Why the Craze for Coloring Apps Ended Almost as Abruptly as It Started
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

The digital adult coloring book craze has gone the way of the fidget spinner.

Towards the end of 2017, a surge in downloads rocketed apps that allow users to digitally “paint by number” to the top of the App Store leaderboard. In mid-December, five of the six top apps in the “Entertainment” category were color by number apps.

But since then, those five apps have seen their downloads plummet by a figure somewhere between 25 percent and 80 percent, according to Adam Blacker of Apptopia, which provides data on the mobile app market. Today, there is only one coloring book app in the top 10 of “Entertainment,” Unicorn, holding the bottom slot. The same attention span-starved public that enjoyed the simple experience of tapping their phone screens to match colors to numbers has largely, it seems, lost interest.

Despite this drop off, however, coloring book apps overall proved to be remarkably popular and lucrative. As of January 5th, the top five coloring book apps had been downloaded 7.7 million times and generated $4.2 million in revenue, Blacker noted. These apps primarily make money through subscriptions and in-app purchases.

But another source of revenue not tracked by Apptopia are advertising dollars. While some brands like Marvel have launched their own coloring apps to drum up publicity, other companies like Kellogg’s, or film studios like Lionsgate, offer black-and-white drawings of their products and graphics as ads in third-party apps, allowing users to color in Tony the Tiger or characters from a movie.

Whereas custom interactive advertisements see user engagement at an average of 43.7 seconds, by contrast, these branded coloring book pages can keep users’ attention for an average of 10 minutes, Tero Kuittinen of Kuuhubb, which created the coloring book app Recolor, told Digiday.

Recent studies have shown that coloring using old-fashioned colored pencils or crayons and paper helps improve mood by essentially serving as a distraction. But well before that was proven, presumed wellness benefits were partially what fueled the craze for print coloring books in 2015, and are also what’s made coloring book apps so appealing to advertisers. “When you are relaxed and focused, a brand message is a positive experience,” Adam Cohen-Aslatei, of ad agency Jun Group, told Digiday.

Apptopia data showed color by number apps were primarily being downloaded by individuals aged between 30 and 35, a coveted marketing demographic. But Blacker guessed that adults are likely downloading the apps for their kids.

He also predicted that the download decline will continue, given the feedback loop that impacts app downloads. The more downloads an app receives, the higher it will appear in the rankings, which in turn fosters more downloads. With coloring book apps out of the top five, the decline will likely persist.

“There is so much competition in the app economy that it’s hard for a simple color by numbers app to have long term staying power in the top charts, which value velocity of downloads,” Blacker wrote via email.

The rise and fall of digital color by number apps follows a similar trajectory as the apps’ analog cousins. The fad for tangible adult coloring books reached its zenith in 2015, and tapered off in the early months of 2016.

Still, roughly 24 million adult coloring books were sold during those two years combined, according to Time, with adults snapping up an eclectic range of titles, from Die Hard: The Authorized Color and Activity Book to Calm the F*ck Down: An Irreverent Adult Coloring Book.

Two of Amazon’s best-selling books in 2015 were adult coloring books, MarketWatch reported last March. In 2016, Ronald Boire, then-CEO of Barnes and Noble, credited “continued strength of adult coloring books” as one source for increased growth during the company’s fiscal third quarter, which ended January 30, 2016.

But interest in coloring books faded, the bubble burst, and sales plateaued. In the third quarter of 2017, Barnes and Noble reported a 8.3 percent decline in revenue compared to the same period the year prior. What was to blame? The answer, partially, was a dearth of interest in coloring books, the company claimed.

Coloring aficionados looking for the cutting edge need not worry, however. The next big craze may well be 3D coloring book apps, which are already appearing in the App Store rankings.

Isaac Kaplan is an Associate Editor at Artsy.