"It's about being smart -- not being scattershot," Andrew Markowitz, director of digital marketing at Kraft Foods, said on a panel at the Interactive Advertising Bureau's social media conference on Monday. "To capture that lightning in a bottle is just a difficult scenario."
The point is that while experimentation is essential, marketers need to take a hands-on approach to social media, said Bradley Kay, president of independent shop SS+K and panel moderator.
There is no room for a "spray and pray approach," Kay said. At the very least, he added, "all campaigns need tweaking."
For Jackie Woodward, vice president of marketing and media services at MillerCoors, spontaneity does not factor into the social media equation.
"We orchestrate the conversation," Woodward said. "It's about creating relevance and marketing utility."
Since hatching their "Subservient Chicken" campaign in 2004, Burger King and Miami-based agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky are widely recognized as the leaders in effectively "controlling" social media.
More recently, the client/agency team drew massive attention with its "Whopper Sacrifice" application on Facebook, which rewards members of the community with coupons for BK's signature burger for every 10 "friends" they are willing to spurn.
"I think the whole thing was very choreographed," said Alan Wolk, who runs his own creative strategy firm, The Toad Stool.
"There are going to be times when (viral success) springs up unexpectedly," said Wolk -- but he added that brands and agencies had better not bet their budgets on that chance.
Slightly less controversial than "Whopper Sacrifice," Kraft recently debuted a campaign promising donations of meals to needy families when Facebook members get their friends to add the Kraft Facebook app.
Still, Markowitz does not begin to assume that he can control exactly how consumers engage with any particular campaign.
"No matter how much you want to control (the outcome), it can't happen," he admitted. "The more you put yourself out there, the more uncontrolled you are."
With the right technology and partnerships, Markowitz is seeking greater control over the flood of user engagement data that social media produces.
"We're just trying to listen and understand what's going on in real time," Markowitz said. That is the "biggest problem," he added. "Brand people only have so much time in the day."
Woodward agreed. "We're still trying to figure out what that (activity) means," she said. "We're still trying to crack that code."