b) specifically involves the mixing of qualitative and quantitative methods into one project. What I’ve come to understand over the years is that this definition and way of thinking about hybrid research is only part of the story.

According to Greenbook, the leading publication and resource for the market research industry, hybrid research is defined as, “The combination of any two or more techniques applied concurrently within the same study, but also applies to new techniques that blend aspects of qualitative and quantitative approaches into a single new technique.”

Notice that there are actually two separate and distinct definitions embedded within the classification of the term “hybrid research.” One is about combining or mixing multiple methods/techniques into one concurrent project (the definition understood by most). The other is about blending together certain aspects of qual. and quant. to create an entirely new technique (the not-yet well recognized or understood application of hybrid research).

Here at Sylver, we operate at the evolutionary stage where the first of these two hybrid applications is standard practice to us. That is, the mixing together of methods is so common and so embedded in our culture and problem-solving process that we rarely distinguish it or think to call it out as a “hybrid” practice. When the situation calls for it – as it often does in the exploratory and opportunity-definition space we play in – we simply select and mix together, from our wide toolbox, the methods and techniques that are most appropriate and most efficient to solving the problem at hand.

Sylver ups the ante on “hybrid research” with its creation of proprietary “blended” methods

It’s with the second of these two hybrid applications where, I believe, Sylver really shines and offers the most unique and differentiating value to clients. Specifically, Sylver has developed four proprietary “blended” methods over the years, each one in response to a specific insight need of a client; an insight need that no other known method could optimally address alone or through the use of a mixed-method approach at that time. Each method developed by the team has pushed the boundaries of existing methodologies. We’ve combined the best-fit elements of qualitative and quantitative techniques into each, thus creating “blended” methods that have proven to yield more complete, focused and richer insight than alternate options available. We’ve also found that the outputs generated have supported quicker internal decision-making, as the results coming back are more holistic and integrated in nature vs. still a bit piece meal, as is often the case with other forms of hybrid research.

As someone with a lot of strategic branding and positioning research under my belt, the proprietary blended methodology I am personally most excited about is Symbolics™. Symbolics™ was developed after a number of Fortune 500 clients’ had come to Sylver seeking greater support around the strategic positioning of existing brands and/or of new products/offerings being brought to market. Existing “qual. only” and other so-called “hybrid” methods were just not cutting it. What these clients needed was a way to identify the deep, hard to articulate emotional and functional connections that consumers have to a brand or subject (traditionally a qual. task) and they needed to do it in a way that was reliable, measurable and projectable to a larger audience or segment (a quant. task). Symbolics™ was created to address that specific “ask.”

Unlike other metaphorical and collage-based tools on the market, Symbolics™ is a true blended qual./quant. hybrid methodology. On the qual. side of the equation, it works by tapping into the emotional and functional unconscious associations that customers have towards a brand or subject matter. It does this by leveraging a curated set of stimuli elements comprised of words and images. On the quant. side, it works by utilizing a robust, Bayesian-based quantitative algorithm that analyzes the associative relationships between the stimuli elements used – and from that – creates a distinctive composite “map” for decoding and parsing out the deeply rich and nuanced meanings of the subject matter. The final result is a deep and reliable positioning and messaging framework that clients have a great deal of confidence in, and which springboards the decision-making process for brand positioning and activation strategy.

In past work I’ve done on brand strategy and positioning work, I’ve relied heavily (like most of my colleagues have) on a mixed-method qual./quant. approach. Specifically, the project inquiry typically included a qualitative element for unearthing and interpreting the emotional, unconscious views of consumers on a given subject, and a quantitative survey element for adding the hard numbers and metrics to those soft qualitative insights. The linkage between the two qual. and quant. explorations was never perfect or elegant – but it was all I (and the industry) knew at the time and so it was sufficient. I had never before experienced (or even imagined) a method that allowed me to see the “whole connected picture” all at once from a uniquely integrated perspective. After working on my first Symbolics™ project at Sylver, I had one of those “you’ve got to experience it to fully appreciate it” moments of clarity. It changed my way of thinking about hybrid methodologies.

My prior reference of “hybrid research” was about appreciating the different complementary or composite pieces of the insights puzzle that qualitative and quantitative data could provide. Now, I see how a blended qual./quant. approach produces an integrated and holistic picture of the data and, in the case of Symbolics™, an integrated and holistic picture of how your consumer is experiencing your brand or product. The integrative analysis of these two qual. and quant. data sets actually up-levels and transforms the meaning that could be derived by either data set individually.

Our clients’ experience of engaging in a Symbolics™ project with us is typically just as profound as my own personal experience with this method.

Here’s what one of our clients recently had to say following a Symbolics™ engagement with Sylver:

I cannot tell you how much value the entire team got not only out of the output, but of the process, and how integral the work has become to our positioning decks. You did a phenomenal job of driving the process, deepening our thinking, and clearly communicating the output. Thank you so much.”

I love talking about methodologies, best practices in research and the direction the insights industry is headed to best support global business trends. If you do too and/or if anything here resonates with you and you’d like to learn more about Symbolics™ (or any of the other “blended” hybrid methods we offer) please reach out to me via email or give me a call at 312-239-0346.

  • Design
  • Innovation
  • Market research
  • Personal
  • Quantitative
  • Hybrid methodology
  • Innovation and design thinking

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Upping the Ante on Hybrid Methodologies Brings a Holistic View to Positioning

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