I plan meetups, and conferences, because I want to build a strong community. That's my goal and if that's your goal then this article might help you.
This is how I see most meetups.
What was the point of that meetup? I honestly can't figure it out.
I think that most people approach meetups from the opposite direction. Rather than identifying their goal they identify the things they want to see: a venue, food, maybe beer, speakers. They design the event around the elements and don't have any particular goal other than to "have a meetup".
Let's deconstruct these elements.
The environment you have a meetup in determines the mood of the attendees. The same people will behave very different, and have very different conversations if they are in a giant corporate office, an open floor plan co-working space, a bar, or a backyard.
Venue is the first thing you must have, there is no getting out of it. No venue, no meetup. Which means it's the first choice you'll have to make. Rather than letting the other elements of your meetup determine venue, let the choice of venue determine the rest of the meetup.
Find a venue that can support your goals and then figure out what the food, drink, and content might be. Not the other way around.
Food is expensive. Even shitty food is expensive. Shitty food makes for a shitty meetup so if you can't get good food it's better not to have it.
Not having food isn't the end of the world, just don't start until at least 8pm. Post a few places near the venue that are good to eat at and people will take care of themselves. They might even have some great conversations over dinner before the meetup starts and when they show up they'll be in a chatty mood.
Beer isn't actually that expensive. People also love to bring beer to a meetup given the opportunity. Get a cooler, or just a big ass bucket, fill it with ice, and encourage people to bring drinks if you don't have the budget to provide it yourself.
If you don't have much beer, have a short meetup and then get people to a bar that isn't so loud that they can't hear each other talk. However good you think the content at your meetup is at achieving it's goals the content will not be as important as the conversation over drinks. If you can create the space for that discussion, great! If you can't, take it to the local pub.
Geeks need social lubricant. My goal has always been to have meetups in order to build a stronger community through more personal interactions so improving peoples ability to talk and relate to each other is essential.
Speakers are the least important element of a meetup. That sounds crazy but it's true. If you have a great speaker it's what people will talk about, but it's not why they'll come back. People come back for the community and the face to face with other attendees. A great speaker might get you a big burst of attendance but those people won't come back to the next one unless they have a good time with their peers.
Any decent speaker you want to fly in has a half dozen videos online of them speaking. The content they cover is usually easily googleable. People go to these in-person meetups so that they can see each other. The best thing a speaker can do is just get them interested in something they hadn't really cared about before, which is rare but a truly beautiful thing when it happens.
But, if you're somewhere that doesn't have a huge tech scene don't think for a second that getting speakers is a barrier to starting a meetup. Find a bar and get to geeking. Find a venue later than can accommodate speakers once the attendees start saying "man, i'd really love to show everyone this thing I've been working on".
Start with nothing. Build from there.
If you can't do something well, don't do it at all.
Play to your strengths. If your town has amazing dumplings, see if you can have the back of the restaurant.
Combine the meetup with something else you're interested in, get creative. code("beer tasting"), code("frisbee golf"), the sky is the limit. If the point is to build community, to get people excited and share enthusiasm, a setting that contains even more enthusiasm is a great idea.
Don't try to replicate what you hear about in San Francisco or New York. I go to those meetups, most of them suck.
Build from within. Don't immediately try to fly people out or video conference some well known speaker. Whenever an attendee is really excited about something they built, ask them to speak. If someone emails you wanting to speak who you've never heard of it's probably promotional, tell them you're full this week but they should attend and if they don't attend you don't need to fit them in the next week.
When you get to a certain size and you're having a hard time reaching the wider local audience you know is there but just won't come out, email a few well known developers you'd like to see speak. We travel all the time for conferences, it's just as easy to travel somewhere for a meetup.
Don't start with a sponsor. Get your meetup rolling and when you have some things you'd like to spend money on, start taking it. Taking a sponsor too early brands the meetup both in the sponsors mind and the attendees, which will be a barrier for some people attending. If and when you do take sponsorship, try to change the sponsor every time so that it doesn't become their meetup. People are more thankful to have a sponsor when it's not their meetup and they are helping out other people and not just promoting their own content.
I hope everyone who wants a better meetup creates one. I'm working on the jsBBQ site so that we can franchise the format and get them going in other locations but don't wait for me. You have everything you need, just do it.