This question was presented to a community referral group that we're a part of - Alignable. You've probably heard of it. If not, check it out.
Anyway, we thought we'd share our answer as it has spurred additional comments from the group. Again, the question is "what do you look for in networking events in Tacoma?" [Note: we feel our thoughts below are applicable to any geography.]
It's all about strategic alignment. When developing outreach strategies for clients, we look at networking events from at least three perspectives:
1) If it's for business development, who will have the greatest retention with the audience? Is it the business owner or a project manager? Does this person have ingrained sales mentality, meaning can they identify an opportunity? We always recommend diversifying your outreach team. Why? First, you can't be everywhere. Second, your team will feel that you trust and respect them. Third, it'll show your competition that you're committed to growth and have the bandwidth to invest in winning the work.
2) If it's a peer organization, focus on recruitment and referrals. Many times, the vendors or consultant that want to work with you will be able to provide good referrals for top talent. We get that a lot from title companies who know if we can improve a project or company's position then they will get more work, so they set us up with new client opportunities or the names of people who want to make a change.
3) If it's community-based, watch the time and cost. Really, this type of event won't garner a strong ROI, but will offer insight into how well your brand is known. If you get a lot of, "oh, I never heard of that company", then it's probably time to invest in more and different marketing. For example, we attend the bigger fundraising events, like Festival of Trees and the Phoebe House Gala, but we always buy a table and invite either our best clients or our top performing team members. If you're going to go to community events, make sure you get something back out of it.
At the end of the day it's hard to balance networking and getting work done, but it's important to create a face for your brand. When there's more than one of your hitting the streets make sure you have a consistent story to tell. Basic knowledge should include how the business was started, what do you do, and why you're different.